3G airwaves to be auctioned to plug 5G airwave scarcity gap in Singapore

Through airwave refarming IMDA aims to enhance the propagation of 5G signals islandwide to support the mass rollout of next-generation services. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Airwaves for 3G mobile services in Singapore will be going on the auction block under a proposal by the sector's regulator to boost 5G services, currently limited by the scarcity of 5G airwaves for islandwide reach.

The auction, slated to take place towards the end of this year, comes as rights to the 2.1 GHz spectrum band currently used for 3G services will expire at the end of this year.

Through airwave refarming, sector regulator the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) aims to enhance the propagation of 5G signals islandwide to support the mass rollout of next-generation services such as mobile gaming and driverless vehicle navigation.

In a statement on Monday (July 26) evening, it said: "The 2.1 GHz spectrum band has good propagation characteristics, making it suitable for wide-area coverage for 5G."

Additionally, the 2.1 GHz band will facilitate 5G coverage in buildings and underground, as the existing infrastructure in these areas can be repurposed for 5G use.

All four telcos - Singtel, StarHub, M1 and TPG Telecom - can bid for the airwaves. The proposed price is $10 million to $15 million for each of the 12 "paired" lots of airwaves available.

The IMDA is seeking views from the public and the industry on its proposal in a newly-launched consultation, which closes at noon on August 16. It is also seeking views on the potential new uses of the 2.1 GHz band, which is increasingly supporting 5G deployments globally such as in Germany, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

Even so, some of the 2.1 GHz spectrum bands will be set aside to allow 3G services to continue in Singapore.

There are approximately 700,000 3G subscriptions as at April this year. This translates to close to 8 per cent of all mobile subscriptions with more than 1.5 million handsets or devices still depend on 3G networks today.

"Affected users include seniors, foreign workers, transport operators, and healthcare organisations," said IMDA, noting that many inbound roaming tourists and business travellers are still on 3G handsets.

Advanced 5G technologies promise surfing speeds 20 times faster than what 4G networks offer and the ability to connect 1,000 times as many devices. For instance, a 3GB movie clip - which translates to about an hour's duration in high-definition format - will take around 40 seconds to download on average over a 5G network.

Advanced 5G technologies are also better able to support mission-critical applications, such as driverless car navigation and remote surgery requiring a constant connection without lag.

Last year, Singtel and a joint venture between StarHub and M1 won the rights to build two nationwide 5G networks. The telcos have to blanket the whole island with 5G connectivity by 2025. They have since launched 5G services providing limited coverage.

TPG Telecom did not win the nationwide 5G licence, but it is allowed to operate smaller 5G networks that provide spot coverage using airwaves that are in abundance. It has yet to launch its 5G services.

Correction note: This article has been edited to correct a typo in TPG Telecom's name. We are sorry for the error.

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