Singapore

Author: | Published: 2 Feb 2000
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By joyce A Tan & Partners, Singapore

Available technology makes it harder to draw the lines between the systems and networks for the delivery of voice, sounds, images and data and Singapore is not trying to. Instead, the convergence phenomenon and the consequent birth of the information communications technology (ICT) industry are being openly embraced.

Telecommunications

The importance of the telecommunication infrastructure alongside the development of the Singapore economy has spurred the strive to ensure that quality telecommunication services at competitive prices are made available on the island. Since the corporatization of the incumbent, Singapore Telecommunications (SingTel), in 1992, the then regulatory body, Telecommunication Authority of Singapore (TAS), had been busy playing the role of a proxy competitor to SingTel ahead of real competition coming in. For example, SingTel's exclusive licence was interpreted narrowly and its rates benchmarked against those in other countries.

When TAS decided in 1996 to remove SingTel's exclusive rights seven years ahead of its expiry, it did not have particular difficulty justifying the expenditure of S$1.5 billion in compensation to SingTel to introduce competition in basic telecommunication services from the year 2000 with the entry of StarHub as the new operator in this field. By then, liberalization had already manifested such as with the award of three new public radio paging licences and one additional mobile services licence to the high profile MobileOne (M1). Since the entry of M1 into the mobile telecommunication market, intense competition with SingTel has seen creative and competitive products being offered by both operators in an almost tit-for-tat fashion, never hitherto witnessed in the local telecommunication market.

The regulator has tasked itself not only with the responsibility of addressing the needs of the telecommunication industry but also of looking after the interests of consumers in a market with a mere population of less than 4 million.

Information Technology

The IT market in Singapore has been no less dynamic. It was recognized very early on that with her scarce space and natural resources, Singapore's competitive edge for the future lay in being a player in the information age and the global village. Way back in 1990, a long-term plan, The Next Lap, was unveiled for the strategic use of information technology to efficiently deliver services, increase competitiveness and improve the quality of life. In this connection, the then National Computer Board (NCB) outlined in 1992 a national information technology plan known as IT 2000 to provide the framework for guiding Singapore into the 21st century so that IT would be pervasive at work, at home and at play.

There are currently three internet access service providers (IASPs) and a fourth is scheduled to come on-stream soon, with liberalization also making its mark here. In addition, competition is being encouraged in the area of internet exchange service providers (IAXPs) where SingTel has established the Singapore Telecom Internet Exchange (STIX), which is supported by SingTel's high-speed bandwidth to the internet backbones in Europe and US. With more than 30 regional IASPs in 20 countries connected to the internet through STIX, it is a significant internet exchange in the Asia-Pacific region. Recently, the entry of UUnet was announced, sparking yet further competition for SingTel from the first wholly foreign-owned entity to offer internet connectivity in Singapore.

As with the mobile telecommunication market, cut-throat competition in the internet access market has also resulted in attractive offerings being made by the IASPs, the latest development in early December 1999 being the announcement of a "surf-for-free" package offered by StarHub through its subsidiary IASP, where users are provided free internet access.

Convergence

In 1983, long before the internet hit the streets, the Singapore government began investing in a fully digital network which took nearly 11 years and more than S$500 million to achieve. While this facilitated high quality basic telephone services, it also proved to be particularly useful when the time came for the introduction of multi-media and multi-megabyte services.

Then in 1992, as part of the IT 2000 programme, the establishment of a national information infrastructure (NII) was embarked upon at a cost S$150 million to handle a wide-ranging stream of multimedia traffic, including voice, data, image, text and video. This was intended as the core nation-wide broadband network that would link to overseas networks for broadband access to the rest of the world and form the backbone for local access networks to connect to, for delivering broadband multimedia services to end-users in Singapore.

The vision of the NII is to make Singapore ONE (ie One Network for Everyone), freely accessible island-wide. The broadband technology is essential for the delivery of data-rich applications such as video-on-demand conferencing, interactive home-shopping and games, news and entertainment-on-demand, telephony and telecommuting. Currently, there are about 170 applications on Singapore ONE including services related to leisure, shopping, banking, education , government and business, which is probably the epitome of convergence between telecommunications and the internet and the development of the ICT industry in Singapore today.

