Keeping the edge
Mock Pak Lum, chief technology officer at Singaporean quad-play operator StarHub is fairly new to the business. Installed in the role for ten months now, Mock’s background is in the broadcast industry— and much of his time since he joined has been spent immersed in the many technologies mobile network operators have in their portfolios. Along with the top-level strategic decisions, Mock is also tasked with looking at the IT side of the business— with a view to combining the strengths of both pieces into a more integrated whole.
In terms of mobile, Mock says he is predominantly occupied with next generation technologies, the investments that need to be made and that perennial CTO bugbear—how to expand capacity. Starhub’s LTE deployment has just begun, with services expected to be launched later this year, and is very much at the forefront of his mind.
“I feel for sure we will be able to improve our efficiency. Looking at the technology itself from a cost- benefits perspective from 2G to 3G, we are now seeing significant savings with LTE as well as capacity growth,” he says. Starhub’s 2G spend totalled several hundred million dollars, while 3G investment came in at almost half that. For LTE, investment has been halved again, so in terms of efficiency in operation of the network and amount of available capacity it’s a quantum leap, Mock says.
Singapore, like any other country, has limited spectrum resources—in this case split between three operators. “The government intends to reallocate some spectrum next year,” Mock says. “So for us it’s a question of how we strategise our spectrum in the 1800MHz, 2100MHz and 2600MHz bands—and how we bid in the auction next year, which will affect our business in the next five to ten years,” he says.
Mock does believe that there is sufficient spectrum in the country to allow the three operators to serve all of Singapore, however; so long as a range of strategies, including offload are employed, something he comes to later in the conversation. “We have untapped spectrum in the 2600MHz band. But after looking at what is happening around the world we decided to deploy the network in the 1800MHz band. This band is currently used for 2G and we re-farmed 10MHz out of our 125MHz, which will be deployed for LTE.
“But 2G will be around for a long time to come. We have many 3G users who still use 2G to save the batteries on their devices. We also have a lot of visitors coming from China and India who are all using 2G so we cannot cut away 2G altogether,” he explains.
On the fixed line side, meanwhile, he faces the question of how to best use its next generation fibre network to bring services to the home, how to reach customers and how to supplement the fibre infrastructure, by migrating customers on to the IPTV network through enhanced TV service offerings. Mock is pleased with the migration to DWDM and packet transmission which has moved Starhub from SDH to packetised transmission in the fixed network, increasing value and capacity.
In terms of APIs, Mock says the networks owned by Starhub are quite advanced, in that the operator can triangulate a user’s location to within one metre. The firm is looking at how to use rich data services across multiple platforms on fixed and mobile to mine contextual, intelligent information. But while rich data is generating plenty of traffic, it offers somewhat lacklustre revenues, which gives Mock pause for thought.
“How do we solve the data revenue issue? Definitely one of the components we need to have is tiered pricing. Today we offer a 12GB package which is essentially unlimited, as most users only use 1GB or 2GB/month. But we also offer a tiered plan with multiple SIMs, which will eventually help us move customers away from the ‘unlimited’ package,“ he says.
The high volume of consumers on unlimited data deals is one of Mock’s biggest headaches as CTO. “Currently about 80 per cent of smartphone users are postpaid customers and the amount of signalling they generate is tremendous—especially from the iPhone. So it’s not only about the bandwidth they consume,” he says. “Thankfully we have worked with Huawei on some smart signalling technologies implemented last year. Although it’s an issue that seriously affects other operators in Singapore.” The authorities are also adding to the challenges facing the market’s telcos. The Singaporean government is in the process of commissioning a set-top box that will allow residential customers to take services from different telecoms operators at the same time via the country’s next-generation national broadband network.
Mock is not clear on what effect this will have on Starhub, but he believes that the regulator has become more aggressive in last few years because of the wider political environment. “The ruling party in Singapore has lost points in votes, so now the regulator is bending over backwards to be more pro-consumer, giving us tough requirements in terms of indoor and outdoor 3G coverage,” he says.
“In fact, the regulators are the ones that keep staff awake at night. They can destroy market value faster than we could ever mismanage the company. But our investors understand this, and at least we are not facing the regulatory environment in India, for example. Overall, the regulators give us a tough time but, in a global context we don’t have it too bad. There is sufficient market competition with three operators to force us all to provide better coverage.”
Coverage and capacity are two elements that Starhub is addressing through network offload—although the development of this strategy is still in its nascent stages. ”We are seeing a very high proportion of smartphones in our user base and these customers use more data, so whatever spectrum we have will not be sufficient down the line, which means offload is critical,” Mock says.
“We’ve been looking at technologies using wifi and IPSIM and looking at different technologies that allow us to seamlessly connect a cellphone to the wifi network through IPSIM. We’re also working on small cell technologies with vendors and working with companies like FON to try and convert some personal access points into wifi offload channels. This is going to be a big part of our strategy down the line to provide more capacity,” he says.
Starhub’s preference is to use its own wifi access points, mainly because in order to use IPSIM effectively, some of these access points will have billing capabilities all the way back to the HLR. Some form of control will need to be in place as Mock is reluctant to leave this in the hands of a third party.
Showing an affinity for the FON model, he says: “What strikes me when you go into a building is the sheer number of access points in there that are owned by the office or the residents. If we could go in there and tap part of the access from these points so part of it remains for the owner but the rest can be shared among people, this could be a strategy moving forward for many operators round the world.” On the subject of deeper partnerships between operators and infrastructure suppliers, Mock is less enthusiastic. His boss, Starhub CEO Neil Montefiore, is an outspoken opponent of managed services and Mock sings from the same hymn sheet. “Singapore is a small market and we have developed a very strong expertise in many elements of the network, but we are not in any position to outsource given the competitive nature of the market,” he says. “However, we may take an opportunity to engage in network sharing with other operators, although we would want to remain in control of the network and our customers. Outsourcing is about short-term cost savings, but the savings aren’t significant enough for us to lose the edge,” he adds.
In terms of equipment suppliers, Mock likes to get his hands dirty and understand the feature sets from each vendor as part of the tender process. Starhub’s 2G network is provided by NSN, the 3G network is from Huawei, and the LTE network will be NSN, although the carrier is also looking at ZTE as part of its LTE procurement process.
“Through the LTE vendor selection process we awarded the deal to NSN because we decided their technology was very good. They have a slight edge in terms of software, and even with the amounts ZTE and Huawei will invest in R&D down the road—and while there will be a convergence in quality—I think NSN will have an edge for some time to come,” he says. It’s a telling observation, especially as he freely acknowledges that the Chinese vendors are “a bit more forthcoming with financing, while companies like NSN are less willing to do that.” But the legacy relationship with NSN has proven important in this case. “It was easier for us to work with them to partition and re-farm as well as move 2G and LTE onto the same 1800MHz band.”
On this topic Mock continues: “We have now re-farmed our spectrum and are now looking at the core. For LTE we will be rolling out base stations in the next few months and should be able to launch services later this year. Around the world 1800MHz is what more operators will adopt so it makes sense for roaming purposes and also in terms of penetration capabilities it will be better than 2100MHz or 2600MHz. As we get fewer 2G users we will put more resources onto the LTE 1800MHz band but moving forward we also thought about LTE Advanced and what we should be doing in the next space with 1800MHz and 2600MHz.” Clearly there has been no easing into this role.