Auto network switching may be a challenge, say experts

SINGAPORE - Consumers here may have a better chance of enjoying online videos with no drag under a plan to roll out an overarching network that would allow users of mobile devices to move smoothly between 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi.

Users will also be able to switch between different telco networks, which may be useful during outages such as mobile operator M1's service disruption last month.

But experts said such a network, called a heterogeneous network (HetNet), could be a challenge to implement.

On Monday last week, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said in Parliament that the Government was looking into setting up such a network to ensure scarce wireless spectrum is used optimally to meet rising mobile data demand. A masterplan, which includes HetNet, will be released later this month for public consultation.

The form a HetNet here could take is not clear - more details are expected later - but experts said existing infrastructure could be used, such as for diverting data traffic on telcos' mobile networks to Wi-Fi hot spots.

When a mobile network is down, having a robust Wi-Fi network for mobile users to switch to can be helpful, said Ms Serene Chan, a senior industry analyst for infocommunications technology practice at research firm Frost & Sullivan Asia Pacific. "A seamless log-in (to a Wi-Fi network) would be key to an uninterrupted service for Wi-Fi," she added.

One way to offload mobile traffic to Wi-Fi could be through upgrades of Wireless@SG, a free nationwide Wi-Fi network, slated to be in place next month.

The upgrade includes a new system that automatically logs in users to the network by detecting a 3G or 4G SIM card.

SingTel said on Wednesday last week that operators need to find "a balance between cost effectiveness and customer convenience" in deciding whether to invest in new Wi-Fi networks or expand existing 4G networks.

While SingTel will monitor HetNet developments, its spokesman said its focus has been to enhance the speed and capacity of its 4G network, as this is "the most efficient way to deliver mobile broadband services to customers".

StarHub said that with the rising demand for data, it has been studying ways to offload mobile data and address the challenges involved, including deployment and operating costs, and ensuring good customer experience.

But some analysts questioned whether operators will be keen to adopt another potential aspect of a HetNet - national roaming between different telcos' networks - as it might not make a lot of business sense.

Many operators globally have been reluctant to have national roaming arrangements as they lose competitive advantage on their investments if their rivals' clients can connect to them, said Mr Michael Stephens from the United States-based telecoms equipment-maker Coriant-Tellabs.

Mr Stephens, the firm's vice-president of global services (Asia Pacific), said: "If there is no commercial benefit to operators, the only thing that will facilitate national roaming is when policymakers get involved and force the situation. The (Infocomm Development Authority) could stipulate circumstances when national roaming is invoked, such as in times of major outages or national disasters."

In the Netherlands, the regulator has mandated the activation of roaming for voice and text messaging services among telcos in the event of an outage in which more than 500,000 users are affected and if a network recovery would take more than three days.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.