Singapore’s Unwired Dream

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the country’s “[email protected] initiative” this week, which is a plan to cover the island nation in wireless broadband by September 2007. The government will use 5,000 access points to provide almost complete coverage across the tiny country and will provide almost 10,000 computers to low-income students at a subsidized price.
The Prime Minister says the wireless project and computer program are aimed at preventing a digital divide from developing in Singaporean society. Though, it could probably help add to the country’s IT-based economy as well — South Korea managed to use government-sponsored wireless broadband to boost its economy in the IT sector over the past few years.

The Singapore wireless deployment will be handled by three domestic providers, Singapore Telecommunications (SingTel), iCell, and QMax, and the country’s wireless plan will offer free 512 kb/s wireless access for at least two years. The three companies will deploy more access points, adding to the 900 public wireless access points already in place. According to a statement from the Infocomm Development Authority, the hot spots will be focused around “high-traffic, public areas” such as town centers, business districts, and shopping malls.
The involvement of SingTel, iCell, and QMax in the Singapore wireless project does not represent the same kind of private-sector buy-in evinced by the work of Google and Earthlink on wireless projects in U.S. cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco. Like most things in Singapore, this initiative is spearhead by the government, and the companies involved are partially funded by government investment firms. Temasek Holdings, one of two government investment firms in Singapore, controls parts of both SingTel and QMax.
SingTel used to be a government monopoly and was privatized in 1992, and Temasek also owns 56.3% of its shares. According to Asia Sentinel, SingTel’s chief executive is the younger son of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. They report that “[h]e did not have telecom management experience before being appointed Singtel CEO.” Whatever his failings might be, though, SingTel has a long history and does business in Thailand, Taiwan, India, the Philippines, Australia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia in addition to its mobile phone and ISP operations in Singapore.
QMax is a joint venture between Singaporean ISP Qala and the Singaporean subsidiary of Creative Technology. Qala is partially funded by Singapore Technologies Group, an arm of Temasek. QMax and iCell do seem to be qualified for this project, considering their past experience. QMax launched the first commercial wireless broadband service in Singapore when it started offering limited WiMAX service in February 2006. iCell was involved in a 2004 project to offer multi-operator roaming wireless broadband access at Singapore’s public libraries.
Singapore, is such a small country – around 700 square km — that it can be covered with wireless broadband like many cities are looking to do. Taipei, San Francisco, Anaheim, Philadelphia, among many others, are investing in city-wide wireless networks.
With all of Singapore covered in wireless, one wonders whether dual-mode handsets supporting both cellular-network calls and VOIP calls over the wi-fi connection will become popular in Singapore. Taipei project contractors have said that “voice service is the main attraction” to users of their municipal network, “as they all want to enjoy cheaper rates,” according to a report in the South China Morning Post. Although Singapore has not announced availability of dual-mode handsets as part of the project, iCell was involved in a 2004 project to provide VOIP service at McDonald’s hotspots in Singapore.