Growing pains plague OpenNet Singapore fiber broadband rollout

2011 is not been an auspicious year for Singapore’s rollout of a nationwide fiber optic network. OpenNet, a consortium composed of SingTel (the largest telecom company in Singapore), Axia NetMedia, SP Telecommunications and Singapore Press Holdings, has come under fire from residents, businesses and local ISPs offering fiber broadband service on the network, for its serious delays.

The problem is that the number of people being connected per week is far too low to meet the demand. OpenNet (not the ISPs) is responsible for making the physical connections from the fiber network to the users’ premises. At present the quota is 2400 connections per week, meaning it will take close to eight years to connect all households in Singapore. ISPs have suggested that OpenNet expedite business customers’ connections over residential customers (in part because commercial enterprises pay three times more than residential customers). Some ISPs have called for the government to impose heavier penalties on OpenNet’s failures to connect customers in a timely manner. At present, for every month of delay, OpenNet pays the ISP only S$15 (US$11).

A bit of history: OpenNet won a $750 million contract from the Singapore government to build Singapore’s fiber optic broadband network. At the time, Singapore’s Next Generation Nationwide Broadband Network was considered the “gold standard” by many countries aiming to bring high-speed broadband to their citizens. And indeed, it still is, but other countries need to learn from the experience of Singapore’s OpenNet to avoid making the same mistakes.

Singapore’s fiber network is open to ISPs that want to deliver fiber broadband service to residents and businesses. In this regard, it is much more open to competition than fiber networks being rolled out in Europe and the United States, which are owned and monopolized by only one telco. Singapore ISPs began offering fiber broadband service on the OpenNet network in 2010, but by October 2011, only 76,000 people had signed up for service (see Singapore Straits Times article about OpenNet’s problems). The article also says that the network reaches 85 percent of homes and offices, and by the middle of 2012, it will reach 95 percent.

Singaporeans complain of long delays (6 weeks or more) between signing up for fiber broadband service with the ISP and the consortium actually connecting the residence or business to the network. Among the reasons are disagreements between OpenNet and the condominium or apartment building association on how the building is to be connected as well as errors made in identifying a building as commercial versus residential and charging the residential customer three times more.

Fiber broadband service in Singapore is expensive

Other people have complained about the high prices of fiber broadband service. At present, ISPs such as M1, Singtel and Starhub are offering fiber broadband service, albeit at a steep price. Below are screenshots of Starhub and M1 fiber broadband plans for residential customers (the fastest service for about S$400 or US$310 per month).

fiber broadband offering from Starhub Singapore

Note that “International Bandwidth” is the “maximum achievable bandwidth when surfing hosted or routed outside of Singapore.” A lot of people have complained about this limit since most of them visit websites outside Singapore.

M1 fiber broadband home plans

M1 Singapore home fiber broadband prices

Singtel, the incumbent operator in Singapore, has similar plans but for residential customers, they don’t offer up to 1 Gbps. Singtel also has international bandwidth limits.

OpenNet Singapore is fixing these problems

Despite the rocky start for OpenNet and the ISPs, things are looking up. The Singapore government has acted swiftly in getting the OpenNet consortium to address these problems. Indeed, I’ve spoken to several tech entrepreneurs in Singapore and they’ve told me that OpenNet is finally moving quickly to solve the delays and connect households and businesses. When I mentioned the high prices for 1 Gbps service, they told me that over time, the ISPs will offer lower prices as they compete. Indeed, although the prices seem high (to me), one entrepreneur told me that a lot of people in Singapore can afford to pay US$300 for broadband and are more than willing to do so, although as prices creep downward, more people will sign up for higher speeds.

What others can learn from the Singapore fiber broadband experience

As Mies van der Rohe said, “God is in the details.” I have posted many articles on MuniWireless about fiber broadband deployments around the world and yet, when you look at how many people actually have broadband service that consistently delivers over 50 Mbps (downstream and upstream), let alone 1 Gbps, it’s very few.

I am one of the very few people in the US who happened to enjoy 25+ Mbps upstream and 50 Mbps (and often more) down and that was in San Francisco via an ISP called Webpass that served only condos, apartment buildings and commercial buildings in San Francisco and Oakland, California. Fiber broadband is being rolled out in the US, slowly. Indeed Google’s fiber project in Kansas City is one of the few shining starts.

In Paris (supposedly a hotbed of cheap fiber broadband service where you’d think more than 50% of people would have already signed up for fiber broadband), one of my correspondents tells me that the adoption rate is not growing quickly even though fiber is in the ground (via the sewer system and the Metro) and even though all the optical central offices were already set up by the 3 fiber operators to serve the entire city. The problem, as my correspondent put it, is that fiber is not in the apartments. The delay in getting fiber to the end user seems to be a global problem – not just something that happens in Singapore. It’s part of the unsexy details that people rarely focus on and the glowing press releases never mention. Moreover, in Paris, some people are now considering using VDSL2 instead of pure fiber to the home, especially in dense areas where the operators don’t want (or don’t have enough money) to invest in the vertical fiber access in the buildings. He believes that ARCEP, the French regulator, may allow the use of VDSL2.

What this means for countries that are keen on bringing fiber broadband is that in the contract with the company or consortium rolling out the nationwide fiber network, it is absolutely critical to ensure that the fiber broadband service actually gets to the residential and commercial end users. Therefore, the contracts must specify the time frame for connecting the END USERS to the network, to work closely with ISPs, with stiff penalties for delay. It’s not enough to lay down the network under the streets. The most important statistic is how many users are being connected per month. These numbers must be monitored regularly.

I think the Singapore model — public/private partnership deploying a nationwide service that is open to all ISPs — is the best model. But as you can see from their experience, the government needs to be stricter and more vigilant.


  1. Singapore is far more dense than the U.S. and makes a much better financial case because of it. Our deregulated society, number of carriers, and legal structure also makes it far more difficult to get large scale support for this type of idea. You pretty much have to do it city by city versus the an entire country. Now add in the incredible lack of technical knowledge of our politicians along with their influence peddling for the almighty dollar, and the fact they now have us 15 Trillion dollars in debt, and it’s a tough, tough, row to hoe. The GiG-E guys have the right idea, just not the methodology or the funding. I’m with you but we may have to take baby steps and find an interim solution that whets the public’s appetite for that type of capacity.