Singapore ONE also brings another aspect of convergence to the forefront — electronic commerce, which is being encouraged under the 1998 Electronic Commerce Plan, under which the target is to have S$4 billion worth of transactions electronically concluded through Singapore and 50% of businesses here use some form of electronic commerce by 2003. To facilitate this, not only is it necessary to attend to the physical and technical infrastructure (including establishing a digital trust system, online payment mechanisms and electronic directory services) but also the legal framework.

Legislation

TAS has recently been replaced by a new statutory board named Info-Communications Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) as the ultimate authority charged with the power to grant licences for the provision of all telecommunication services, including internet access services, with the passing of the Telecommunications Act (Telecom Act) into law on December 1 1999 thereby repealing the previous TAS Act.

IDA was formed pursuant to the IDA Act which also came into effect on December 1 1999 and takes over from TAS as well as NCB. Apart from the duties previously vested in TAS, IDA is responsible for the growth of the ICT industry in Singapore to facilitate the "rapid advent ... of connectedness ... by formulating ... policy and regulations ... with an integrated perspective to promotion, development and regulation across the technologies and businesses of both IT and telecommunication", to quote the CEO of IDA.

While the regulation of telecommunication service provision is now vested IDA, the regulation of broadcasting activities is undertaken by the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) pursuant to the SBA Act. Essentially, SBA is concerned with ensuring that contents broadcast through any broadcast services such as television, radio and computer online services are not against public interest or order, national harmony or good taste or decency.

In 1996 SBA introduced the Class Licence Scheme for the automatic licensing of certain services so that providers of such services (including value-added networks, internet content providers and IASPs) would have to comply with stipulated conditions or risk losing the licences that they are deemed to have for purposes of providing the services. Such conditions relate to avoiding acting against public interest or order, national harmony or good taste or decency and ensuring compliance with the Internet Code of Practice, which identifies what constitute offensive materials.

In contrast to the regulatory framework established under the the Telecom Act and the SBA Act, the Electronic Transactions Act (ET Act) passed in 1998 sets out the non-mandatory facilitative framework for electronic transactions by providing certainty and predictability on the implications of electronic communications, while allowing parties to contract out of its provisions if they so wish. It further addresses the issues of secure electronic signatures and the certification of digital signatures by licensed certification authorities.

To provide the basic support for a legally safe computing environment, the Computer Misuse Act criminalizes unauthorized access and use of computer systems and networks, such as hacking and the unauthorized disclosure of protected passwords for controlled access to such systems and networks.

One topical legislative issue relates to the liability of IASPs for materials transmitted through their networks. Although the ET Act already excludes the liability of network service providers who merely provide access for third party materials, recent amendments to the Copyright Act in August 1999 were further passed amid much controversy on this issue. According to these amendments, a network service provider who is served with a statutory declaration by a party purporting to be the copyright owner of materials made available on its network through an act which constitutes an infringement of such copyright and who fails to either remove the infringing materials from or deny access to the said materials on the network would lose its protection from liability for copyright infringement which it would otherwise have.

Also topical for Singapore is the protection of privacy in respect of which a Privacy Code is currently being looked into as a measure of industry self-regulation to safeguard consumer data.

Looking Ahead

Even as IT 2000 is being implemented, preparations are already underway for ICT 21 Masterplan on the formulation of Singapore as a premier ICT gateway to the region, a collaborative effort between the government and the entire ICT community in Singapore which is expected to be released in the first quarter of 2000.

Challenges that lie ahead include optimizing an efficient infrastructure in a inherently limited marketplace, avoiding unnecessary duplication of resources, keeping competition alive to encourage the delivery of high quality services and making it worthwhile for operators and consumers while the threat of potential saturation looms over. Addressing interconnection issues and strategic alliances will no doubt keep the regulators and the industry very busy in the coming times.

Contact Details:

Joyce A Tan & Partners

8 Temasek Boulevard

#15-04 Suntec Tower Three

Singapore

Tel: +65 333 6550

Fax: +65 333 6303