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Regulators float licences for local 5G networks, on top of national systems

SINGAPORE regulators are poised to award four 5G telecom licences, two more than previously planned, as Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran called for bids for the high-tech new spectrum on Thursday.

Now up for grabs: the rights to operate up to two localised 5G networks, which could serve hot spots - such as laboratories or smart factories - on top of the two nationwide networks proposed by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) in a public consultation in May.

With the just-launched call for proposals, Singapore remains on track for a roll-out of 5G mobile networks by next year, confirmed the IMDA, which expects to award frequency by mid-2020. The IMDA also plans to issue more 5G spectrum in future tranches from 2024 or 2025 onwards.

The infocomm media industry has been “a key determinant of our competitiveness” and enables Singapore’s digital transformation, Mr Iswaran said at the IMDA’s SG:D Industry Day event, at the Future Economy Conference and Exhibition at Suntec Singapore Convention Centre.

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As such, he stressed that Singapore must strengthen its digital value proposition, including by “securing Singapore’s competitive advantage in a 5G future”.

“Turning to the supply side, to enable industry to develop and trial fit-for-purpose 5G solutions, we must ensure our 5G infrastructure and networks are based on a sound policy design and holistic regulatory framework,” Mr Iswaran said.

Telcos can submit proposals for the nationwide public 5G networks by January 2020. Winning bidders for the 3.5GHz spectrum can deploy wireless services on these full-fledged networks from 2021 onwards, and must cover at least half the island by end-2022. Licensees will also have to lease network at a wholesale price to other mobile operators.

“In addition to these two nationwide 5G networks, IMDA has further assessed that the market can accommodate two additional localised 5G networks,” Mr Iswaran said. “This will allow all our four existing mobile network operators (MNOs) to participate in the provision of 5G services.”

Two newly announced millimetre-wave spectrum packages will be available for interested MNOs that do not clinch bids for islandwide spectrum. Singapore has four MNOs: Singtel, StarHub and M1, and Australian entrant TPG Telecom.

The two localised networks, which will assign equal-sized spectrum lots to operators, are meant to meet niche business needs and allow industry to benefit from 5G earlier, the IMDA added.

Industry players have already moved to roll out 5G in certain areas for trials - such as Singtel and Ericsson’s 5G pilot network in the one-north district, launched last year, and M1’s tie-up with state-owned port operator PSA, announced in June this year.

But these local networks are being used only to pilot projects for now, while the new licence system could put commercial 5G services on the table as well, when it kicks in.

“With the participation of more mobile network operators, IMDA expects the greater competition to benefit consumers and businesses, and bring about greater choice, more competitive prices and service innovation,” said Mr Iswaran.

The nationwide 5G spectrum has been priced at a minimum bid of S$55 million, with an annual fee of S$154,000 for each lot of 100MHz tacked on. Offer price aside, the IMDA will also weigh proposals on network design and resilience, performance and other criteria. Otherwise, the localised network spectrum will incur an annual fee of S$1.23 million for each 800MHz lot.

Separately, the IMDA has made its first industry awards for grants to hold 5G trials.

It had set aside S$40 million in June to support the strategic development of 5G technology, with the initial projects planned involving local telcos M1 and Singtel, as well as state-owned entities like port operator PSA and the Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre.

Now, property developer CapitaLand and gaming company Razer have been named as some businesses that will get to tap 5G to test services such as self-driving cars and video games.

Said Mr Iswaran: “Singapore must continue to differentiate our economy and secure our competitive advantage in a digital future.

“Be it in the building of digital infrastructure, forging of international partnerships, spurring broad-based enterprise digitalisation, or developing the tech capabilities of our workforce, all these are a joint endeavour for the government and our partners in industry and the labour movement.”