Singtel and StarHub-M1 tie-up win 5G operating licences in provisional awards

SINGTEL and a joint venture between StarHub and M1 have provisionally clinched Singapore's first nationwide 5G operating licences, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) announced on Wednesday.

Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran called the awards, which await the bidders' compliance with their proposed terms, a "key milestone" for Singapore.

"With this, I think Singapore will be among the early group of nations which are able to offer the full-fledged capabilities and services of 5G," he told reporters in a briefing.

He said that besides being critical to digital economy infrastructure, the telcos' "substantial" investment commitment - despite an ongoing pandemic and expected recession - "underscores the confidence of businesses in the future of the economy, as well as in the potential and the value proposition of 5G".

Singtel group chief executive Chua Sock Koong also dubbed the provisional licence award "a significant investment in the future", which she said would "create sustainable economic and social value as industries and business models transform".

With the latest decision, the three incumbent mobile network operators have beaten out Australian newcomer TPG Telecom, which had opted to fly solo when it threw its hat in the ring.

Richard Tan, acting chief executive of TPG Singapore, said, without elaborating, that his company "will continue to explore all options for the potential delivery of 5G services in the future".

The Business Times understands that Singtel and the StarHub-M1 joint venture not only exceeded IMDA requirements for network design and resilience, but also showed strong support for innovative 5G solutions and uses in areas that have been deemed strategic - and this is even though all three bidders, including TPG, were assessed to have met the minimum requirements and offered competitive and compelling proposals.

With the latest award granting nationwide rights to the 3.5GHz spectrum, the StarHub-M1 tie-up plans to lease its jointly-owned 5G network to the individual joint-venture partners. Singtel, StarHub and M1 will thus operate separately in offering 5G retail services to end-users.

The IMDA also requires holders of the nationwide licences to offer wholesale leasing, although Citi analysts Arthur Pineda and Hussaini Saifee suggested in a report that TPG could still be at a disadvantage and risk market rationalisation.

Otherwise, Manjot Singh Mann, chief executive of Keppel Corp-owned M1, said that the joint bid "will allow us to share strategic resources". StarHub said in a statement that "this strategic co-operation will allow both companies to optimise infrastructure and spectrum costs".

The three telcos each get millimetre-wave spectrum as well, which can be used for smaller, localised networks. Similar awards could be made to other players in future, whether TPG or mobile virtual network operators, the IMDA noted.
Meanwhile, the IMDA plans to work with industry partners to build infocomm technology talent for new 5G-related roles, such as network engineers and radio-frequency engineers.

Its skills framework for the sector has been updated to include these new jobs and skills, and the agency is now identifying appropriate 5G courses and training options.

The IMDA had earlier extended the 5G proposal deadline from Jan 21 to Feb 17 on the back of operators' requests for more time.

Now, Singtel and the StarHub-M1 joint venture have until the end of May to complete the regulatory process, such as meeting technical and legal requirements. Their provisional awards will be converted into final 5G licences after that.

The winners must start rolling out their standalone networks from January 2021, with coverage of at least half the island by end-2022. Full coverage has to be achieved by end-2025.

IMDA chief executive Tan Kiat How said in a statement: "We received three compelling proposals that met and, in some cases, exceeded, our requirements.

"The winners were selected based on a comprehensive assessment of how their proposals would deliver the best outcomes for businesses and consumers in Singapore."

Singtel closed flat at S$2.80 on Wednesday before the news; StarHub added S$0.02, or 1.4 per cent, to S$1.45. M1 parent Keppel shed S$0.06, or 1 per cent, to S$5.97.


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