Many, if not most, of us are gobbling down tremendous volumes of mobile data, and our appetite is insatiable. If you’re still on 3G, you will be thirsting for 4G. If you’re not, you probably haven’t experienced 4G. Or, you’re living somewhere else, outside Singapore, where your telco does actually give you decent 3G experience. What is the state of 4G here in Singapore?
The short story is that all the three telcos in Singapore offer 4G coverage, and the plans are largely the same between all of them, just as the case has been with 3G.
But of course, you suspect there’s more to it, and it’s really not all equal. You’re right. So here’s the long story on it. Now, if you’re for some reason stuck with your current telco, or you need to re-contract with your current telco, then none of these really matters. If you’re free to jump ship, you’ll want to know which is the best telco to go with for your 4G.
Before we go on, let’s straighten out the 4G nomenclature. 4G is not a specific communication standard. The phones we’re talking about being 4G actually use the first-release Long Term Evolution, or LTE, cellular wireless standard. Ironically, this LTE did not tecnically qualify to be called 4G, but everyone calls it 4G, and even ITU (International Telecommunication Union) has decided to accept that the first-release LTE can be called 4G. For the purpose of this post, I’ll be sane and just say 4G.
When it comes to the quality of 3G service, we could say that all our three telcos are about the same. (Yeah, you probably have one favourite to love or hate, but I’d say they don’t differ much from each other.) The case with 4G is different:
- M1 is the first to roll out 4G service, and the first to have full 4G coverage throughout Singapore. Their 4G service operates on both 1800 MHz (within mainland Singapore) and 2600 MHz bands (in coastal areas).
- SingTel announced 95% street level 4G coverage in April this year, using both 1800 MHz and 2600 MHz bands.
- StarHub trails behind with 4G service only in the 1800 MHz band, and coverage in limited zones such as the central part of Singapore, Changi Airport, and Singapore Expo. Their target for more-or-less complete street level coverage is end 2013, and then thereafter to work on indoor coverage.
It is pretty clear that StarHub has plenty to catch up on. Anecdotal evidence from Internet users on community forums show that StarHub’s 4G service is spotty and unreliable, even in areas that are supposed to have 4G coverage. I would not recommend going with StarHub for 4G service if you had the choice.
So, the remaining competition is between M1 and SingTel. M1 appears to have wider coverage. But there’s a catch with M1’s 4G provisioning. The 1800 MHz band, which M1 uses in most parts of Singapore mainland, is also used for 2G/3G services, which means 4G users are competing in the same frequency spectrum as 2G/3G users. The 2600 MHz band, on the other hand, is dedicated to 4G service, but it is available only in costal areas. (Incidentally, the iPhone 5’s LTE works only in the 1800 MHz band.)
On the other hand, SingTel uses 1800/2600 MHz bands throughout Singapore. 4G phones that support both 1800 MHz and 2600 MHz bands can select the best frequency band and automatically switch between them. (iPhone 5’s LTE does not support 2600 MHz band.)
Some people will want to delve into the issue of 1800 MHz vs 2600 MHz bands, in terms of the physics of it. For example, that 1800 MHz has better propagation distance, better material penetration properties, etc. On the other hand, 2600 MHz carries more bandwidth, and is more suited for crowded urban areas.
Certainly there are pros and cons between 1800 MHz and 2600 MHz bands. More importantly, it cannot hurt to have both to choose from. Therefore, in principle, wherever there is 4G coverage, SingTel’s 4G service should be better.
What about real world tests? Thanks to the hardworking folks at HWZ, we can refer to their Mid-Year Review of 4G LTE Networks in Singapore. SingTel edges out M1 in their review, scoring the lead in 17 test items versus 14 for M1. Another HWZ review Mid-Year Review of Telco’s 4G LTE Networks – Orchard Road and Universities Edition, SingTel still edged out M1 (lead 32 versus 28 test items). You should, of course, read the HWZ reviews to find out more details; I’m just very simplistically extracting out a “score” to select a winner.
I believe it’s still a close fight between M1 and SingTel. Personally, I feel SingTel has deeper pockets to roll out better 4G service. They just announced 150 Mbps 4G service this month, which shows they can do better so long as they are willing to spend.
Nevertheless, regardless of whether you go with M1 or SingTel, you should be pretty satisfied with your 4G. Unless you’re an iPhone user, then you might prefer to go with SingTel for better 1800 MHz band coverage.
Today, 4G is able to deliver reasonably good mobile broadband experience. It’s not that we truly need the bandwidth that 4G boasts of, but rather, our 3G is really in a very sorry state. Those of us who have travelled and used 3G in other countries will be able to attest to the difference. While I was in Hong Kong, for example, my 3G was so blazingly fast I thought I had somehow connected to my hotel’s Wi-Fi hotspot.
Ironically, many re-contracting customers are going to find themselves caught in a quandary. On their old contract, they probably have 12GB of mobile data allowance a month. After re-contracting, that free bundle would be reduced to as little as 2GB a month. Now when you have 4G, and you can consume data much more quickly, you find your free bundle capped at a much lower allowance.
So now, you have a choice:
- Stay on current plan, have 12GB of mobile data allowance, which you can hardly use because 3G doesn’t work.
- Re-contract to 4G, get very fast data, but just 2GB of data allowance (or more if you pay for higher tier plans).
I’d choose (2). Less data allowance, but at least you get an enjoyable experience. Eventually, you would be driven to a new contract anyway, and get stuck with whatever measly mobile allowance the telcos bundle on your plan.