Like their counterparts in many other countries, Singapore’s operators are shifting their focus to the next generation of mobile network technology known as 5G. M1, Singtel and StarHub have already launched 5G networks — although Singtel and StarHub did so while describing their launches as commercial trials. Meanwhile, new entrant TPG signed an agreement back in February to trial 5G OpenRAN in Singapore with Rakuten Mobile. Part of the rationale behind the push on 5G by all four of Singapore’s operators is the need not to be left behind the competition and the hope that 5G will — in contrast to 4G — allow operators to offer new services for which their customers will be willing to pay a premium.
Before we can start discussing how 5G will benefit consumers, it’s worth spending some time covering what 5G is and the different forms it can take. This is because 5G’s beguilingly short and simple name belies its considerable complexity. There are two distinct varieties of 5G — 5G non-standalone access (NSA) and standalone access (SA). The waters are muddied further by a range of different spectrum bands on which 5G can be deployed, which can have a huge effect on users’ mobile network experience.
Simply put, 5G NSA is when an operator adds 5G capability to their existing 4G network, and as a consequence, a smartphone needs to be connected to a 4G network to benefit from 5G services. 5G SA on the other hand, requires an operator to upgrade the core of their network to 5G, which does away with this limitation and also unlocks new capabilities such as network slicing (the ability to tailor network parameters to meet any application or user’s exact requirements) and ultra-low latency.
Despite the IMDA’s preference for 5G SA network deployments, the launches of 5G in the city-state have all used 5G NSA technology. All three operators with a 5G offering are using spectrum in the 2100 MHz band. However, only Singtel is claiming to be also using spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band. Both Singtel and the JVCo consortium (formed by StarHub and M1) have been allocated 100 MHz of 3.5 GHz spectrum by the IMDA. This band is currently being cleared as it historically has been used for satellite services. In addition, Singtel has recently announced that it has gone live with 28 GHz mmWave in several locations, including Orchard Road, the Padang area and Marina Bay Sands Expo. Singapore’s extremely dense and well-developed 4G networks will help make the rollout of 5G easier due to the reduced need to find new sites and undergo lengthy planning approval processes. With NSA 5G, a user needs a 4G signal to connect to 5G service. The strong 4G signal strength that Opensignal sees on Singapore’s operators will help maximize the time users can connect to 5G. However, we see differences between Singapore’s operators in the signal strength of their 4G services.
The 5G ‘layer cake’
There are four main spectrum options when it comes to deploying 5G: sub 1 GHz (low band), 1-3 GHz (mid-band 5G/higher band 3G/4G), 3-6 GHz (mid-band 5G, not usable by 3G/4G) and above 6GHz (mmWave 5G). Each has their own quirks — low band is great for covering large areas, but offers little in the way of speed and capacity, while the reverse is true with mmWave. It, therefore, makes sense to use a combination of these three. Over in the USA, T-Mobile hit the headlines in May with the news that it had switched on 5G on low-band, mid-band and mmWave spectrum in New York. The operator has got behind this 5G ‘layer cake’ concept to the point where it started using it in its marketing material — offering free cakes to some of its customers.
As both Singtel and JVCo have been awarded the same amount of mid-band spectrum (100MHz of 3.5GHz spectrum each), but both StarHub and M1 users will share the latter, Singtel may well be able to provide its users with greater capacity and potentially faster speeds. However, the extent of its advantage in this regard will hinge on both the number of subscribers on each operator and their behaviour. This is because increases in mobile data consumption are associated with slower download speeds, as seen in one of our insights that looked at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In contrast to the other operators, TPG was only awarded mmWave spectrum by the IMDA at the end of the latter’s 5G call for proposal (CFP) process. If TPG were to deploy 5G initially only on mmWave, its users would likely enjoy very high download speeds on its network. In the US, where the bulk of mmWave 5G deployments have taken place, it has been hard to obtain the same degree of coverage seen with lower 5G bands. But Singapore is different due to its city-state status, along with the fact that its territory is smaller than New York City, coupled with its high GDP per capita. These factors mean that a mmWave-focused strategy should work better here, though as with any new technology, there are likely to be some issues that will need to be overcome.
While TPG will be able to access other frequencies via wholesale use of either the Singtel/JVCo 5G networks, this does not mean that its users will necessarily enjoy the same experience as their Singtel/StarHub/M1 counterparts when using these networks — due to the additional complexity involved. For example, we recently found that in Japan, our Rakuten users observed a better experience when using the operator’s own 4G network than when they were connected to Rakuten’s national roaming partner, KDDI. Also, when we analyzed the experience of our Malaysian users when they roam in Singapore, their download and upload speeds were often slower than those seen by our Singaporean users, despite them using the same host network.
