Singapore’s third largest wireless services provider StarHub says it is finally ready to take the plunge into 3G, announcing plans to award an equipment contract for the rollout of its UMTS network by mid-October and the launch of customer trials in 2004. The cellco, which is 50.47%-owned by Singapore Technologies Telemedia and has NTT, Media Corporation of Singapore, BT and Singapore Press Holdings as its other shareholders, is losing ground on leading players SingTel Mobile and MobileOne Asia (M1) in the intensely competitive local mobile market. At the end of June 2003 StarHub had 747,400 subscribers and a market share of 22.4%, up from 17% the year before. But despite recording the strongest growth of the three operators in the twelve months under review – it increased its base by 47.4% compared with 2% for SingTel Mobile and 5.2% for M1 – the company lags behind in the race to deploy 3G services. In July 2003 SingTel Mobile awarded a USD127 million UMTS rollout contract to Ericsson and this month introduced a free 3G trial for customers; it plans to launch commercial operations in the first quarter of 2004. Meanwhile, M1 is also pinning its hopes on high speed UMTS services and is planning to deploy 3G services towards the end of this year. M1 also launched what it dubbed a ‘3G-like’ advanced audio/video service across its GPRS network in June and set aside SGD150 million for investment in its 3G network in 2003 and 2004. Both SingTel and M1 are upbeat about the prospects for 3G, although both have confirmed that they are dissatisfied with the current choice of available dual-mode handsets.
StarHub was actually the first company in Singapore to commit to 3G; in May 2000 it signed an agreement with Nokia to supply a 3G network solution, including W-CDMA core and radio access network equipment, in a deal estimated to be worth USD300 million. However, it then cooled towards the technology and in October 2002 wrote to the IDA to request the December 31 2004 rollout deadline for 3G networks be removed to allow operators more flexibility. At the time its president and chief executive, Terry Clontz, said, ‘Frankly, consumers do not care what we use for our infrastructure technology’, adding that what was relevant to driving demand was the widespread availability of data-enabled handsets, useful applications, and premium content. StarHub later changed tack by suggesting that the IDA allow operators to implement EDGE as an interim measure to make the transition to 3G smoother and cheaper. However, the company’s pleas fell on deaf ears and the regulator stuck to its guns for a December 2004 launch date, forcing StarHub to adopt a more pro-active position.