Singapore mobile users who have switched to long-term evolution (LTE) phones are pleased with the high-speed connection, but find network coverage lacking in some parts of the city-state. The three local operators say they are working to boost LTE coverage.
Senior staff nurse, Theresa Low, made the switch from iPhone 4S to the LTE version of Samsung S3 in December last year, and noted it was now faster to upload photos to Facebook and download Web content.
Radio reporter Peace Chiu signed on for LTE services after migrating to the iPhone 5 from the BlackBerry 9700 in October 2012. She described the initial experience as "fascinating" as the connection speed was fast, especially when downloading image-heavy Web pages.
However, the excitement did not last. "After a while, I realized it's not that fantastic since I can't receive LTE signals near my place. So my phone would switch back to 3G which signals aren't very good either," Chiu said
Banker Roy Tan agreed. He said local telcos need to improve LTE coverage as reception is poor outside of the city area and around the Singapore Expo, which is the island's largest convention and exhibition venue. Tan has been using the Asus PadFone 2 since December 2012.
Chiu said she signed up for a LTE service contract because the monthly connection fee was the same as a 3G contract. However, in the event her telco decides to increase the LTE subscription fee, she will switch back to 3G. "Unless LTE proves to be a more stable platform compared with 3G, I think 3G will suffice for me," she added.
Telcos boosting LTE coverage
Singapore's three mobile operators--M1, SingTel and StarHub--first launched commercial LTE services in 2011, with M1 the first to do so in June 2011. However, it was not until 2012 that the telcos extended their coverage beyond the initial key areas such as the Central Business District.
All three telcos told ZDNet they were working to boost their LTE coverage indoors as well as outdoors.
Tay Soo Meng, SingTel's group CTO and managing director of networks, said the telco was on track to achieve island-wide outdoor LTE coverage by the end of March. It expanded its LTE service to include support for LTE-enabled smartphones from June 4, 2012. Previously, access was limited to USB dongle modems.
However, Tay said complete indoor coverage for LTE services might take a longer time as the telco would need to obtain permission from property owners to install its mobile equipment as well as identify a suitable space to store the equipment at each location.
Lim Eng Huat, StarHub's vice president for mobile network engineering, explained that it had focused on establishing outdoor coverage when it launched its LTE service last September. "We have since been steadily expanding our network," he said. "To date, our 4G network covers 50 percent of the island, with island-wide street-level coverage expected by the end of this year and pervasive in-building coverage in the future."
Petrina Teoh, assistant general manager for corporate communications at M1, said the company's nationwide LTE network service was launched in September 2012. As of December 31, 2012, the operator had 146,000 LTE subscribers, Teoh shared.
She said M1's LTE service included street-level and in-building coverage. She added that boosting in-building coverage is an ongoing process for the company and it has covered key buildings.
According to Ivan Lim, director for corporate communications and investor relations at M1, industry regulator Infocomm Development of Authority's definition of "natonwide coverage" is at least 95 percent network coverage, as it is in the case of next-generation nationwide broadband network. SingTel and StarHub said they would achieve island-wide LTE coverage in 2013.
StarHub said it had 2.2 million mobile customers overall, but was unable to give specific numbers on how many of these were on its LTE network.
SingTel declined to reveal how many LTE subscribers it had. As of September 30, 2012, it had 3.7 million mobile subscribers.
LTE coverage in underground tunnels to take longer
Lim said there currently is no LTE coverage in Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) stations and tunnels across Singapore as the shared mobile infrastructure has yet to be built.
"StarHub and the other two mobile operators are working closely with the two train operators [SMRT and SBS Transit] to roll out the shared 4G network, which is expected to complete in two to three years," he noted.
Tay added that LTE coverage in MRT stations will take longer as telcos have very limited access to the tunnels and stations. "To avoid disruption to trains services, work can only be performed during hours when trains are not running. [SingTel is] working with SMRT to secure the necessary access as soon as possible," he said.
Similarly, it took several years before the three telcos rolled out 3G services in older MRT stations and tunnels built years before 3G technology was introduced in the country.
The Singapore government will release more LTE spectrum, with plans to put 27 blocks of airwaves for bidding in mid-2013.