Much anticipation surrounded StarHub’s debut as Singapore’s third mobile phone operator in April 2000. The public’s appetite had been whetted for two years - the time StarHub had to ready its services after clinching its operating licence. The public was not disappointed. Singapore’s third mobile phone operator became the first telco to offer free incoming calls and per-second-billing for mobile phone users.
In 2001, the budding third generation (3G) mobile communication technology had started to gain significant interest. The new technology offered many innovations, among them high-speed data capability on mobile phones for the first time. In a nod to the 3G momentum, IDA issued 3G licences to SingTel, M1 and StarHub for $100 million each. The telcos must launch their 3G services nationwide by the deadline of end-2004.
Despite objections raised by then-incumbent SingTel, StarHub and Singapore Cable Vision (SCV) were given the nod by the Infocomm Development Authority to merge in 2002. SCV had enjoyed a virtual monopoly in pay TV services then, and its merger with StarHub would pave the way for so-called "triple-play" bundled services – mobile telephony, broadband Internet and cable TV.
The stage for mobile number portability was set in June 2003, when the IDA mandated that telcos can no longer charge a monthly recurring fee for subscribers who switch telcos while keeping their original numbers. Mobile operators, however, were allowed to charge a one-time administrative fee to recover processing costs.
In 2003, SingPass, the system that lets citizens and permanent residents access government e-services – such as tax filing and work permit applications – with a single password was launched. Currently, more than 60 government agencies use SingPass to provide over 350 e-services that require secure user identification.
With the number of mobile phone numbers with the prefix 9 fast running out, the IDA started introducing numbers with the prefix 8 in 2004 to meet the growing demand for mobile services. About 10 million of these new numbers, to be released to telcos in batches, became available to customers in April 2004.
The Singapore Network Information Centre launched the second-level .sg domain names such as xyz.sg in September 2004 to provide consumers and businesses with shorter domain names that are easier to remember. Previously, only third-level domain names like xyz.com.sg could be registered.
All three telcos launched commercial 3G services, which offered consumers the ability to make video calls, watch streaming video clips and surf the Internet at high speeds for the first time.
Despite the promises of the technology, consumers did not warm up to 3G services as quickly as the telcos would have liked. By the end of September 2005, only about 1 per cent of users had taken up 3G, partly due to public perception that the services were expensive.
The telcos pulled out all the stops to spur greater demand for 3G services. SingTel, for example, made video calls as cheap as voice calls – at just 10 cents per minute. Those who used SingTel's 3G service to surf the Web on the phone or with a notebook PC would also get attractive rates – lower than that for slower 2.5G services.
StarHub, which became the third telco to introduce 3G services after SingTel and M1, differentiated itself by streaming news channels and offering seven exclusive mobile channels, along with free 100 minutes of free outgoing video calls per month.
However, industry watchers at that time felt that these goodies might not be enough to entice users. It would require smaller 3G handsets and killer apps before the technology could gain widespread adoption. Indeed, it took the launch of Apple’s iPhone – and the subsequent rise of the app revolution – before 3G services finally hit mainstream.
A high-level steering committee was convened to spearhead the development of Singapore’s 10-year ICT masterplan, dubbed Intelligent Nation 2015 (iN2015). As part of the master plan, the Government would build a super-fast Next Generation Nationwide Broadband Network (NGNBN) with blazing speeds of 100Mbps to 1Gbps – three to 30 times faster than the fastest 30Mbps service at that time.
The Wireless@SG programme was launched in 2006 to accelerate the take-up of high-speed wireless broadband among consumers and spur the wireless broadband market in Singapore. It provided consumers with free Wi-Fi connectivity across thousands of hot spots, and was enhanced over the years with faster access speeds and a simpler login process using SIM cards.
IDA announced that it would set aside a massive $750 million to launch the new next-generation nationwide broadband network (NGNBN).
The new fibre network also heralded a separation of powers in a new industry structure, where the builder and owner of the fibre network (network company or NetCo) would be a separate entity from the one that operated the network (operating company or OpCo) and who in turn sold bandwidth to retail service providers at wholesale prices.
This “structural separation” was instrumental in creating a vibrant and competitive broadband market. OpenNet (now under NetLink Trust) was selected as the NetCo, while Nucleus Connect was appointed as the OpCo.
At that time, industry analysts noted that Singapore was one of the few broadband markets in the world to introduce structure separation, which has since created a competitive broadband market. Singapore’s broadband speeds are now among the fastest in the world, along with 1Gbps fibre broadband packages available for under $50 a month.
StarHub’s monopoly on pay TV services came to an end in 2007, when SingTel launched its mioTV service. First delivered over SingTel’s ADSL network, the pay TV service had promised consumers access to video-on-demand content in HD quality, as well as exclusive programmes and interactive features.
The launch of the Apple iPhone in 2007 not only kicked off the smartphone revolution, but it also introduced to consumers a new way of consuming content – through mobile apps.
With apps from wellness trackers to ticket booking services being downloaded in the millions, it did not take long before data consumption started to hit the roof. That was good news for telcos, which finally had a way to increase data revenues through lucrative data plans, grow their subscriber base and drive demand for 3G services.
Indeed, when the iPhone 3G was launched in 2008, SingTel, which had an exclusive bite at the 3G handset at one point, chalked up the biggest subscriber gains in the third quarter that year. By the end of October 2009, SingTel had shipped more than 100,000 iPhones, many to those who switched over from other telcos. The same scenario was played out at StarHub and M1, which gained new customers after they started selling the iPhone in late 2009.
Up till 2008, users who wanted to keep their old numbers when switching telcos had to sign up for a call-forwarding service, which automatically forwarded calls made to an old number to a new number. In June that year, consumers could hop from one operator to another while retaining their existing phone numbers.
In 2009, IDA set a new rule that mobile phone and broadband contracts for consumers can no longer exceed 24 months. The new guidelines, which came into effect in March 2010, were prompted by consumers' concerns that long contracts and high early termination charges were a hindrance to switching operators.