Singapore pushes mobile Internet initiative

Singapore's three mobile operators -- Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. (SingTel), StarHub Pte. Ltd. and Mobile One Asia Pte. Ltd. (M1) -- will work together to create a common development platform to encourage application developers to build mobile data services.

The initiative, which will help to present Singapore as an Asian showcase for advanced mobile technologies, will have the close support of the country's telecommunication regulator, Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), the parties said in a joint briefing on Tuesday.

"The government will probably take more risk going forward," said Yong Ying-I, chief executive officer of IDA. "The way forward (for mobile services) is not completely clear, so some of the initiatives we will start may not succeed."

The initiatives have been formulated by a group of international experts invited by IDA to take part in a roundtable discussion here to chart the future of mobile data services in Singapore. The three mobile operators will participate in the scheme in the belief that a boost in mobile data services will benefit them all, company executives said.

No technical details of the platform were released. Representatives from the government and the operators said they are keen to attract developers of value-added services, which in turn will lead to new revenue streams for operators -- which so far only Japanese company NTT DoCoMo Inc. has achieved, with its popular I-mode service.

The affluent city-state of Singapore has 70 percent mobile phone penetration, but efforts to introduce WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) -based data services last year proved to be a failure.

Providing a common platform to develop services will be crucial to growth, as I-mode has proved, according to Lim Swee Say, Singapore's minister of state for communications and information technology.

"Asia-Pacific has the largest mobile user base and Japan's I-mode is clearly ahead of the rest of the world in mobile data services," he said at a press briefing following the roundtable discussion. "But elsewhere, the business models are not yet in place to make sure the operators can be profitable in the long term."

Lim said that a common platform will encourage developers to create services that users will quickly adopt, creating new revenue streams for operators.

The profitable I-mode model -- based on simple mass-market services -- can translate well to Singapore, according to Koki Suda, director of the international business group at Matsushita Communication Industrial Co. Ltd.

"Right now, we are under very heavy pressure to roll out 3G (third-generation) services in Japan, but when we can, Singapore will be our next market as it is ideal for the technology implementation," he said.

Providing a clear technical standard for developers to aim at is crucial, according to Greg Papadopoulos, chief technology officer at Sun Microsystems Inc.

"DoCoMo provided a standard at the lowest common denominator (for I-mode), so that (developer) companies knew that they only had to comply with those specs," he said. "The business model pulled them along in the early days, now they have Java on the handsets providing compelling applications and services."

Neil Montefiore, chief executive officer of M1, said that collaboration will be beneficial to Singapore mobile users, and therefore to the operators.

"If we collaborate on an enabling platform, we believe that Singapore can be a showcase for next-generation services," he said. "Not those that are technically possible, but more importantly those that are personally relevant."

The I-mode experience is one that other operators -- and countries -- can learn from, according to Hiroaki Takeichi, president of the network systems group at Fujitsu Ltd.

"I-mode is a positive lesson in how to build a flexible framework to attract content and services developers," he said.

Singapore's strong telecommunication infrastructure and high mobile penetration make it an ideal place to begin this mobile data initiative, but the lessons learned will be shared with other ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries under the e-ASEAN initiative, Lim said.

That development will happen quickly, since Asia is well-positioned to be at the center of mobile Internet developments, according to Jack McCue, senior advisor at UBS Warburg LLC.

"Anyone who believes the gloom and doom about the Internet is terribly wrong," he said. "All the values of the Internet -- its freedom, its decentralization, its non-hierarchical nature -- extend to the wireless Internet. Mobile wireless technology gives arms, legs and eyes to the Internet. "Asia has different demographics than Europe or the U.S., making the economics of wireless Internet different in the region. In Asia, mobile phone users will continue to outnumber PC-based Internet users by eight to one, according to Pekka Sivonen, chairman of Finnish services developer Digia Oy.

Government support for wireless technologies -- in a region which is keen to leapfrog expensive fixed-line infrastructure investments -- has put the Asia-Pacific region ahead in wireless, according to Richard Siber, managing director of the wireless communications practice at Accenture Ltd.

"The U.S. is four years behind Asia in terms of wireless adoption and two years behind Europe," he said. "Asia now needs to create a common platform to enable developers to build services and applications without large barriers. But developers seek volume markets, so Asia's leading (technology) cities must collaborate across borders and make the applications spread across the region."