5G’s true benefits to Singaporean users will take time to materialise
Initially, 5G users may see only modest gains in their mobile experience, due to the heavy reliance on the 2100 MHz spectrum. That will change once the additional 3.5 GHz and mmWave spectrum starts to be deployed alongside compatible handsets and operators upgrade their 5G networks to 5G standalone access. At that point, users can expect massive improvements in terms of both download speeds and latency.
The new 3.5 GHz spectrum will be available in 2021 provided the IMDA can successfully migrate fixed-satellite service users to another band. Spectrum is the most valuable commodity in the cellular world. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that a similar problem exists with much of the other spectrum that could be potentially used for 5G. For example, the IMDA doesn’t expect a further 50 MHz of spectrum in the same band to be available until after 2023, while the 200 MHz of spectrum in the 4.5 GHz band won’t be available until after 2025. This means that in the short-term — especially if Singaporeans rapidly embrace 5G — 5G networks could suffer from congestion, but this is likely to be eased over the long-term. The additional spectrum should result in even higher speeds through techniques such as carrier aggregation.
With the 5G app ecosystem still at a very early stage, 5G users will likely get the most use out of their phones’ new capabilities when they’re doing things that are best enjoyed when stationary such as streaming high definition video or playing mobile games. This, combined with Singapore’s humid climate significantly cuts down the number of locations where users would be using their phones in a way that makes full use of 5G’s capabilities. Once you also factor in 5G’s poor ability to pass through the walls of buildings, it’s clear that a focus on bringing 5G to shopping malls, covered markets and those commuting by public transport would make a great deal of sense.
There is always a chicken-and-egg problem with every new generation of mobile technology — network operators need new handsets to be available and quickly adopted. In contrast, smartphone manufacturers need the new networks to be rolled out quickly. With 5G there’s an extra component in the chain. App developers need 5G devices to be mainstream before they can start investing heavily in creating apps that need 5G to function optimally — but without new and compelling experiences, the allure of 5G smartphones is weakened.
This issue is made more difficult because — as we’ve already discussed — 5G is a mix of technologies and spectrum bands that mean that two users could both be on 5G and have very different mobile experiences. Fortunately, the barrier to entry for consumers is coming down as 5G capabilities are no longer the preserve of expensive ‘flagship’ smartphones. It may well be that once 5G handsets are what the typical user has in the palm of their hand rather than a status symbol, 5G will start to offer value to consumers in a way that we can’t predict right now.
Cloud gaming has been heralded as 5G’s killer app, but initial launches have failed to impress
5G’s promise of high download speeds and low latency lends itself well to mobile gaming — particularly cloud-based gaming in which games are mostly processed on a central server and then ‘streamed’ to a user’s device. However, initial cloud gaming services such as Google Stadia have struggled to get their business model right — especially as the cost of powerful gaming consoles in many of the world’s biggest gaming markets is not prohibitive.
Singtel recently deployed a trial 5G standalone access network for enterprise use at its 5G Garage testing facility. Ubitus, a cloud gaming company has already used it, and it found that 5G cloud gaming can deliver latencies that are consistently 85% lower than those seen over a 4G connection.
It is worth noting that Singapore already does very well in terms of Opensignal’s Games Experience metric, which quantifies the experience when playing real-time multiplayer mobile games on mobile devices connected to servers located around the world. In Opensignal’s November Mobile Network Experience report, M1, Singtel and StarHub all achieved a Good rating for Games Experience.
Augmented reality (AR) is another application for 5G as mobile AR applications will require devices to access large amounts of very frequently updated information. This makes 5G the obvious choice when using AR while moving around outside of office/home environments. There are formidable challenges that will need to be overcome, such as the need to ensure that virtual objects don’t impede users’ ability to see hazards in their environment. Still, it has huge potential as a means to access the vast amount of information we have at our fingertips more intuitively.
As Singapore’s operators move away from trials and towards full-blown 5G deployment, Singapore’s consumers will see impressive improvements in their 5G download speeds and latency. However, if they notice these enhancements outside of simply running speed tests, operators will need to deploy the new technology in areas where users are most likely to stream videos and play multiplayer mobile games.
By Sam Fenwick, Senior Analyst, Opensignal