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IDA mulls over more mobile competition and spectrum allocation

It might revive the niche mobile service reseller concept

[SINGAPORE] More competition might loom in the mobile space as the regulator toys with reviving the niche mobile service reseller concept, while more spectrum might be freed up for mobile broadband use in data-hungry Singapore.

The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) now looks inclined to boost smaller mobile players into the market if there is demand for such support, based on a public consultation that it launched yesterday.

This round of consultation, which ends on May 20, pays particular attention to niche players without their own networks. Dubbed "mobile virtual network operators" (MVNO), they buy airtime wholesale from local telcos and resell them to consumers.

There are now about five or six active MVNOs in Singapore, with a market share of less than one per cent - or about 80,000 - of the country's total mobile subscriber base.

These operators serve a largely migrant or foreign community, such as Philippine Long Distance Telephone (PLDT), which markets a service called Smart Pinoy that sells prepaid local SIM cards here.

"IDA wants to inject more competition in the mobile market, which could lead to lower prices and more innovative services. Niche markets could also be better served," an IDA spokeswoman said.

With more MVNOs in the market, IDA also envisions retailers of high-speed broadband services having the chance to tie up with the former, creating bundled triple-play offerings and "deepening competition in both the fixed line and mobile broadband markets," it said in its consultation paper.

If IDA decides to prod this development forward, mobile network operators such as SingTel, StarHub and M1 could also face regulatory prodding.

Telcos could either be encouraged to voluntarily host MVNOs on their network with spectrum allocation being dangled as a carrot, or simply made to allocate a minimum percentage of network capacity for these niche players. Also, wholesale pricing - now left to market forces - could be regulated to encourage MVNO entry. The consultation paper now invites views on the merits of these various approaches.

Last year, the door for a fourth mobile network operator (MNO) was held open - 4G spectrum was set aside for a new player - but no one walked through it.

This focus on MVNOs is a similar attempt to foster competition, even as the door for a new MNO is kept ajar. "While IDA remains open to having interested parties entering the local market as MNOs, IDA would like to explore other policy options in facilitating greater competition in the mobile market," it said in its consultation paper yesterday.

Yesterday, M1 pronounced itself "supportive" of MVNOs, itself selling airtime wholesale to two of them - PLDT and another player called Ztar.

StarHub, on the other hand, noted: "The Singapore mobile market is already very competitive, with one of the world's highest mobile penetration rates."

The MVNO concept is not new - one of the earlier incarnations here, Virgin Mobile, folded in 2002 less than a year after its debut, blaming a market that was "too saturated". Even so, that happened in a pre-3G era and IDA's paper noted that in some countries, MVNOs have grown to account for more than 10 per cent of mobile market share.

On the spectrum front, the regulator is also contemplating allocating up to 450 Megahertz of spectrum for mobile broadband. Its consultation paper now seeks industry views on how specific spectrum bands should be used and when the "allocation exercise" should take place.

The time division duplex (TDD) bands, in particular, are suitable for the deployment of small cells as a part of a heterogeneous network (HetNet), IDA noted in the paper. Singapore is exploring the idea of putting in place a nationwide HetNet which allows users to switch seamlessly between different networks. A pilot project is anticipated early next year.

While SingTel said that it was "keenly interested" in developing HetNet, it also said: "There are many technical specifications we need to consider that can determine the way existing terrestrial mobile networks and new technologies like HetNet interoperate. It is necessary to evaluate the technologies and ensure they are technically and commercially viable before adopting them."