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Why is broadband in Singapore so fast?

By Paul Mah - 28 Mar 2024

The high-speed broadband revolution

(This story is part one of three in the Singapore broadband story.)

The high-speed broadband revolution

As a nation that prides itself on innovation and business leadership, Singapore has long embarked on wiring up the Lion City for digital connectivity. Indeed, Singapore has for years now consistently ranked as having one of the fastest broadband Internet speeds around the world.

According to Statista, a data and business intelligence platform, Singapore tops the list of countries by average connection speed for fixed broadband connections as of January 2024. Users in Singapore can expect an average fixed broadband connection speed of 277.57 Mbps, ahead of countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, and the United States.

Despite the rare outage and occasional speed hiccups, this means that broadband Internet users in Singapore get significantly faster speeds than in most parts of the world. In fact, Speedtest by Ookla also shares the same outcome where Singapore leads all other countries for fixed broadband speeds. How exactly did we build one of the fastest consumer broadband networks in the world?

Blast to the past

Needless to say, the Internet has completely revolutionised both work and play. It is hard to imagine that it was invented just a few decades ago, initially for the military, and then as a way for the research community to exchange information.

Today, ubiquitous, reliable Internet access forms the foundation upon which a bewildering array of services around commerce, collaboration, entertainment, and cloud computing rely.

It is tempting to think that success came quickly. The reality is far more mundane and has its beginnings in the Singapore One national broadband network that was commercially launched in 1997.

Though take-up was slow at the beginning, it eventually replaced analogue dial-up modems that were introduced around the start of the 1990s, and which saw the first commercial Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as SingNet (1994), Pacific Internet (1995), and Cyberway (1996).

In March 1997, Singtel conducted commercial trials for an Internet service on ADSL, or asymmetric digital subscriber line. It works over the copper telephone network used for fixed-line phones. At a time of 33.6Kbps or 55.6Kbps analogue dial-up modems, it offered 512Kbps speeds – a staggering increase in speed.

In June of 1997, Singapore Cable Vision (SCV) – acquired by StarHub in 2002 – started offering Internet through the same coaxial cables it uses to deliver cable television service to homes. A top speed of 1Mbps was offered at the start, though this was shared with all cable modem users within the block or residential cluster. By the year 2000, speeds went up as high as 1.5Mbps and was one the fastest offerings available among service providers.

With the final mile delivered via either cable modem or ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line), there was no longer a need for clunky and slow dial-up modems. The road towards broadband Internet is now well underway in Singapore.

Subscribers could now enjoy surfing speeds more than 100 times faster than yesteryear’s dial-up connection. As prices came down, Singapore eventually became one of the countries with the highest broadband penetration rates – more than nine out of ten residential households (98%) have broadband access today.

Next Gen Nationwide Broadband

As periodic improvements in technology behind ADSL and cable modems offer performance improvements, speeds steadily improved. Moreover, Singapore's smaller geographical size and higher population density meant that delays and technical issues afflicting broadband rollouts in other countries never impacted us.

Yet the reality was that the coaxial network and the "plain old telephone system" (POTS) were not actually created with high-speed digital data transmission in mind. And with its eye on the future, Singapore wanted something faster. Much faster.

It turns out that the only solution was a then-nascent concept dubbed "fibre to the home", which entails the installation of fibre optic cables to every home, offering performance that is a thousand times faster. Crucially, because performance can be improved with newer, faster fibre optic equipment, fibre is also futureproof.

In 2006, the government publicly debated the idea of a Next Generation Nationwide Broadband Network (Next Gen NBN). This project aims to bring extremely fast broadband to Singaporeans by delivering optical fibre Internet connection to homes and businesses all over Singapore.

The then Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) announced then that it would set aside S$750 million to launch a new next-generation nationwide broadband network (NGNBN). OpenNet, a consortium made up of Singtel, SP Telecommunications, Singapore Press Holdings and Canada's Axia NetMedia, were selected to design, build, and operate the passive infrastructure of NGNBN.

By early September 2010, internet service providers in Singapore had rolled out the next-generational broadband service plans in the form of fibre broadband. The milestone of nationwide coverage for all residential and non-residential premises was achieved by 2013. In 2014, OpenNet was acquired by Netlink Trust, then a Singtel-owned business trust.

The next leap ahead

It has been more than a decade since Singapore became the first country to offer 1Gbps broadband plans on a nationwide basis. Nobody questions digitalisation and the importance of digital infrastructure in today's world.

To maintain its position as an economic powerhouse, Singapore must stay ahead of the curve and continue to invest in its digital infrastructure. With this in mind, a new Digital Connectivity Blueprint was unveiled in June 2023 to support the continued expansion of the information and communications sector in Singapore.

Drafted by both the Ministry of Communications and Information, and Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), the blueprint outlines strategies to enhance Singapore's digital infrastructure. This includes upgrading the Nationwide Broadband Network (NBN) for higher broadband speeds and doubling the number of landing stations for international submarine cables – the latter is required for internet access to websites or services outside Singapore.

The plans outlined in the blueprint will put Singapore in a better position to seize opportunities from emerging tech trends, regardless of what they may be.

Minister for Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo says Singapore will invest up to $100m to upgrade National Broadband Network to deliver 10Gbps speed. (Image source: The Straits Times)

As noted by Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo, digital connectivity infrastructure may require long lead times to build up capacity, while demand tends to grow in spurts. She said: “If we [insist] that all digital infrastructure investments be made just in time, there will be too many missed opportunities."

Following Singapore's 2024  budget announcement to upgrade Singapore’s nationwide broadband network to speeds of up to 10Gbps by 2030, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has unveiled plans to invest up to S$100 million to upgrade the Nationwide Broadband Network (NBN).

In the meantime, telecommunication providers are not waiting. Last year, ISPs such as Singtel have already started leveraging XGS-PON fibre technology to offer a 10Gbps symmetric Internet offering to home users, which allows Internet users to download and upload at 10Gbps speeds.

A vision of the future

(Image source: Unsplash)

As Singapore continues to push the boundaries of digital connectivity, it is clear that the nation is committed to building a future where high-speed, reliable broadband access is not just a luxury, but an essential part of everyday life for its people. 

One facade of it would undoubtedly be that of an ultra-connected Smart City, of which a glimpse could be seen in the eco town of Tengah. Dubbed Singapore’s first forest town, Tengah will have a future estimated population of 42,000 and is designed as a smart town.

HDB homes will incorporate various smart technologies, ranging from a centralised cooling system to a pneumatic waste conveyance system and smart-enabled homes installed with additional power and data points, offering residents the potential ability to monitor household energy more closely.

To ensure that Tengah will be equipped with the necessary infrastructure and technology to meet the demands of the future, Singtel is collaborating closely with government and industry partners on areas such as connectivity to smart city solutions to improve the quality of living for residents.

Through its continued investments in cutting-edge technology and infrastructure, Singapore is ultimately setting the stage for a future where digital connectivity plays a central role in enhancing the lives of its residents and driving economic growth.

(This story is part one of three; in partnership with Singtel)

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