Singapore’s telecom regulator, IMDA, caused consternation among MNOs last year when it said it would insist that they deployed 5G Standalone from day one, rather than first relying on Non-Standalone, which uses the existing 4G core, as every non-greenfield operator has done so far.
Aileen Chia, director-general of IMDA, explained the decision last week, claiming that SA will enable more rapid innovation in services.
Speaking at a seminar on Asian 5G, Chia said regulators had to ask ‘what can 5G do for us?’. The answer, she said, was that “the policy approach for 5G would not be the same as for 3G and 4G, of just making spectrum available and letting the operators roll out the network.” Instead, 5G would have to support national goals in broad innovation and the digital economy.
“So we made the leap to say that for nationwide spectrum we would want an SA technology deployment,” she added, even if that caused some delays in commercial roll-out. “The race is not to be the fastest, but how do you bring a technology that makes sense for innovation for the country.”
IMDA has supported 5G enterprise trials in six sectors, at a cost of S$40m (US$29.90m) to support research and use case development. One example was a trial of smart building services in conjunction with property developer CapitaLand, which uses cloud analytics to manage activities such as cooling and water usage.
She said enterprises want to work more closely with operators to ensure 5G meets their needs. “They think it’s not just a policy shift, but also a business shift – a B2B, B2X shift. The operators need to partner enterprise users a lot more closely to help them develop solutions,” she said. “It’s no longer just ‘what I offer,’ but ‘how can I partner you?’ to develop solutions for what the enterprise needs. I think that’s another shift that the market is asking of the operators.”
When IMDA announced its plan in August 2019, SingTel, the market leader, said it wanted to wait until there was fully commercialized, and therefore affordable, SA equipment supporting millimeter wave spectrum. For now, it argued: “There is no confirmed roadmap for chipset and network equipment for mmWave devices on a Standalone 5G network architecture.”
But IMDA countered that: “5G deployments in many countries today are based on ‘Non-Standalone’ specifications, which leverage existing 4G networks for connectivity. Such deployments are limited to higher speeds and will not support the full suite of 5G capabilities.”
In October 2019, IMDA said it would offer four 5G licences in the 2020 auction, rather than the original plan for two, but only two would bring nationwide spectrum rights (the others support localized networks). The winners would be decided based on a combination of auction and beauty contest, the latter related to bidders’ network roll-out targets and investment commitments.
In response, the second and third MNOs – Starhub and M1 – formed a joint venture to bid together for one of the licences, leaving the other one to SingTel. Predictably, that was how the results panned out when the sale was held in May. The fourth MNO, TPG, was left with only localized licences in 3.5 GHz and millimeter wave, specifically targeted at upgrading or deploying networks to support enterprise build-outs or private networks, in environments such as factories. But these would rely on the other operators for any national roaming – though the national licences do come with commitments to offer such services to other providers.
The three winners are now committed to start rolling out 5G Standalone by January 2021, and cover at least half of the island state by the end of 2022, with full coverage by 2025.
IMDA has separately initiated another consultation related to legacy spectrum in the 800 MHz, TDD 1.9 GHz and FDD 2.1 GHz bands. It proposes setting aside the 800 MHz band for enterprise private networks.