Assessing Singapore’s mobile network experience on the eve of 5G

Singapore’s mobile market will soon witness the arrival of 5G, as both Singtel and JVCO (the consortium formed by StarHub and M1) have completed the necessary regulatory processes and the regulator — the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) — has awarded the first set of spectrum licenses that are necessary to deploy the next generation of mobile technology.

As the IMDA is expecting full 5G deployment to take place by 2025, there will be a period in which 5G users will spend the majority of their time connected to 4G. In addition, it will take time for users to switch to the latest technology and buy the new 5G smartphone models needed to connect to a 5G network.

This means that the state of the mobile network experience prior to the launch of 5G has an important and enduring influence long after 5G networks are up and running.

With this in mind, Opensignal has compared the mobile network experience of its Singaporean users with that in five other major cities in the Asia Pacific region — Hong Kong, Seoul, Sydney, Taipei and Tokyo — over the 90 days prior to the launch of 5G in their respective countries or territories. We analyzed this across four of our metrics — Video Experience, Download Speed Experience, Upload Speed Experience and 4G Availability. 

Singapore placed joint second for Video Experience, came third for Download Speed Experience, ranked second for Upload Speed Experience and placed joint third for 4G Availability. 

When it comes to streaming video over a mobile connection, our users had the best experience in Tokyo, which scored 77.3 points out of a possible 100. Taipei and Singapore were statistically tied for second place and Singapore’s score of 75.8 was 1.4 points behind that of Tokyo. 

Singapore’s mobile Video Experience compares favorably with other cities on the eve of 5G, which indicates that the city-state’s operators have a solid foundation on which to add an improved 5G experience for this metric. With Singaporean operators hoping to move quickly towards a standalone access 5G experience to enable users to enjoy lower latencies, this should speed the time it takes for video to start playing, which as one of the factors determining the overall mobile Video Experience of users should improve Singapore’s overall Video Experience score.

All of the top three scoring cities placed in the Excellent category, while our users in the other three cities had a Very Good Video Experience instead. An Excellent rating means that there was a very consistent experience across all users, video streaming providers and resolutions tested, with fast loading times and almost non-existent stalling. 

Turning to average download speeds, on the eve of their respective country or territory’s 5G launch, Seoul took the top spot with a score of 56 Mbps, followed by Tokyo with 49.9 Mbps and Singapore with 44.5 Mbps. Singapore’s score was 11.5 Mbps (20.6%) lower than that of Seoul’s. However, it was also 3.7 Mbps faster than Sydney. Our users observed average speeds below 40 Mbps in only two cities — Taipei (33.8 Mbps) and Hong Kong (21.8 Mbps).

In South Korea and Australia, we have seen average 5G speeds very significantly higher than 4G speeds. In both countries, operators have benefitted from large amounts of new spectrum being used for 5G services which increase capacity. In Singapore, there is less new 5G spectrum available for initial 5G services because of the widespread existing use of the C-band for satellite TV services in the region. This more limited 5G mid-band spectrum capacity means that Singapore’s operators must consider how to achieve higher speeds and remain competitive with other 5G cities. However, Singapore’s operators also have the use of large quantities of mmWave spectrum  which is extremely high capacity but has limited reach. Using exclusively mmWave 5G spectrum Verizon users enjoy extremely fast average download speeds. The compact geography of Singapore means it is ideally suited to a wide mmWave 5G deployment which will boost Singaporeans’ overall download speeds. 

If Singapore wishes to quickly move up the rankings in terms of average download speeds, then its operators will need to rapidly deploy 5G coverage while giving their customers compelling reasons to upgrade their smartphones. 

According to data from the IMDA 18% of all mobile subscriptions in Singapore in January 2020 were for 3G, so initiatives designed at converting 3G users into 4G and/or 5G users could help Singapore improve its Download Speed Experience. The  IMDA has an initiative to help users make the most of their devices which should help drive 5G adoption.

Singapore performed better in terms of our users’ Upload Speed Experience on the eve of 5G, as it came second with a score of 13.9 Mbps, 3.4 Mbps (19.5%) slower than Seoul, which came first with a score of 17.3 Mbps. Taipei placed third with a score of 10.8 Mbps, while our users in Tokyo, Sydney and Hong Kong all observed average upload speeds below 10 Mbps. This foundation indicates that Singapore’s operators are well-placed for the arrival of 5G, as far as upload speeds are concerned.

Given the increasing popularity of social media usage, average upload speeds are becoming increasingly important. If Singapore wishes to excel in this area during the 5G era — and knock Seoul off the top spot — then spectrum policies and networks will need to be designed to allow more flexibility in the amount of capacity and bandwidth that is allocated between the downlink and the uplink. As the higher capacity, high frequency, 5G spectrum normally uses the time division approach, it is easier for operators to adjust capacity between the upload and download experience than on the paired frequency division spectrum used for most 4G services. 

Seoul and Tokyo statistically tied for the highest score for 4G Availability — the proportion of time that our 4G users are connected to 4G services — with scores of 98.5% and 98.4%, respectively. Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore all had scores around the 95% mark, while Sydney came last with a score of 92.9%. 

This measure of the mobile experience will be less important to Singapore’s first 5G users than their counterparts in the other cities we’ve covered in this insight, as both Singtel and JVCo (the consortium formed by StarHub and M1) will deploy 5G standalone access technology. This is different from non-standalone 5G because it does not require a 4G signal for a 5G smartphone to connect to 5G. In contrast, the other cities launched with 5G in non-standalone mode. 

However, given that in the absence of 5G coverage, a 5G smartphone will fall back to 4G, the extent to which Singapore’s mid-table 4G Availability will impact its competitiveness in terms of mobile connectivity will hinge on just how quickly its operators roll out 5G and how quickly users buy new 5G smartphones. 

Clearly, Singapore has some catching up to do in some aspects of mobile network experience and this is exacerbated by its status as a relatively late-comer to 5G. But the country has the potential to leap-frog rival 5G cities by jumping straight to a newer version of the 5G standard than that used in most existing 5G services around the world.

Both South Korea and Australia launched in the second quarter of 2019, while Japan saw its first 5G launch in late March this year. Fortunately, Singapore’s city-state status means that its operators can focus on delivering the best possible urban experience and its small size makes it an almost ideal location for a 5G mmWave deployment. However, its humid climate likely discourages long outdoor sessions of smart device use, which matters given mmWave’s poor indoor penetration.