Hidden costs to set up home NBN

Concealed in fine print, installation of fiber-optic network costs S$85 and above. In addition, Singapore homeowners may have to wait up to two weeks for connection to be activated.
Written by Tyler Thia, Contributor

update SINGAPORE--The rollout of the city-state's next generation national broadband network (NGNBN) plans more than a month ago signals Singapore's readiness to upgrade its connectivity infrastructure. ZDNet Asia spoke to three retail service providers (RSPs)--SingTel, StarHub and M1--to uncover the overall cost homeowners here will have to fork out to sign up for NBN services.

The possibility of an ultra-high-speed broadband connection appears attractive, but homeowners will still need to bear installation, activation and hardware rental charges before they can eventually take advantage of services running on the new fiber network. These additional fees are similar to what Internet service providers (ISP) here implement as upfront charges for new subscribers.

In some cases, though, NGN customers will also need to wait up to several weeks before the RSP can turn on the service.

A check with the RSPs showed that homeowners have to cough up at least S$85 for the installation and activation of both the Optical Network Terminal (ONT) and Wireless Residential Gateway (WRG). The ONT is a device that converts fiber-optic light signals to electric signals, which the WRG acting as the router then converts to high-speed Internet.

The ONT is provided by Nucleus Connect which is the operating company of Singapore's NBN initiative. It wholesales fiber-optic bandwidth to RSPs, which are in charge of providing the WRG to customers who sign up for the ultra-high-speed connection. The fiber optic in cabling is laid out by OpenNet, which is the network company tasked to deploy the infrastructure nationwide.

This unique three-party NGNBN model is a world's first, according to a Nucleus Connect spokesperson, who noted that this was the government's idea of keeping charges competitive and transparent. While the wholesale rate for a 100Mbps plan is S$21, the lowest resale plan that a consumer can sign up for is S$50 with ISP, SuperInternet.

At a glance, StarHub charges the least--at S$53.50--for installation of the ONT and WRG. SingTel bills this at S$80.25, while M1's fee ranges from S$58.85 to S$112.35, depending on appointment time.

When it comes to activation, StarHub and SingTel charge S$32.10 and S$53.50,  respectively. M1 does not have any activation fee, but subjects the WRG to a rental cost of S$2 per month. These figures are listed on the company's respective Web site.

All three telcos highlighted that these additional charges are listed in fine print, displayed below promotional material about their NGN services, and customers will be informed when they sign up for the services at the outlets.

SuperInternet, meanwhile, highlights its one-time charge of S$214 for the basic 100Mbps plan or S$374.50 for the premium plan. The fees are listed under the monthly subscription rates on its Web site.

When homeowners sign up for a NGN service plan, RSPs will have to arrange for contractors from Nucleus Connect, which is a subsidiary of StarHub,  to install the ONT and WRG. This can be done in the same appointment, but customers will have to wait between 5 and 13 days for the installation to be carried out--depending on the availability of the contractors--followed by activation of the service.

When quizzed on the installation costs, the Nucleus Connect spokesperson revealed that while it charges a fee the RSPs will need to pay for installing the ONT, it leaves it up to the RSPs to decide whether to transfer this cost to the customers. Nucleus Connect did not specify the cost of installation per household.

Among the three RSPs, only M1 and SingTel allow customers to sign up for the fiber-optic broadband at their stores. StarHub accepts "registration of interest" on its Web site and its call center officers will not be able to assist with NGN-related queries. Such queries will instead be passed on to the company's NGN sales team, which will then contact the potential customer.

Student Jerome Lee's family was selected for the free three months of trial offered by StarHub in late September, and promised a call to arrange for ONT and WRG installation before Oct. 20. Lee said he has not received any calls from the telco to date, and was given the same reply upon repeated calls to the "Customer Care" helpline.

Lee said: "They told me the fiber-optic broadband connection is 'on-trial', hence the customer service officers would not be able to provide me with any help. Each time I called, they said they would relay my message to the sales team. But more than a month and nothing has happened.

"It makes me wonder if StarHub is ready to roll out the connection," he added.

When asked if there was going to be a delay, StarHub's corporate communications manager Cassie Fong replied: "After the fiber connection is installed, it will have to be certified by OpenNet before RSPs are able to provide services to the customer's home."

Similarly, when asked how long customers would have to enjoy ultra-high-speed connection after signing up, Fong could only say: "We always strive to deliver services to our customers within the shortest time possible. However, we have to take some time to verify with OpenNet on the status of the fiber connection. Once we know that the fiber connection is certified ready for services, we will arrange with the customer to install the equipment at his home as soon as possible."

Despite the high costs, online game enthusiast Terrence Tan cannot wait for his unit to be installed with fiber-optic cabling early next year. He has also decided on the broadband service plan.

He explained: "Our current broadband connection still does not provide the best game experience. I am looking forward to the day when my unit is connected to the 'real' ultra-high-speed Internet. That's when I can play games and my family can watch streaming TV without the frequent intermittent cuts we're so used to now, hopefully."

SingTel, StarHub and M1 declined to reveal takeup figures, saying only that response has been encouraging.

OpenNet has said that cabling will reach 60 percent of homes by 2010, and at least 95 percent by 2012.

LGA Telecom, one of the five RSPs that have publicly announced plans to offer fiber connection, has yet to showcase its offerings.

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