- Singapore remains on track to roll out nationwide 5G services by 2025 despite the current economic uncertainties posed by the coronavirus pandemic, Minister S. Iswaran said.
- He told CNBC investments into 5G infrastructure is not something for the short-term, and that Singapore's telecommunication companies are investing for the long haul.
- The telco regulator announced the two provisional winners who will build Singapore nationwide 5G networks: Singapore Telecommunications and a joint venture between telcos Starhub and M1.
Singapore remains on track to roll out nationwide 5G services by 2025 despite the current economic uncertainties posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the country's communications and information minister S. Iswaran said.
5G refers to the fifth generation of high-speed mobile internet that aims to provide faster data speeds and more bandwidth to carry growing levels of web traffic.
The country's telecommunication industry regulator, Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), on Wednesday announced the two provisional winners who will build Singapore's nationwide 5G networks: Singapore Telecommunications and a joint venture between telcos Starhub and M1. The final awards will be given by June after the telcos complete the regulatory process in May.
Iswaran told reporters at a briefing that 5G is an important investment in Singapore's digital infrastructure for the future. He explained the city-state is on track toward achieving nationwide 5G coverage by 2025 and be able to deploy the full breadth of services made possible with the new technology.
To be clear, utilizing the full potential of 5G requires building what is known as standalone networks: These are infrastructure designed using 5G-specific technologies.
Though the standalone networks are more efficient compared to many of the initial 5G networks that are being rolled out, they are also very expensive to build. Many of the current 5G networks are built by upgrading existing 4G infrastructure.
Singapore's economy is facing a recession this year due to the Covid-19 crisis and the central bank this week said there's "significant uncertainty" over the depth and duration of the contraction.
"Clearly, it's going to be a very challenging year economically," Iswaran said in response to CNBC's question about whether the government is planning any financial help for the telcos that are rolling out 5G and help them weather through the current crisis. "But the investment in 5G infrastructure is not something that's for the short term."
"We're talking about a license for 15 years, so it's not about today, or tomorrow, or even next year, it's about the long haul," Iswaran said. "This investment commitment by the telcos who are recipients of this license is an indication of their confidence in the long term of the economy."
"This is something not new to the telco industry, they make investments for the long haul and I think they would've factored all this into account," he added.
When asked about how much Singapore will cumulatively invest into 5G, Iswaran told CNBC it would be up to the telcos to share what they've prepared in terms of their commitments.
"But I would say that if you just take a reference from what has been announced or is in the public domain, based on different markets, it would not be wrong to conclude that the cumulative investments will run into billions of dollars," he said.
Last year IMDA said telcos would have to pay more than 55 million Singapore dollars (almost $39 million) for one lot of the scarce 5G airwaves. The telcos would also have to build other 5G-related infrastructure including base stations to provide islandwide coverage.
Starhub and M1 declined to reveal how much they would invest or if they anticipate any delays in the rollout of 5G due to the virus outbreak, saying they can only share more details after the full license is awarded.
Singtel did not immediately respond to CNBC's questions but pointed to a media statement from Group CEO, Chua Sock Koong who 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."
IMDA said the winners will have to roll out 5G standalone networks from January 2021. They would also be required to provide 50% islandwide coverage by the end of 2022 and full coverage by the end of 2025.
Mobile operators will be able to access those networks through wholesale arrangements. IMDA did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comments on how it would regulate the industry to ensure its competitiveness.
Additionally, telco companies and other mobile virtual network operators will be able to use the shorter range millimeter waves to sell 5G services to retail users.
Singapore's fourth telco, TPG, which submitted a separate bid, was the only major player left out of the nationwide 5G deployment.
When asked about the city-state's stance on Chinese telecommunication equipment maker Huawei, Iswaran said IMDA will look at the overall security and resilience of the networks the winners will build when giving out the final award.
Huawei is one of the major names in the race to build 5G infrastructure. But the United States has accused the company of including security vulnerabilities in its hardware that could be used for espionage by Beijing. The U.S. has urged its allies to exclude Huawei from their 5G networks. For its part, Huawei has denied allegations that it colludes with Chinese intelligence.
"Our focus has been on overall network resilience and security, and ensuring vendor diversity," Iswaran said.