"We are leading Singapore's drive to become a global infocomm centre and world-wide digital hub"
Madanmohan Rao interviews Ho Hwei Ling, communications manager, InfoComm Development Authority of Singapore
Q: What's your assessment of Singapore's 'e-readiness' and its supporting policy environment?
To achieve e-readiness, Singapore continues to put in place a supportive policy environment and strong infrastructure. These are necessary to provide the conduit for the delivery of fast and efficient e-services and encourage the citizenry to adopt an e-lifestyle and ultimately achieve e-readiness goals. In fact, Singapore was awarded the first-ever Intelligent City of the Year award by the World Teleport Association. Singapore was also voted the most-ebusiness ready country in Asia Pacific (excluding the U.S.) by the Economist Intelligence Unit in April 2000.
An example of how policy supports e-readiness is in the area of regulation. Appropriate regulatory frameworks have been put in place to continue with efforts to liberalise the local telecommunication industry and to ensure fair, effective and sustainable competition. With this framework, Singapore aims to create a conducive environment for growth and industry development, as well as to ensure that consumers can enjoy fair and effective competition that brings about quality services.
In the area of infrastructure, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong launched Singapore ONE (One Network for Everyone) in June 1998, a national initiative to deliver interactive, multimedia broadband applications and services to everyone in Singapore. The rich multimedia content and valuable services on Singapore ONE have already attracted more than 325,000 users as of February 2001 (approximately 16 per cent penetration rate). Singapore is well on its way to achieving its target of 400,000 users by end 2001.
Today, ninety-nine percent of Singapore's homes, all schools, most offices, public libraries and community centres are connected to the Singapore ONE broadband network, which can be accessed using the Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Lines (ASDL), or Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC) cable modems.
In terms of connectivity, Singapore is now one of the most connected cities in the world, with direct high-speed Internet links to more than 20 countries, including the U.S., Australia, Japan, China, India, Europe and ASEAN. Singapore's connectivity increased by 49 per cent from 1,510 Mbps in March 1999 to 2,249 Mbps in April 2001.
Singapore's fixed telephone lines have exceeded 1.9 million at the end of 2000 to result in a penetration rate of 49 per cent. This segment is growing so quickly that Singapore's current seven-digit numbering plan for fixed lines will be replaced by an eight-digit numbering plan in 2002 to cope with the increasing demand for telephone lines in a rapidly expanding infocomm market. As of July 2001, 75 per cent of Singapore's population subscribed to mobile services and dial-up Internet subscribers constituted 48 per cent of the population.
Singapore is also making good progress in the wireless arena. Singapore has put in place the foundations for wireless growth - complete liberalisation of the telecoms market, a Telecoms Competition Code that governs fair competition in the marketplace, a Reference Interconnection Offer that offers new market entrants open and easy interconnection to the incumbent's network - including local loop open access, affordable 3G licences etc. Together with Singapore's unique attributes of an English-speaking IT savvy population, high mobile and Internet penetration rates, and a compact size that enables rapid rollout and quick feedback, Singapore is an ideal test-bed and showcase for wireless applications and developments.
Beyond basic infrastructure, the government is working on filling gaps and plugging the digital divide with initiatives (housed under the Infocomm 21 plan, a blueprint that articulates the vision, goals and strategies that facilitate the development of Singapore's infocomm industry) that e-power the people, private and public sectors or in short, the 3"P"s.
The first "P" aims to e-power the people sector. Over the next three years, IDA will take an intensive and targeted approach to help Singaporeans go online. A total of S$25 million has been set aside to support the 3-year culture promotion initiative. Under this initiative, IDA will undertake several programmes in phases to target low-income households, different ethnic groups and the late adopters of infocomm technology. These programmes are aimed to raise their awareness about how infocomm technology can enhance their quality of life and bridge the digital divide. Below are some programmes and initiatives that help to improve accessibility:-
· Provision of used computers to low-income households with a combined income of less than $2,000 each. These computers are bundled with free Internet access. Users are also given some form of basic training. This programme is implemented through the community self-help groups such as the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA), Mendaki, and the Eurasian Association.
