NBN fibre to the world: Singapore

Once a nation has universal fibre to the premises internet access, the question becomes, what's next?
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

For a city state like Singapore that is just over half the size of Sydney, rolling out fibre to the premises wasn't a massively daunting or expensive task by comparison to Australia's National Broadband Network. As the rollout nears completion, the Singapore government is now left to figure out: what do we actually use it for?

Around the same time the Australian government was announcing its then-AU$43 billion NBN in 2009, the Singaporean government announced it would invest approximately S$1 billion on its own nation-wide NBN, which was first flagged in 2006.

Australia's national broadband network operates as two layers, with NBN Co the builder and wholesale services provider on one layer, with the retail service providers on the other layer.

In Singapore, however, the government opted to split the infrastructure and wholesale operation of NBN Co into two companies. S$750 million of the funding went to NetCo — OpenNet — to build the passive fibre network, while OpCo — Nucleus Connect — was given S$250 million to be responsible for designing, building and operating the remaining part of the network such as switches, and transmission equipment, as well as offering wholesale services that retail service providers can sell onto customers.

Unlike NBN Co, which was established by the government to build the network, OpenNet was a consortium of companies including SingTel, Singapore Press Holdings, Axia NetMedia, and Singapore Power Telecommunications, but was bought out in 2013 by NetLink Trust.

The network company, and the operational companies, have their prices regulated through government licences.

Singapore has a population of 5 million, and its total size is 704 square kilometres, meaning the rollout has been almost completed in a relatively short period of time.

"It sounds like a lot, but it is a small city, so it is not that difficult to cover," Nucleus Connect's Anil Nihalani said in 2012.

"85 percent of our buildings are high-rise residential [and] that makes it easy, because we can get coverage very quickly, but also makes it very challenging, because the high-rise element of it has restrictions in terms of space and existing networks that are there."

By 2013, the Next Gen NBN reached the entire nation, covering approximately 1.2 million premises across the state.

One particular sore point for the Australian NBN rollout is the definition of whether a premises is considered "passed" by the fibre network, and whether that premises can order a service. In Singapore, there are just two statuses for a premises: building reached for when the fibre passes where the premises is located, and home reached for when the fibre is installed into the premises.

An OpenNet contractor installing trunking in an apartment
Image: OpenNet

For installation of the network in apartments, the fibre line is installed by up to three OpenNet contractors through the entry door, through a corridor with trunking installed along the side of the wall to a termination point. For homes, or "landed properties", the fibre is installed through the existing SingTel ducts and pipes into the premises.

Installation costs S$220 for apartments, and S$450 for houses, but OpenNet has been offering installation for free for the first 15 metres of fibre, with an additional S$33 per 5 metres. The entire installation process can take up to four hours, and then customers can order a service from retail service providers.

There are over 550,000 active customers on the network as of May 2014, connecting with over 27 different retailers, meaning close to half of the premises in the country are accessing the internet through the Next Gen NBN.

The advantage of splitting the wholesale company into two layers means there are now eight OpCos on the Next Gen NBN in addition to Nucleus Connect, according to Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA). If retailers are unhappy with the offering from one wholesale provider, they have the option of switching to another.

Unlike the NBN, the speed plans start at 25Mbps down, not 12Mbps down, with 73 percent of the plans offered by telcos being between 200Mbps and 1Gbps download speeds.

At the same time, IDA has reported that prices for broadband services in Singapore have begun to drop, with one 1Gbps plan in the market costing as low as S$49.99 per month.

After establishing the network, setting up the companies to operate the network, and getting a significant portion of the population onto the Next Gen NBN, the Singaporean government is now embarking on a "Smart Nation" project designed to make best use of the infrastructure it now has in place.

Singapore is commencing a trial in early 2015 of a Hetergenous Network (HetNet) combining the NBN with its national wireless network to ensure seamless connectivity between the wireless network and the existing mobile telecommunications networks, to allow the mobile networks to offload traffic onto the wireless network.

The government will be deploying above-ground boxes that offer fibre connections and power, and will be used for sensor networks to collect traffic, environment and other data that can be used by the government as part of development plans.

Image: Eileen Yu/ZDNet

Singapore will be conducting one such trial in Jurong Lake District later this year. This trial will involve a number of above-ground boxes, approximately 1,000 sensors across the district, and 15 different data collection trials.

Some of the trials include seamless connectivity for vehicles for fleet management, monitoring and routing; smart queue monitoring for taxi stands at shopping centres; mobile navigation for pedestrians; an autonomous buggy trial to take people between parks in the district; sensors to detect faulty street lighting; sensors to detect people smoking in prohibited areas; and sensors to detect illegal parking.

The smoking and illegal parking trials won't be aimed at fining those caught by the sensors, because the information obtained is anonymised, but will be used by the government to deploy officers into those areas at times when there are more people caught smoking or parking illegally.

The trials are being used to determine the feasibility of the technology, and whether it can be deployed more broadly. Once the trials are completed in the district, agencies will look to extend pilots to other districts.

There are no benchmarks set for the trials being conducted, but the efficiency of, for example, the officers targeting illegal parking or smokers from the trials will likely be compared to the situation before the trial.

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