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Two groups in fight to set up ultra-fast Internet

Winning consortium to build fibre-optic network with speeds of up to 1Gbps. -ST
Alfred Siew

Tue, May 06, 2008
The Straits Times

SINGAPORE moved a step closer to building its new ultra-fast national broadband network yesterday when two groups of companies submitted bids for the ambitious, multi-billion-dollar project.

The winner will build and own an underground fibre-optic network to transmit Internet data, voice and video so fast that an entire DVD can be transferred from one online user to another in minutes.

At the deadline for bids yesterday, two consortia led by Canada-based Axia NetMedia and Hong Kong's City Telecom stepped forward.

Their bids came two years after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveiled plans for the network, which promises to put Singapore on par with regional rivals such as Hong Kong.

The government will provide up to $750 million in funding for the laying of cables in the network, which will see Internet connection speeds go up to 10 times faster than the best connection speed available today.

But speed is not the only change. The new network will also be 'open access', meaning that any operator (such as a telecom company) can plug into it for a fee and provide Internet, cable TV and telephony services to its customers.

No single operator will be allowed to own the network and block newcomers from accessing it, so there will be more choice and possibly lower prices for consumers.

Yesterday's surprise was that Singapore Press Holdings, publisher of The Straits Times, had teamed up with SingTel, SP Telecommunications and Axia NetMedia in the OpenNet consortium.

It will use fibre-optic cables to deliver infinitely more data than the traditional copper wires used today.

Present at a press conference were Axia chief executive officer Art Price, SP Telecommunications director Sim Kwong Mian, SingTel Singapore CEO Allen Lew and SPH CEO Alan Chan.

The team reeled off the reasons why it deserved to win.

First, it is promising to roll out the network by June 2010, at least 2-1/2 years earlier than scheduled.

Second, OpenNet believes it can cable the island with minimal fuss. This is because SingTel and SP Telecommunications already have fibre-optic cables and ducts in the ground, and do not need to dig up roads again.

Finally, the team has an experienced player in Axia NetMedia, which is involved in similar open-access networks in Canada and France.

Asked why SPH had joined the consortium with SingTel instead of its smaller competitors, CEO Alan Chan said: 'SPH is always at the forefront of investing in new technologies. We would like to put money into what we would call a winner.'

The rival Infinity team is also no pushover, though it kept mum on the details of its bid yesterday.

It is led by City Telecom - which recently rolled out an ultra-fast network in Hong Kong boasting 1 Gbps speeds - and includes local heavy hitters StarHub and MobileOne.

A spokesman said it would also be building an open-access network using fibre-optic technology, but did not comment on rollout dates.

StarHub also has fibre-optic cables underground, like SingTel, though on a smaller scale.

Mr Soh Siow Meng of research firm Current Analysis said although there were only two bids, it was encouraging to see that the team leaders were new foreign telcos.

'It is symbolic, yes, but it also means the new entrants now have a bigger stake in the project and will bring more innovation and competition,' he said.

The winning bid will be announced in the third quarter of this year.

siewtha@sph.com.sg

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