Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Singapore : Telco authority IDA to mandate improved 3G mobile coverage standards, cap mobile roaming charges

IDA, the overall Singapore telco authority, has recently come up with a couple of mandates to try to resolve two of the most pressing issues faced by mobile phone users in Singapore. ChannelNewsAsia had reported that "to improve 3G mobile coverage in public areas, the Infocomm Development Authority has set an April deadline for telcos to improve their service standards. Telcos must ensure that there is more than 99 percent 3G coverage in outdoor areas, roads and MRT tunnels, up from the current 95 percent. Within buildings, especially offices, there must be more than 85 percent coverage. Operators have until April next year to improve on their 3G coverage for buildings".

The second measure had more to do roping in the totally exorbitant roaming data charges that have made the news recently, like the recent case of the man who received a SingTel bill of over $300K for overseas roaming. On this, ChannelNewsAsia reported that "telcos will roll out a service for consumers to suspend data roaming services when they incur S$100 in data roaming charges every month. Telcos will face a stiffer fine of up to S$50,000 if they fail to meet any of these service standards, up from the current penalty of S$5,000."

While this is certainly a laudable attempt to improve the service levels of the telcos, in my opinion more could be done. For example, take the 85% 3G coverage requirement for buildings. I wonder why there is such a relatively lax requirement of 85%, as compared to the requirement of over 99% for outdoor areas?

I don't know about you, but I certainly do not stand around in outdoor areas most of the time trying to catch a signal to surf around. In contrast, the times when I do need 3G coverage more often would be indoors - checking the calendar between meetings, sitting down at a cafe waiting for somebody, attending a day-long conference or seminar, things like that.

From a user experience point of view, the relative priority of building and outdoor coverage could probably be flipped. We should ask for something like over 99% coverage in buildings, and over 95% for outdoors, roads and MRT tunnels. This should go a long way towards alleviating user frustration when trying to surf the web or even make simple phone calls inside buildings, auditoriums, meeting rooms, conference halls, and carparks, amongst the many indoor locations where people need 3G coverage.

Another way is to equalize priority and mandate 95% everywhere as a first step and ratchet that up towards 99% over a few years, and then finally we will start talking 3 nine's, 4 nine's and so on (99.9%, 99.99% etc). Actually, I wonder why there is a difference being made between outdoor and indoor coverage in the first place, creating an artificial regulatory distinction that allows the companies to reduce costs by providing service levels that *just* meet what is mandated, or even allow levels to drop below that and hope for shall we say "less than aggressive" enforcement. It should be simpler to mandate  and easier to check, with less ambiguity over what exactly constitutes indoor vs outdoor environments, like for example, if I am sitting at an outside table at a coffeeshop is that considered outdoors, and does it become an indoor environment when the coffeeshop owner extends the motorized awning over the tables when it starts to rain? With a uniform coverage requirement such questions become moot.


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