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Shake up ahead for Singapore's telco sector?

Neo Chee Wei | Getty Images

Singapore's mobile landscape long dominated by three telco operators faces the prospect of a fourth competitor as soon as 2016 – a new order that could shake-up the multi-billion dollar industry, say analysts.

Three-year-old local internet service provider MyRepublic announced last month that it would participate in the next 4G spectrum auction slated for end-2015 or early 2016.

According to market watchers, this marks the first step in securing a foothold in the mobile market as the city-state's fourth telco – joining Singtel, Starhub and M1. If successful, the company could make its entry by end-2016.

Consistel, a Singapore-based wireless software solutions provider, has also expressed interest in becoming the fourth mobile network operator.

"MyRepublic is a credible player in broadband, has a clear vision of a mobile strategy, and has interesting financial support, including [French telecoms billionaire] Xavier Niel,"analysts at New Street Research wrote in a recent note.

"Consistel is a less well-known challenger, but has expertise in DAS [distributed antenna system], and appears to have more access to funding. Both are realistic potential challengers, in our view," they said.

Singapore's Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) has been keen to have more competition in the mobile space; however factors including the high cost of setting up new networks and buying mobile spectrum have made past efforts unsuccessful.

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In perhaps the most high-profile exit from the sector, Virgin Mobile – a joint venture between Singtel and Britain's Virgin Group – shut down in 2002, barely a year into operations, citing weak market conditions.

Analysts, however, expect things will be different this time around.

"MyRepublic is different from Virgin. For one, it is a Singapore company managed by former local employees of [competitors]. Also, MyRepublic has proven itself a viable competitor in fiber broadband. Finally, it uses low-cost cloud infrastructure to host all its support systems and appears to be well-funded," said Gregory Yap, analyst at Maybank.

Yap says MyRepublic will have to use either low pricing or offer unlimited data as its "market-disruption levers."

"These are the only two avenues available to it as mobile penetration [in Singapore] is already 150 percent. There are no more new users to capture," he said.

A new entrant like MyRepublic could realistically expect to corner about 10-15 percent share of the overall market postpaid mobile market of 4.7 million subscribers with its unlimited data plans, according to OCBC. Although it may take some time to achieve that, the bank said.

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"The threat of a new entrant could potentially put a crimp on how much the incumbents can monetize data over the longer term. And we believe that M1, currently with the smallest market share, could be most at risk from the emergence of a new entrant," OCBC said in a report published at the end of 2014.

Maybank's Yap agrees M1 is the most vulnerable to disruptions from a fourth mobile operator.

"If and when MyRepublic enters the market as a fourth operator, it is likely to target M1's subscribers as the lowest-hanging fruit. In the worst case, 20-30 percent of M1's mobile revenue could be at stake," he said.

"Singtel and StarHub have bundled their mobile plans with options such as TV and fixed and mobile broadband at competitive prices. This is not an option for M1, as it is a pure mobile operator with only mobile and broadband plans," he added.

As for MyRepublic, it's unlikely to be an easy road ahead either, say analysts. Crucial to its success will be getting the right cost structure, particularly in terms of spectrum.

"During the 2013 4G auction, the three incumbents paid high reserve prices. MyRepublic is unlikely to be able to make it with spectrum at these high prices. IDA would have to set aside spectrum only for new entrants and sell to them at lower prices," said Yap.