While in Singapore earlier this year, I had the chance to meet with executives of the Infocomm Development Authority, the government agency responsible for that city-state’s information and communications technology. Singapore was named ICF’s very first Intelligent Community of the Year in 1999. So, fifteen years later, what kind of second act has it come up with?
Singapore, if you’re not familiar with it, is an urban nation located on an island at the southern tip of the Malay Penninsula. Since gaining its independence from Malaysia in 1965, it has risen into the top ranks of industrialized nations, with the third-highest per-capita income in the world. That feat is made all the more remarkable by the fact that Singapore’s only natural resources are the ones between its people’s ears. It is one of the top five busiest ports in the world, the fourth biggest financial center, and a production hub that generates 26% of GDP from manufacturing.
Singapore became our first Intelligent Community because of its early success in building a ubiquitous broadband network called Singapore One. They have not been letting the grass grow under their feet since then. Starting in 2010, they set out to become a “Smart Nation” by creating a new national broadband network (NBN) operating at much higher speed and serving as an engine for education, innovation and economic growth.
Their NBN has much in common with Australia’s national project. Both aim for “open access,” meaning a network that stimulates competition rather than entrenches monopoly. The government is the “NetCo,” responsible for building and operating the underlying fiber infrastructure. It licenses “OpCos” or operating companies to run the active transmission systems on the NetCo asset. The nine current OpCos include incumbents like SingTel as well as newer entrants like BlueTel, Tata and StarHub. They sell bandwidth to retail service providers (RSPs), of which there are currently 27, and it is the RSPs that actually deliver services to customers.
By separating the various levels of the network, Singapore’s NBN encourages aggressive competition, which boosts performance, lowers costs and generates new kinds of services. Since January 2012, the NBN has grown subscribers by 45% to 550,000. Singapore’s average download speed leaped 690% to 67 Mbps from the start of NBN services to mid-2013, and average upload speed is right behind it at 53 Mbps. Prices, meanwhile, tend to fall, particularly for packages with speeds of over 200 Mbps.
Best of all, the RSPs are beginning to figure out ways to make money with all that bandwidth. You can sign up for a “Fibre Plan for Gamers” if you need flaming-fast response times to battle intergalactic evil. A student package includes access to a vast database of resources, while a monitoring and surveillance service lets you keep track of your property 24x7. There is even a “Time-Critical Financial Data Services Delivery” that lets individuals and small businesses play on the same field as the flash traders.
At first glance, this may seem just another top-down, government-knows-best kind of project, which so often fails to deliver what it promises. But look closer, and you see Singapore doing what it has done well for five decades: building great infrastructure and creating clear policy rules, so that investors and innovators can get to work. Call it urban and regional planning at its best, and a prime example of the Revolutionary Community at work.
Nobody in the world knows yet what to do with speeds of 100, 200 or 1,000 Mbps at the residential and small business level. To find out, you have to do what Singapore is doing – and a lot of us will be learning from the world’s first Intelligent Community for years to come.