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The National Broadband Network – a part of Singapore's success story

Singapore is often lauded for its robust infrastructure, open and transparent financial system, and strong regulatory environment. These are the commonly cited factors when we think about the Singapore success story. But one particular element of this story has often been overlooked and underrated: the country's investment and development of its National Broadband Network (NBN).

The NBN has been a game changer for the island state. It has supported the transformation of Singapore into an intelligent nation and a global city, powered by state-of-the-art connectivity infrastructure.

The NBN also sets the foundation to support Singapore's ambitious goal to be a leading digital economy. By providing nationwide broadband access at speeds exceeding 1 Gbps, it has provided new economic opportunities and enhanced the vibrancy of the telecommunications sector.

This is possible because the NBN has provided an open access model to infrastructure that can be used by retail-service providers. This has prevented asset duplication and removed access bottlenecks, which in turn has led to a competitive broadband market where retail service providers compete on commercial terms.

The process to establish the NBN started way back in September 2008. Today, after years of investment by the government, household broadband adoption stands at close to 98 per cent as at 2019, marking a steady increase over the past years. At the same time, the percentage of business broadband adoption for all business types is in the high 90s. These are among the highest fibre broadband penetration rates anywhere in the world.

With the current COVID-19 pandemic situation necessitating remote working and the adoption of digital collaboration tools, the consumption of broadband services has skyrocketed. With penetration rates approaching saturation, there has been significant increase in consumption, often by up to 60 per cent during certain peak hours.

Traffic demand has also been more distributed across the network as opposed to specific traffic hotspots typically visible during a working day. This growth in traffic has tested the resilience of the telecom infrastructure. Unlike in some countries where content providers have had to throttle streaming quality to manage bandwidth usage, the NBN has enabled Singapore to continue with business as usual with limited impact to download or upload speeds and latency.

The NBN has also enabled Singaporeans to play an active part in the infrastructure of the country. The passive infrastructure component of the NBN was listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange in 2017, thereby providing an avenue for Singaporeans to acquire a stake in the country's broadband infrastructure.

We can expect these trends to continue post COVID-19. Without a doubt, the NBN will continue to play a critical role as Singapore continues on its path towards becoming a digital economy. Looking ahead, the NBN is intricately linked to several key initiatives and priorities for the country.

The 'Smart Nation' Plan

For example, several of the strategic national projects that underpin Singapore's "Smart Nation" plan (e-payments, Smart National Sensor Platform, Smart Urban Mobility) require seamless, high-speed connectivity to deliver their promise. This connectivity will often be delivered via public and private 5G networks, which will leverage the NBN to transport data across Singapore.

Digital inclusion continues to also be a key outcome from the NBN, with regulated access prices ensuring that broadband services remain more accessible and affordable.

COVID-19 has created new norms for working and learning that necessitate access to high-speed broadband for every household. This access will only be possible with the democratization of the availability of fixed broadband services by the NBN. For businesses, the NBN will be a critical asset for their journey in the global marketplace, enabling them to connect remotely and conduct business across borders while controlling margin erosion.

But this is not enough.

To ensure that the NBN continues to fulfil its promise over the next decade, initiatives to grow and maintain it need to be put in place. On the point of infrastructure, the passive and active infrastructure that support the NBN must be further fortified to remain competitive, with sufficient resilience to handle the uptick in demand.

To further digital inclusion and access, the government may consider supporting segments of the population that find it difficult to transition to a high-speed network. And while the NBN provides core connectivity for businesses, some local firms may still need additional support to realize its full potential. We must continue to make suitable and effective digital solutions attainable and accessible to these enterprises to fulfil the full potential of high-speed connectivity.

The success of the NBN also provides impetus to consider similar infrastructure initiatives where barrier to entry is typically high. Singapore has taken a step in this direction with mobile networks by allowing two competing mobile operators to deploy a joint 5G nationwide network.

However, it may be worth considering establishing a network of small 5G cells throughout Singapore, which can then be leased to the telecom operators. Besides supplementing the nationwide network, this will help to eliminate the potential for small cell "blight" as a result of multiple providers deploying competing small-cell networks. Such a model will be among the first in the world, and will provide Singapore with the opportunity to showcase leadership much like when the NBN was conceptualized more than a decade ago.

One can also envisage shared infrastructure for ICT assets such as data centres. The ultimate objective could well be to have shared infrastructure across the ICT value chain (connectivity, data centres, cables and so on), so that a new service provider can easily lease capacity and launch services quickly and effortlessly. This will remove infrastructure bottlenecks and improve competitiveness.

As Singapore progresses on its Smart Nation journey, providing easy access to backbone infrastructure will attract more service providers to Singapore. This will in turn accelerate the uptake of new services that these service providers can bring to the market.