Charting S'pore's 10-yr infocomm blueprint

Being planned are underground data centres and a nationwide heterogeneous network

[SINGAPORE] In 2025, Singapore could be largely unrecognisable if plans for the infocomm media (ICM) sector take off. By then, the country could have underground data centres, a revolutionary nationwide heterogeneous network (HetNet) and a thriving equity crowdfunding scene.

These preliminary ideas are outlined in a consultation document released today for public perusal. It will form the basis for a 10-year ICM masterplan that will be published in mid-2015.

Already, some of the proposals are being set in motion, such as HetNet - which allows users to switch seamlessly between different networks and latch onto the best available one.

This June, there will be a call for proposal that will eventually kick off a pilot project early next year. This pilot will explore ideas associated with HetNet, such as seamless roaming, network resiliency and a higher peak data rate.

This pilot, launched by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), comes at a time when spectrum scarcity looms. IDA estimates that by 2020, the current infrastructure will face a spectrum shortfall of up to 1,000 Megahertz.

Putting a nationwide HetNet in place could improve the efficiency with which spectrum is used. Even so, many of the details will need to be ironed out beforehand.

"It will take some consultations with the industry and proof within these pilots that some of the assumptions are deliverable," IDA's executive deputy chairman, Steve Leonard said.

Mr Leonard is part of the masterplan's steering committee. While the panel's members comprise a mix of corporate figures, academic experts and government officials, the committee is presented as a private sector-led one. Its chairman, Koh Boon Hwee, is also the chairman of private equity fund Credence Partners.

Where HetNet is concerned, discussions are already being held with the local telcos and equipment manufacturers, all of whom will have to be onboard if the project is to take off nationwide.

With details on the pilot being scarce for now, both SingTel and StarHub have expressed their interest in receiving more details about the project.

A StarHub spokeswoman noted that a HetNet is still a "very new concept" and that there are a number of issues that will have to be resolved. "Besides commercial and legal issues, other issues include technical standards, quality of service, customer experience and network intelligence to determine how or when customers should be switched between networks," she said.

An M1 spokesman said: "We are excited to hear about this IDA-led trial, and will certainly want to participate in it."

While a lot rides on commercial participation, Vinod Kumar, group CEO of Tata Communications and a steering committee member, noted that government involvement would be essential for a nationwide rollout of something like the HetNet. "It is difficult for the industry to invest . . . by themselves," he said.

Even as Singapore builds new infrastructure, there are plans to expand the existing data-centric sector so that the country can be positioned as a 'digital harbour'.

Currently, a lot of content gets transmitted to the rest of the region from Singapore, from movies to popular online games. To protect Singapore's edge in this area, the masterplan might recommend infrastructure that addresses security and privacy concerns.

At the same time, it will start increasing the data centre capacity that is needed to grow digital activity. Singapore currently has 260,000 square metres of data centre capacity. A data centre park that will be ready in 2016 will add 105,000 square metres. On top of that, the masterplan might explore the idea of building data centres underground.

Underground centres are "more secure" against threats like accidental impact and terrorist acts, the consultation paper says. The lower temperature underground also means that data centres will use less energy for their cooling needs.

All this data is of some value, and the masterplan will also look into creating a data marketplace that helps data owners monetise the data through licensing fees. From this marketplace, a new sector of "info-mediaries" - which help organisations manage and monetise their data - may emerge, according to the consultation paper. Demand for data-related jobs in analytics and business intelligence will grow as well, it adds.

Further along the spectrum of the new-fangled, Singapore now wants to position itself as a "premier equity crowdfunding hub" for the Asian region, according to the consultation paper.

The government might regulate the sector with an emphasis on proper information disclosure and transparent governance to safeguard the interests of investors and entrepreneurs. It will also consider tax incentives to encourage private sector investors to invest in "selected start-ups".

Shirley Wong, chairwoman of the Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation, applauded these proposals. "The deal is very much sweetened with tax incentives or rebates built in," she said.

While the start-up community has flourished here in recent years, more can apparently be done to prod it along. In a 2012 Telefonica Digital report cited by the consultation document, Singapore was ranked 17th out of the top 20 start-up ecosystems. Local start-ups were reported to be 88 per cent undercapitalised compared to their Silicon Valley peers.

The consultation document is available for download on the Infocomm Media Masterplan website, and feedback from the public is welcome.

"These ideas are preliminary. We are hopeful that by surfacing them now, the public will weigh in to either support the ideas, propose completely new ideas or to surface the gaps . . . that we may not have considered," said the steering committee's chairman, Mr Koh.

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