interview


Cook’s recipe for LTE success in Singapore

Peter Cook of Singaporean carrier StarHub

Thanks to the rise of smartphones, tablets and dongles, the telecoms industry is fast becoming a data-centric world, and nowhere is that more evident than in Singapore. Mobile phone penetration in the country stands at over 143 per cent, with smartphone market penetration at 75 per cent. As such, the need for greater data capacity and faster services is clear, so it’s no surprise that all three of the local operators, SingTel, StarHub and M1, have conducted LTE trials over the past year.

While SingTel is the incumbent with just under 44 per cent of the market, StarHub and M1 are closely matched, with StarHub sitting in the second place slot with just over 28 per cent market share, according to Informa WCIS statistics.

Peter Cook, vice president of mobile network engineering at StarHub confirms to Telecoms.com that these days it’s all about data. “Our network is very strongly dominated by data and data growth at the moment. Smartphone penetration is very high, so we’re very much smartphone- and data-driven so LTE will be very helpful addition to our armour.”

StarHub has been the most high profile operator in Singapore in terms of LTE testing, running lab and field trials using 2.6GHz spectrum—and more recently using 1800MHz.  Cook says it is this frequency that the firm is most excited about. “We found the performance of the 1800 band much better than the 2600, in terms of penetration into buildings. There’s an awful lot of reinforced concrete here and it absorbs radio very nicely—which is bad news for us. So we’ve found that, by using the 1800 band as opposed to 2600 we’ve getting about twice the amount of coverage for the same base station. It’s looking very attractive for us.”

The challenge for StarHub, Cook says, is that while it has 25MHz of 1800MHz to play with, it is running 2G services on that spectrum as well. The plan is for a gradual re-farming of that 2G spectrum for LTE. To assist with freeing up space on this spectrum it has employed a compression technique called Adaptive Multi-Rate (AMR) on its voice services. While compression is normally associated with a reduction in quality Cook cites user opinion polls which say that voice quality has actually gone up since AMR has been introduced. As such StarHub’s customer approval ratings have gone up while at the same time it is freeing up space for LTE. “It’s a double bonus,” he says.

Cook says StarHub is aiming for the fourth quarter of 2011 for its commercial LTE launch and plans to follow up with Voice over LTE (VoLTE) during 2012. Cook says that the firm’s experience of providing VoIP over its fixed line service will hold it in good stead here.

“While we’re still doing CS fallback it’s essentially a fallback to a 2G domain. So architecturally [VoLTE is] the way forward to support that lower cost [LTE] environment. One in five homes in Singapore takes our VoIP residential service, so we’re very familiar with VoIP.”

Cook also reveals that StarhHub has 5MHz of 900MHz spectrum to play with and is currently considering its options as to how best it can be exploited. In terms of vendors it is also keeping its cards close to its chest, but by the time the Broadband World Conference comes round in late September the final decisions will have been made.

It also too early for StarHub to reveal LTE pricing strategies but while it has had fixed pricing for unlimited plans in the past for 3G, Cook says that it is looking at doing something, “more innovative” for LTE.

The problem that StarHub is facing is the same as operators globally – how to monetise data. For many operators, the upgrade to LTE is providing an opportunity to break away from the legacy of the past that has trapped them into providing unlimited plans on networks that struggle to take the strain. This is a particular problem in Singapore where one of StarHub’s competitors offers the iPhone with a 12GB data bundle, which puts the pressure on others to be as generous.  As Cook puts it, “We are really caught between a rock and a hard place. Once you’ve given a kid some candy, how do you take it away from them?”

But Cook is confident that LTE will enable StarHub to find a path to decent ROI. “It doesn’t make sense that with all the investment in infrastructure, and with the proliferation of smartphones and people using more data that we’re not able to make money. So that is a huge challenge for us, and we’re looking to LTE to see how it can help us with that.”

Specifically, it’s the all-IP architecture of LTE that will provide the mechanisms to do that. “In the 3G world QoS/QoE was there but the control mechanisms were not that robust. It’s very different in LTE where we can use some very strong network control mechanisms and we can start to see policy enforcement. So it’s a bit more credible to upsell plans that can actually do what’s advertised.”

Peter Cook of StarHub will be speaking at the sixth annual LTE Asia conference, which takes place in Suntec, Singapore, on the 5-7th September 2011. (Click here to register).


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