NBN fever - time for govts to step up

Michael O'Loughlin
18 Jun 2009

The world is catching NBN fever.

But this time governments are in the driver’s seat.

From New Zealand to the UK, the state has become responsible not just for broadband policy but for leading and driving investment in high-speed networks as well.

Even in the US, Obama administration advisers have looked at the government-backed FTTH tenders in Asia-Pacific as possible models for a rollout.

No prizes for guessing why: broadband is an enabler, essential for economic development, creativity and daily life. With the recession and the disillusionment with free markets wake of the financial meltdown the world is once more looking to the public sector to solver our economic problems.

That matters little in Singapore, where the government has always been a player in the local economy.

The telecom sector is a prime example, where through its Temasek investment arm the government owns controlling stakes in both full-service telcos.

Singapore’s NBN project has already gone past the tender stage, with government’s S$1 billion sweetener helping to entice Canadian Axia Media to join the SingTel team in building the underlying infrastructure. The number two telco, StarHub, has won the rights to be the wholesale provider.

For other governments pondering how best to execute a next-gen broadband rollout, Singapore offers an innovative model, offering perhaps the industry’s most intense level of structural separation.

IDA has set up three different layers ‐ passive, wholesale and retail ‐ and mandated full separation between companies in the different layers. It promises an open and competitive retail segment without the presence of a domineering incumbent network owner.

But optical-fiber access, the preferred solution for NGN in developed urban markets, is not sustainable for the billions of people who still lack access to the internet.

Fear of the widening digital divide is not new. The UN has included broadband, along with eradicating hunger and malaria, in its 2015 millennium development goals. But the divide can be closed only if the UN members are willing to embrace high-speed wireless as a local access medium.

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