Higher expectations during the festive period could fuel more complaints about their telcos' services from Singapore customers, who have become increasingly vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction over poor network experiences.
Consumers told ZDNet Asia (see sidebar) of noticeable dips in quality of service among local operators recently, such as a rise in dropped calls and slower data download speeds.
One StarHub customer, public relations executive Nicolas Chan, said service quality has decreased by "about 20 percent to 30 percent when it was already bad to start with". For instance, he noticed Web pages were not loading in crowded places despite 3G coverage, and also intermittent total connection loss.
"My WhatsApp messages will all stop coming in and just flood my inbox after some time. It is as if everything has been choked somewhere," Chan explained.
"Data crawls in central areas during commute hours" - Patrick Neighorn
"Game of Thrones downloads in 30 mins on 3G in Melbourne. Tweets can't even go out in parts of SG!" - Jonathan Ho
"Last month, I faced problems with both voice call & browsing and most irritating was low network availability" - Sandish Handa
His complaint reflects the growing number of negative feedback in recent months, which have seen a Facebook post by a frustrated SingTel customer go viral, and a petition for better network quality standards started.
Problems such as subscribers having their calls dropped and slow data downloading speeds are not new, pointed out Serene Chan, industry analyst for Asia-Pacific ICT practice at Frost & Sullivan.
"It has been going on for quite a long time in Singapore. Consumers have already noticed that a while ago and they are hoping the telcos would do something to resolve the issues," she said.
The analyst noted local ICT regulator Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) had in January taken steps to raise minimum standards for 3G coverage that required operators to provide at least 99 percent service coverage under the Nationwide Outdoor Service Coverage regulation.
Earlier this month, though, IDA fined the three local mobile operators--M1, SingTel and StarHub--S$10,000 (US$8,911) each for failing to meet the standard in the month of September 2012.
The poor network experience consumers have been experiencing will only be heightened this festive season, the analyst said. "Obviously, consumers will have higher expectations during the festive period because reaching out to their family and friends are deemed to be more critical during this period. When their messages don't get across to [loved ones] effectively, their dissatisfaction towards the telcos' quality of service becomes more obvious."
The analyst added the complaints raised a couple of questions such as whether operators had the capacity to cope with rising loads and if investments were being made for the future.
She pointed out it was important for telcos not to allow negative perceptions to develop by communicating with customers to regain their confidence and reassuring them efforts to upgrade services are underway.
Telcos pressing on with upgrades
In response, M1 said it did not notice any apparent spike in network complaints recently and performance statistics had not deteriorated in the previous month. That said, the operator had put in place provisions to cater to the end-of-year network traffic crush.
"As this is the holiday season, we have been carrying out preparatory work to enhance our network for the year-end celebrations. For example, we will be deploying additional mobile base transceiver stations (BTS) at the Marina Bay area to provide additional capacity for the annual year-end countdown party," said a M1 spokesperson.
Echoing M1's comments, StarHub said the number of enquiries it had received has been relatively stable in recent weeks and remained low, given its large mobile customer base. Lim Eng Huat, vice president of mobile network engineering at StarHub, pointed out upgrading plans are based on results from regular tests and monitoring of dropped call rates and customer feedback
"Since mid-September 2012, we have enhanced our 3G network to offer customers improved download speeds of up to 42 megabits per second (Mbps)," Lim said. He added work was underway to install new mobile base stations and improve coverage and capacity at more than 300 locations by the end of this year.
The contribution to network congestion by growing consumer adoption of smartphones and tablets is evident, with mobile data usage growing at a rate of 60 percent each year, acknowledged Tay Soo Meng, managing director of networks at SingTel.
As a result, SingTel had embarked on an accelerated network upgrade program to cater to this demand for mobile data connectivity. "In the last three years, we have invested more than S$2 billion (US$1.6 billion) across all our networks, including mobile," Tay elaborated.
He added ongoing upgrading efforts include adding more than 100 new base stations, implementing 3- and 4-cell carrier technologies to double the traffic handling capacity at all 3G sites, and doubling the speed supported by current 3G networks to 42Mbps by early 2013.
In an effort to communicate and reassure its commitment to quality of service standards, SingTel uploaded a video on Wednesday to share its upgrading plans and behind the scenes footage of the work required. (source: YouTube)
Obstructions to upgrading works
Mobile operators typically invest 10 percent to 15 percent of their sales budget on upgrading their networks each year, according to John Strand, CEO of research firm Strand Consult.
"It is ironic, if not discouraging, that consumers increasingly complain at a time when operators have been expanding their networks and technologies like never before," Strand said.
He pointed out there were, in general, a few common public misconceptions, such as the constraints faced by operators in upgrading their infrastructure. Many operators actually need not spend their budget to improve their networks, as they cannot get the necessary regulatory or property ownership approvals, he said.
"It is ironic, if not discouraging, that consumers increasingly complain at a time when operators have been expanding their networks and technologies like never before."
Agreeing, Tay said SingTel's schedule for installation and upgrade work was often beyond its control.
"We require permission from building owners, condominium management committees and the authorities to install our mobile equipment, and sometimes, our requests are rejected," the executive said. He gave an example of how recent upgrades in Yishun were held up by as much as nine months because of approval delays.
Tay added network enhancements in train stations and tunnels have also been progressing very slowly because its engineers are given very few opportunities to access them. To avoid disruption to train services, work can only be performed during hours when trains are not in operation, he explained.
He then called on train operators to give the telcos a wider window of time to perform the needed maintenance.
Tay's comments reiterated the joint statement issued by the three telcos earlier this month, which emphasized the role of building owners and government agencies in helping to improve the nation's mobile coverage.
"Currently, it can take many months to find a suitable location, sign the necessary agreements and install a base station. We hope to have the help from government agencies and building owners to ease up this process, so that operators can ensure seamless mobile coverage for all mobile users in the shortest time possible," the operators said.