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NEWS ANALYSIS

No way but up for mobile plan prices in Singapore

Saturated market will see telcos raising prices to boost revenue

Published on Aug 16, 2014 7:49 AM
 
Customers are talking less and sending fewer SMS messages, traditionally money spinners for telcos. Instead, they are using more mobile data for chat apps such as WhatsApp and to surf sites such as Facebook. -- ST FILE PHOTO

From next Tuesday, SingTel will raise the cost of most of its mobile price plans. New customers and those who renew their contracts will pay $3 more for their monthly subscriptions.

The new mobile plans will come with more talk time and SMSes, as well as a waiver of the monthly $10.70 add-on fee for the high-speed 4G service.

At first glance, it may make sense for SingTel customers to switch to M1 and StarHub.

But customers of StarHub and M1 should also be worried: Analysts believe that SingTel's move is but the start of a wave of price adjustments across the industry.

The obvious reason is that telcos are struggling to raise revenues in Singapore's saturated market.

Singapore, with a population of 5.3 million, has more than 8.3 million mobile lines. The population penetration rate is 150 per cent, meaning that many people have more than one cellphone.

Mr Ramakrishna Maruvada, head of South-east Asia and India telecoms research at the Daiwa Institute of Research, said: "Singapore is a saturated market. The only way to generate growth is to extract more incremental revenue from existing customers."

But customers are talking less and sending fewer SMS messages, traditionally money spinners for telcos. Instead, they are using more mobile data for chat apps such as WhatsApp and WeChat and to surf sites such as Facebook and YouTube.

This prompted higher charges for mobile data access. Since the beginning of this year, all telcos have doubled the charges for mobile data use beyond the allowances given in subscription plans.

In June, StarHub started charging new and recontracting customers $2.14 a month for its 4G add-on service.

In this light, SingTel's move to raise its prices is not surprising.

But instead of charging a flat fee for its 4G add-on service, SingTel packed more items into its new plans to convince customers it has the better value proposition.

SingTel will not be giving more 4G data allowances - except for one of the revised plans - but it will be offering free Wi-Fi access at some 100 hot spots it operates, for starters.

The Wi-Fi connections will ease mobile congestion in crowded places and is "a cheaper way of adding bandwidth for telcos", said Ms Serene Chan, a senior analyst for infocommunications technology practice at research firm Frost & Sullivan Asia-Pacific.

An industry observer, who declined to be named, noted that including a Wi-Fi bundle will prevent customers from leaving the SingTel network and preserve its revenues.

Many free Wi-Fi services, including the public Wireless@SG network, are increasingly threatening telcos' earnings.

"If everyone switched to Wireless@SG, then it would be game over for the telcos," said the observer.

Amid all the jostling, one thing is certain: As consumers hunger for more mobile data and faster surfing, the only way for prices to go is up.

itham@sph.com.sg

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