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Why 3G links in S'pore are lagging

Lack of base stations among reasons even as telcos ramp up upgrading effort
December 4, 2012
By: Irene Tham, Technology Correspondent
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Why 3G links in S'pore are lagging A base station on the roof of StarHub's main office, StarHub Green. Telcos are facing challenges in relocating and adding new base stations due to high rents and the need to get approval from the relevant authorities. -- PHOTO: STARHUB

IT IS no secret that Singapore's mobile infrastructure is congested.

It is common to see a group of friends huddled excitedly over a mobile device in a mall waiting for, say, a YouTube video to load. After staring at the "loading" screen for half a minute, they give up and return to their previous conversation.

The number of complaints relating to 3G problems has doubled every year since 2009.

Last year, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) received 241 complaints - four times more than in 2009 - over dropped calls and poor coverage inside buildings and on MRT trains.

In the first 10 months of this year, the regulator received close to 500 consumer reports of poor coverage and dropped calls, many of which were within residential units or buildings.

The problem is not new. All three telcos - SingTel, StarHub and M1 - have pledged to improve services after four massive network outages last year resulted in customer connection woes previously unheard of.

This year, the IDA raised its service quality standards for the first time in five years. This called for telcos to improve outdoor coverage to at least 99 per cent, from 95 per cent previously. The new standards took effect in April.

But why are 3G mobile users still grumbling about not being able to surf the Web, unreliable WhatsApp messaging and dropped calls - the three most common problems?

When asked whether 3G connections have worsened, more than 1,800 respondents resoundingly said "yes" in a quick poll on The Straits Times' Facebook page last week.

The aggravation is a daily occurrence, according to another ST poll of about 80 people this week.

Connection problems are littered across the island, clustering around high-human traffic locations such as Orchard Road, the Central Business District, Woodlands and Tampines, according to online maps plotted out by frustrated SingTel and StarHub users.

Telco analyst Alex Chau at research company IDC Asia-Pacific said that not enough base stations are installed here, compared with other densely populated cities such as Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Base stations transmit and receive signals from cellphones within a defined radius.

In Singapore, each base station covers a radius of 500m to 1.5km, compared with 200m to 500m in Hong Kong and less than 200m in Tokyo, said Mr Chau.

When not enough base stations are installed in a high-human traffic area such as Orchard Road, connections become slow or unreliable when too many users' cellphones try to "log on".

When contacted, the telcos said they have been ramping up network upgrading efforts, but their challenges are multifaceted.

The first is related to the property boom in the past three years, which saw an unprecedented number of buildings torn down to make way for more residential and commercial skyscrapers.

More than 3,000 private residential projects were built in the past two years, according to the Singapore Real Estate Exchange, which collates and displays transactions by 11 major property agencies such as PropNex, ERA, Dennis Wee Group, HSR and OrangeTee.

Many new malls like Ion Orchard and 313@Somerset have also sprouted in the past four years.

Student Kelvin Su, 22, said he sometimes has to switch to free public Wi-Fi at his favourite hangout, Ion Orchard. "3G connections are always slow," said Mr Su, who uses his phone to check movie timings and e-mail, and watch YouTube videos.

New office buildings such as Ocean Financial Centre, OUE Bayfront and Asia Square have also recently been added to the skyline of Singapore's downtown and business districts.

With so many skyscrapers, telcos constantly have to reconfigure and optimise their networks. Existing base stations may have to be relocated and new ones added.

But this is not always easily done. Landlords may put up resistance over premise-access rights, among others.

Mr Tay Soo Meng, SingTel's managing director of networks, said: "We require permission from building owners, condominium management committees and the authorities to install our mobile equipment, and sometimes, our requests are rejected."

He cited the example of a nine-month delay in getting approvals from building owners and the relevant authorities to upgrade two areas in Yishun.

Poor mobile coverage in Yishun was first flagged in Parliament in February by Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah, after she received complaints from residents who had moved into new Build-To-Order flats.

She played a part in liaising with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Land Transport Authority for the necessary approvals for SingTel to install more equipment.

She said in an interview via e-mail that it is about time the Government included base stations - just as it includes electricity and roads - in the Housing Board's Build-To-Order plans.

"When residents receive the keys, the whole network would have been tested and in good working order," said Ms Lee.

She has given her feedback to the Government, and she said it is looking into her suggestion.

Another tussle with landlords centres on the high rents that telcos are charged to install base stations and antennas.

M1 chief technology officer Patrick Scodeller said that some landlords have asked for "exorbitant" rents.

Each base station is about 5m long, 2m wide and 1.8m tall. And each comes with an antenna that is at least 1.8m tall, which has to be mounted on a platform, usually atop a building.

When there is a stalemate, telcos may have to explore alternative sites to locate their equipment - which in turn adds to the delay.

"This remains an ongoing challenge," said Mr Scodeller.

Aesthetic concerns have also contributed to delays in telco network upgrades.

Gardens by the Bay, which opened on June 29, initially did not have strong enough 3G coverage, especially at the outdoor areas. The Straits Times understands that its management wanted base stations placed unobtrusively, concealed behind plants, to blend in with the scenery.

Some people have wondered if telcos' aggressive 4G network rollout plans have diverted funds away from improving their existing 3G networks.

But all three telcos said this is not the case.

This year, SingTel started adding new 3G base stations to its existing pool. It has not disclosed how many stations it has.

By the end of the year, more than 100 new base stations will be added islandwide, including in 20 malls and 55 residential and office areas.

This year, the telco also started upgrading existing 3G base stations with new hardware and software, effectively doubling their capacities. Maximum 3G surfing speeds will also be doubled to 42Mbps by early next year.

Since September, StarHub has also been upgrading 3G speeds to 42Mbps. The enhancement is part of plans to improve 2G and 3G reception in new housing estates and high-human traffic areas, served by its 300 existing base stations.

The IDA is conducting independent checks on telcos' mobile service quality, and said it will not hesitate to impose financial penalties if they fail to meet the minimum standard of outdoor coverage of at least 99 per cent, among other indicators.

"Connection unreliability has come to a new low - can you imagine how frustrating it is not being able to load Web pages on your phone or having calls that drop?" said resource manager C.J. Ho.

"It used to be a problem confined to the remote parts of Singapore. Now, it happens at swanky malls."


Connection problems are littered across the island, clustering around high-human traffic locations such as Orchard Road, the Central Business District, Woodlands and Tampines, according to online maps plotted out by frustrated SingTel and StarHub users.


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