SingTel fire puts spotlight on proposed OpenNet sale, calls for real alternative

The fire at SingTel's Bukit Panjang building that crippled telecom services across Singapore has now put the spotlight on OpenNet's proposed sale to a SingTel-owned business trust.

Even as most of the affected services have resumed, some consumers and Internet service providers (ISPs) are calling for a "real" alternative nationwide network to SingTel's.

Two-thirds of the 149 fibre-optic cables damaged by the fire belong to OpenNet, the builder of Singapore's ultra-fast national fibre broadband network. Broadband services of operators like M1, StarHub, ViewQwest and SuperInternet were also disrupted as they buy fibre links wholesale from OpenNet.

People are concerned that OpenNet's network is too closely tied to SingTel's. All of its nine Internet exchanges are located within SingTel's premises, making it a risk for a single point of failure.

"Regardless of who eventually owns OpenNet, both SingTel and OpenNet's cables should have been in different places," said marketing director Pak Tung Sing, 44, in a letter to The Straits Times Forum page yesterday. "I used to work in a wafer fabrication facility. Such fires should have been put out within two minutes."

Another Forum writer questioned the reliability of the government-backed fibre broadband network, as it is essentially reliant on one fibre network provider.

ISPs affected by the fire joined the chorus. MyRepublic head of product Lawrence Chan and SuperInternet managing director Benjamin Tan said the outage shows the danger of having only one operator for practically all fibre services here.

M1 chief operating officer Patrick Scodeller explained that an alternative nationwide fixed network is "of strategic importance" not only for competitiveness but also for resiliency.

These criticisms underscore a larger issue - OpenNet's pending sale to SingTel's NetLink Trust, which ISPs had earlier opposed.

StarHub chief marketing officer Jeannie Ong said: "If approved, (the deal) would make OpenNet even more reliant on SingTel's infrastructure, and further increase the vulnerability of OpenNet's network."

In response, an Infocomm Development Authority spokesman said facilities-based operators like StarHub and M1 have the choice to build their own infrastructure. But instead, they have chosen to build some parts of their network and lease the rest from SingTel.

"OpenNet, too, chose to house its systems in SingTel facilities and make use of SingTel's existing ducts and telephone exchanges," said the IDA spokesman.

An OpenNet spokesman said it was "commercially and technically impractical" to build a network where every premise is served by two fibres through different ducts to separate central offices. "It is the same reason we don't have two side-by-side power grids, or sewer systems or water systems."

As of 9pm yesterday, some customers in Woodlands and Hillview were still disconnected from the Internet, although most affected services had resumed.

itham@sph.com.sg

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