· Offering of new PCs to union members at less than S$1 a day and users have a choice of dial-up or broadband connectivity. They also enjoy 24-hour customer support as well as free training.
· Provision of free broadband access to the Singapore ONE clubs at community centres.
· Development of language-specific Internet content to cater to different population segments.
· Organising of events that motivate widespread adoption of an e-lifestyle - such as e-celebrations Singapore. This is a month-long public outreach programme first conducted in March 2000 to get Singaporeans to embrace infocomm technology and assimilate technology into their lifestyles.
· Implementation of an 'e-Ambassadors programme' to recruit volunteers such as early adopters of infocomm technology to guide late adopters to use infocomm services and applications at the ONE Learning Place, Singapore ONE clubs and public libraries.
· Working with broadband industry participants to develop educational content for schools under the FastTrack@School programme.
The second "P" aims to e-power the private sector. Efforts to e-power the private sector are linked to establishing Singapore as a leading infocomm hub in the Asia-Pacific for telecommunications services, e-business transactions and distribution of digital goods and services. There are three strategies to develop Singapore into a dynamic and vibrant Infocomm Capital with a thriving and prosperous Internet economy and these include:
a) Jumpstarting the Interactive Broadband Multimedia (IBBMM) industry
· The Singapore Government is committed to create a competitive environment where there are multiple players providing access to broadband services. This facilitates the development of Singapore into a multimedia capital in the region.
· IDA has mandated open access to broadband infrastructures to SingTel and SCV and reviewed Quality of Service framework to improve overall technical performance of broadband network.
· S$150m has been invested by the government to stimulate demand for & supply of broadband content and services, which includes:
- lowering the infrastructure and hardware costs for broadband access
- ensuring Singapore's international broadband connectivity is world-class by co-sharing the costs of international leased circuits
- attracting broadband content providers to host or hub in Singapore, and creating cyber-precincts by broadband-enabling commercial buildings and industrial parks
b) Building new capabilities and leveraging on innovation in key growth areas
· Implementation of schemes such as the Innovation Development Scheme (IDS) to encourage development of EC & BB applications & software, mobile Internet services, mobile & wireless communications, content hosting & development etc.
· Expansion of upgrading programmes such as Local Industry Upgrading Programme (LIUP) to promote strategic, mutually beneficial partnerships between MNCs & local infocomm companies.
c) Fostering strategic partnerships and alliances overseas
· Promotion of the growth of Interactive Broadband Multimedia (IBBMM) through industry partnership and alliances.
Singapore has also embarked on several initiatives to prime the workforce to be knowledge workers in the Net economy. With the growth in e-businesses, there will be a surge in demand for infocomm manpower. The industry has projected a need for 250,000 infocomm manpower by the year 2010, which is more than two-and-a-half times the current infocomm manpower of 93,000 that is being employed across all industries.
There are three broad strategies to achieve the goal of priming the workforce to be knowledge workers :
a) Enhancing an environment to nurture a Net-savvy workforce
· The Government, together with the industry and institutions of higher learning (IHLs), cooperate to build a strong setting for its manpower to master the use of information and communications technology for all sectors of the economy.
· The Ministry of Education targets to have 30 per cent of the school curriculum to be computer-based, paving the way for students to be infocomm-savvy.
· IDA in partnership with IHLs, work to continuously upgrade and review their curriculum to train students to be infocomm specialists and application developers with multidisciplinary skills in emerging areas such as Electronic Commerce, Interactive Broadband Multimedia, Info-Communications Convergence and Knowledge Management. The IHLs also infuse core infocomm skills into the curriculum to train students to understand and manage the impact of e-Commerce on their respective industries such as Law, Medicine and Finance.
b) Attracting and retaining international talents
· IDA, together with other agencies, embark on focused recruitment trips to attract international infocomm talents and students as well as implement programmes to encourage them to stay in Singapore.
