Send a strong signal to make 4G users switch

After years of enticing users to sign up for a speedier 4G mobile-phone subscription, SingTel is taking a small detour by offering something older as an alternative.

No, slower 3G speeds are not making a comeback. Instead, Singapore's largest telco is asking subscribers to move to Wi-Fi.

By introducing new Wi-Fi hot spots in popular and crowded areas, SingTel hopes that subscribers will move from its congested 4G radio network to Wi-Fi.

As part of this push, the company is eliminating its current five 4G Flexi Plans for new subscribers and recontracting ones, and introducing six new 4G/Wi-Fi combo plans.

Most of these new plans will receive a bonus of additional minutes and SMS messages, as well as 2GB of Wi-Fi data via the new SingTel Wi-Fi network.

And the not-so-good news? Users pay $3 more for some new plans.

The red camp will roll out what are effectively Wi-Fi hot spots around the country and users can easily switch to a SingTel Wi-Fi network if they are in the vicinity.

On most smartphones, leaving Wi-Fi switched on will do the trick as a connection is made once a subscriber's SIM card is recognised.

As of today, there are 100 hot spots in about 15 locations. SingTel is promising a total of more than 1,000 hot spots by March next year and more than 1,700 by March 2016.

The Wi-Fi hot spots will not be as pervasive as 3G and 4G cell-tower coverage. So, while the service will eventually be available at transport hubs, schools and malls, it will not reach all residential properties.

The roll-out of this Wi-Fi service, which SingTel is calling a network, is not meant to replace 4G.

Subscribers of 4G are definitely aware of the limitations of 4G connectivity across all three telcos here.

During peak hours, the service stalls in MRT trains. The same can be said about the service in the Singapore Indoor Stadium during a concert.

In reality, though, there is a network deployed in these areas as calls can still go through.

It just cannot handle the high number of network data connections during peak times.

Going by the increasing number of commuters during the daily peak hours, no amount of network upgrades can satisfy the growing number of data-hungry devices.

By introducing a complementary Wi-Fi network, SingTel says it can more easily increase access points when needed.

If more subscribers do switch to Wi-Fi (SingTel promises speeds of between 4Mbps and 10 Mbps), it will ease the strain on the 4G network.

While I commend SingTel for making some effort, there is a sense that it is not fully committed to making the leap, so why should its subscribers?

Business hotels and nationwide hot-spot services apart, Wi-Fi use is rarely measured in gigabytes.

If it is offered free at a cafe, library or airport, users simply log on, do what they need and log off, without worrying about busting a data cap.

Even though SingTel's 2GB Wi-Fi cap is being offered as an unlimited service during the first 11 months of use, it still runs contrary to what users understand about Wi-Fi.

Many online cloud storage services, such as Dropbox and Google+, can be set to back up files over Wi-Fi, as it saves users money.

However, this will be an issue when using SingTel's restrictive Wi-Fi network, which, in any case, applies only to smartphone plans for now.

It will not cover the large and increasing number of network-connected tablets which also hog its 4G network.

If SingTel is truly committed to seeing users switch to Wi-Fi, it can start by making this network more attractive than its 4G one, and not just for a limited period of time.

This article was published on Aug 13 in Digital Life, The Straits Times.

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