IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Put smaller ISPs to the test

After a delay of almost two years, OpenNet finally came to my home last month and my fibre broadband line was installed.

Like a child who's had to wait two Christmases to open his presents, I was naturally ecstatic when the purple shirts finally arrived at my door.

The next challenge was tougher: Which Internet service provider (ISP) should I choose?

About 15 years ago, when I had to decide on my first broadband provider, the choice was simple: SingTel Magix. It had the best speeds (512kbps at that time), though not the best price.

But even the nascent Internet at that time was just too enthralling for me to be stuck with a 20-hour monthly broadband plan. So I soon switched over to Singapore Cable Vision's cable modem service, which offered unlimited surfing for about the same price but slightly slower throughput.

StarHub eventually bought out SCV and I stayed with the cable modem service. The reason was simple - between SingTel's phone-line based technology and StarHub's cable modem, StarHub offered a significantly higher maximum throughput.

But with the arrival of fibre broadband - with millions in state funds pumped into laying high-speed fibre optic lines to our homes and the creation of an open, competitive infrastructure - everything's changed.

Where there were only two viable players before, there are now six. Prices are extremely competitive. Two years ago, I paid about $80 to $90 a month for a 100Mbps cable broadband line. Now, you can get one for under $40.

Most users aim for the best value for money - not the cheapest, but the one with the best bang for the buck. The choice is not a simple one.

Both SingTel and StarHub are trying to bundle pay TV, broadband and mobile phone services into attractive packages to convince existing customers not to switch. Many people will probably avoid Viewqwest, My Republic and Super Internet because they are small, still new to the game and lack the branding of the Big Three: SingTel, StarHub and M1.

The biggest problem for a consumer is trying to figure out how each provider's broadband service is performing.

Advertised speeds are only the maximum that is achievable, not what you really get in real life. You won't know if they are good until they are installed, by which time you would probably have signed a two-year contract and you're locked in.

So when industry regulator Infocomm Development Authority commissioned British firm Sam Knows to perform independent performance benchmarking of the fibre broadband lines last year, I applauded. Finally, consumers could have an independent gauge of each ISP's performance and be able to make an informed choice.

How wrong I was!

Till today, only the speeds of the big three have been revealed. The smaller players have been ignored because of the "low number of subscribers".

I find that explanation hard to stomach.

Collectively, the three smaller ISPs have now signed up close to 20,000 residential subscribers.

The number may look small against the 1.2 million residential broadband lines here, but on closer inspection, it is quite significant because only some 250,000 of these residential lines use fibre technology. The bulk are still on the older phone line and cable modem systems.

The issue is not purely one of size. As the industry regulator, IDA needs to show that it is transparent and that it does not favour any ISP over the others. Smaller and newer ISPs are hungry and competitive and IDA should give them the chance to compete against the incumbents.

So I chose Viewqwest. It comes with a VPN-like service that lets me access geographically blocked sites such as Netflix and Hulu Plus where I can watch my favourite American TV shows, such as House Of Cards and Walking Dead.

My Republic is also very aggressive, slashing its 100Mbps line to $38.99 per month recently, one cent cheaper than the previous cheapest line which was from M1. It also plans to roll out a VPN-like service in June.

Perhaps there are other reasons preventing IDA from installing test servers at the smaller ISPs premises. If that is so, IDA needs to tell us why.

Despite the many snafus with the fibre broadband roll-out, IDA deserves kudos for bringing down the price of high-speed broadband for consumers and fostering a competitive market in which service providers must fight to win the favour of consumers.

Not including the smaller ISPs in the speed test now seems like a huge step backwards.

It is time for IDA to take a long hard look at this policy, as it calls a new tender for the broadband measurement tests.

I want to know how the Davids compare with the Goliaths. And so do the readers of Digital Life.

ginlee@sph.com.sg

This story first appeared in The Straits Times on March 6, 2013

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