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What Singtel’s 4G and Reduced Data Caps Mean

Saw this coming but was really hoping it won’t happen. Probably naive. SingTel is launching 4G services here. Excellent. We can expect a upper bound limit of 100mbps downstream and 50mbps upstream in Singapore soon. What this also means is that the infrastructure is in place and Starhub and M1 should be able to jump on board the 4G train as well. In reality, this would translate to roughly 14mbps downstream and 7mbps upstream. Nevertheless, this is a huge step forward.

SingTel sets the bar. Starhub follows. M1 soon. (Credit: AsiaOne)

SingTel sets the bar. Starhub follows. M1 soon. (Credit: AsiaOne)

But there’s a catch. 

Don’t be lured to think increased speeds = more downloads. Just as SingTel is upgrading you to a Ferrari, it is also putting a limit on how far you can drive. For heavy data users, this is very bad news. The increased speeds give users the urge to consume more data yet their limit has fallen from 12GB to 2GB.

I heavily lauded Singapore’s telcos for being generous with data. Data is the future. SMS and voice calls will soon cease to exist because they can all be done via data channels. Unfortunately, our telcos like all telcos are profit making companies. This 2 step change will hit unknowing customers squarely in the pocket.

A Realistic Comparison 

Currently, Singapore’s fastest network is HSPA. That is a maximum downstream of 14.4mbps. In reality its more like 2mbps. Most people do not know that there is a difference between mbps and MB/s. It’s megabites vs. megabytes. To avoid going too technical, megabytes is what you associate with more often. See the file on your PC? The unit of measurement there is tera/giga/mega/kilo BYTES. To convert mbps to mb/s you divide by 8. So 2mbps means you can download a file at roughly 0.25MB per second. For those people sporting 100mbps landline internet connections that’s about 12.5MB per second. Doesn’t sound too awesome anymore does it? Anyways back to the comparison of HSPA vs 4G.

We will go with theoretical rates because 4G isn’t launched yet and we have no idea how much lower the realistic speeds are.

HSPA 4G
Theoratical Speed 14.4mbps 100mbps
Conversion to MB/S 1.8MB/s 12.5MB/s
Data Cap (GB) 12GB 2GB
Conversion to MB 12288MB 2048MB
Maximum Time Usage 114 mins 3 mins

Stunning isn’t it? However, let’s attempt to use realistic rates. I will dial down 4G by the same factor as HSPA’s real vs. theoretical performance.

HSPA 4G
Realistic Speed 2mbps 14mbps
Conversion to MB/S 0.25MB/s 1.75MB/s
Data Cap (GB) 12GB 2GB
Conversion to MB 12288MB 2048MB
Maximum Time Usage 820 mins 19.5 mins

Still a massive gap. But let’s put this to everyday usage terms.

How Does It Affect Me? 

If you are a normal data user. You do not stream video or audio and simply surf rather static webpages. You are fine. You probably do not even exceed 1GB in your daily usage. Continue that way and the reduction in cap doesn’t affect you. On top of that you will find that your pages load quicker.

However, there is a big incentive for users to make use of faster speeds. They may now want to stream video, audio or even start downloading huge files / torrenting on their phones. Because streaming/torrenting means that you are continuously downloading and consuming data every second, the cap becomes a massive handicap. If you watch a high definition video streamed over the web and manage to use the entire bandwidth, you can likely only watch 20mins of online video before you exceed the cap and start paying extra charges.

Is SingTel evil? 

This move is not purely evil

This move is not purely evil

Yes and no. No because they have to prevent people from using mobile data plans as home internet plans. If you happen to live in an area with excellent speeds (lucky you), you might as well give up your home internet plan. 100mbps with a (former) 12GB cap is more than enough for a family to share. Business users can do the same too. SingTel doesn’t want 4G to encroach on its home and business internet lines. So the cap is there to stop you from doing such. A company has to defend its business.

Also SingTel knows very well that increasing speeds will entice users to consume more. If they keep at 12GB, average users will probably consume towards the 3GB mark (from 0.5GB currently). So a 2GB cap is a pretty good aim at limiting users without harming its other businesses and clogging up its pipes.

In the same way as it is protecting itself, there is a huge hint of profit maximization from naive users. It knows that users will start consuming more, so it makes perfect economic sense to extract excess payments. It’ll take a couple of months for people to understand the true extent of reducing the cap by 6x while increasing speeds by 7x.

What Has Been Done to Protect You 

SingTel has initiated a cap on its excess charges. It can bill you at most $88 for excess data. Note that they way it calculates its blocks, you will shoot from the 2GB cap to the $88 cap very very easily. So be ready for complaints about people who had to pay $88 on top of their price plan because they were not careful. If you don’t watch your data usage, you will be one of them. It is going to be ever so easy to exceed the 2GB cap now.

What You Can Do 

Watch your data usage like a hawk. Do not be enticed to consume more just because your speeds now allow you to. Don’t stream high bandwidth videos often. Keep checking that data usage. Android users on ICS have usage records built right in. It works really well.

Built in usage tracker in Android ICS

Built in usage tracker in Android ICS

iOS users have to download an app to track it. There are quite a few out there. iOS has a built in one but its rather janky because it does not reset its usage automatically every month. So you either download an app or reset it yourself each month.

iOS: No good built in trackers but DataMan (app) covers it well

iOS: No good built in trackers but DataMan (app) covers it well

What More Can Telcos Do? 

If telcos want to shed the “I’ll make as much money off you” look, they should do what US providers are now doing. Send an SMS notification when users hit 25%, 50% and 90% of their data cap. This is what a responsible telco should do.

I hope the authorities enforce such a move because I do not want to see naive users suckered into paying excess charges.

Drive fast. But drive carefully. The blockade is just 20mins ahead.

Dave Junia

Dave Junia | administrator

Analyst. Cyclist. Photographer

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