More than half of Singapore will have 5G mobile network coverage by end-2022, offering surfing speeds more than 20 times what the current 4G networks offer, with the need to upgrade digital infrastructure driven home by the present partial coronavirus lockdown.
Singtel and a joint venture between StarHub and M1 won the rights to build the Republic's two nationwide networks on Wednesday (April 29) and will have to scale up to provide nationwide coverage by 2025.
Meanwhile, Singapore's four telcos - Singtel, StarHub, M1 and TPG Telecom - will also be allowed to operate smaller 5G networks that provide spot coverage using airwaves that are in abundance.
Nationwide coverage is limited to only two networks because of the scarcity of certain 5G airwaves for islandwide reach. Also, the far-reaching 3.5GHz airwaves that make it possible become available only from next year.
The sector's regulator, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), made its decision after considering detailed business proposals from the four telcos. Singtel and newcomer TPG submitted solo bids, while StarHub teamed up with M1 in a joint bid.
Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran said during a virtual press briefing that 5G networks are an important investment in Singapore's digital infrastructure.
"It has become very apparent how important digital infrastructure is, and the kind of resilience and flexibility it affords us, especially in situations like what we are in right now," he said, referring to the current coronavirus outbreak which has led to a partial lockdown.
The bids were assessed on the telcos' financial capabilities, cyber security and network resilience.
TPG was the only telco not to get a slice of the nationwide network.
Asked whether TPG's use of Chinese vendor Huawei's telecoms equipment for its networks was a factor in IMDA's decision, Mr Iswaran said: "You will find that the vendors you are referring to are also being used by (the other telcos). It's not exclusively used by TPG.
"And as we have emphasised from the start, our focus has not been about particular vendors, (but) on overall network resilience and security, and ensuring vendor diversity."
Commitments made by various telcos can achieve this, he said.
Without naming TPG, DBS Bank's head of telco research Sachin Mittal said not having a "future-proof" 5G network was worrying for a telco.
Operators of the nationwide 5G network need to each offer at least $55 million for the scarce 3.5GHz band of airwaves to provide nationwide coverage.
Singtel group chief executive Chua Sock Koong said: "In view of Covid-19's impact on the economy, we see this as a significant investment in the future - one that will create sustainable economic and social value as industries and business models transform, unlocking new careers and skills in the process."
StarHub and M1 said their collaboration would allow both companies to optimise infrastructure and spectrum costs. M1 CEO Manjot Singh Mann said: "The joint bid with StarHub will allow us to share strategic resources in the upcoming journey to develop Singapore's 5G network, which will bring a new level of hyper-connectivity to consumers."
Operating both a nationwide and smaller 5G network will hasten the roll-out of 5G services to consumers and businesses, StarHub said.
The smaller 5G networks use shorter-range millimetre airwaves that are in abundance here - these networks can be rolled out as early as this year.
5G technology promises surfing speeds 20 times faster than those offered by 4G networks, and the ability to connect 1,000 times as many devices. A full-fledged 5G network will also be able to support critical applications, such as driverless car navigation and remote surgery, which require a constant connection without lag.