· IDA facilitates work pass applications for international infocomm talents to work and stay in Singapore. A separate queue has been set up in Ministry of Manpower to process work pass applications for the infocomm sector and IDA will help manage this queue and give special attention to these Employment Pass applications.
c) Establishing Singapore as the e-Learning hub for the region.
· Various Government bodies like IDA and MOM collaborate with the industry to put in place an e-Learning infrastructure and develop online content. The Government will also attract and foster alliances with world-class learning service providers.
Lastly, in e-powering the third "P", the public sector, the Government has set aside S$1.5 billion for infocomm technology initiatives in the public sector over the next three years.
There are five strategic thrusts to achieve the eGovernment vision and desired outcomes.
a) Pushing the envelope of electronic service delivery
· Citizens will be able to access more and more public services, delivered online, anytime, anywhere.
· As of August 2001, more than 170 public services are available on-line, eliminating the need for citizens to queue up for services or travel from bureau to bureau to handle their affairs. Licenses, school registration, filing of tax returns - each can be handled online. Four out of 10 eligible Singaporeans submitted their tax returns online in 2001.
· Singapore's e-Citizen Centre is the government's initiative to deliver one-stop, citizen-centric services through the Internet. Introduced in April 1999, it offers related public services that are grouped into 'virtual towns'. Housing Town, for example, provides information on public utilities and telephone services for those moving into a new home. In 1999, the US Federal Government cited Singapore's eCitizen website as the 'most developed example of integrated service delivery in the world." In the eGovernment survey carried out by Accenture, Singapore was ranked No. 2 for two consecutive years, behind the U.S. in 2000, and behind Canada in 2001.
b) Building new capability and new capacity
· The public sector will go beyond using infocomm technologies as a system, and will continually innovate and adapt business and operational processes to radically re-engineer and totally transform work processes.
c) Innovating with infocomm technologies
· The public sector will experiment with new technologies, with a view to learning and developing capability.
· Flexible or nimble procurement and project management approach.
d) Anticipating to be proactive, sensing to be responsive
· The public sector will adopt a "sense and respond" approach to anticipating new trends. Systems and services will be delivered at "Internet speed" and continuously fine-tuned to respond to customer needs and feedback.
e) Developing thought leadership on eGovernment
· The public sector will systematically cultivate a better understanding of the impact of infocomm technologies to make meaningful decisions in all aspects of governance and to continually innovate to harness the benefits of infocomm technologies in its public services.
Q: How is Singapore coping with the current global economic/ IT downturn, and what are IDA's activities in this regard?
Despite the global economic downturn, growth and development of the infocomm industry in the Asia Pacific region has only slowed down, and is not coming to a halt. According to the eMarketer report published in July 2001, Asia's e-commerce revenues will continue to grow to about US$338billion in 2004. Translated, this means that there is significant growth potential for the infocomm sector.
From a longer term point of view, prospects for the infocomm industry also remain promising. The technology is driving long-term, fundamental changes in commerce, industry and our daily lives. This is transforming the way business is done in every sector of the economy, altering lifestyles, and changing the way people work, communicate and entertain themselves. The changes have a profound impact.
In spite of the downturn, businesses will continue to tap the Internet as a strategic asset, incorporating infocomm technology into their marketing, financial and corporate communication processes. Manufacturing companies for example are exploiting IT to dramatically increase efficiency and competitiveness through improved processes such as just-in-time production with zero inventory.
The government will also continue to review schemes to ensure their relevance in helping businesses tide over the economic downturn.
Q: What is your vision of what the Net can offer a country like Singapore? What are your forecasts for the Singaporean Internet market next year?
The Net offers opportunities for Singapore to roll out its strategies and activities to achieve the vision of developing the country into an infocomm hub.
These strategies are housed under Infocomm 21, a blueprint that articulates the vision, goals and strategies that will facilitate the development of Singapore's infocomm industry over the next five years, and move the country into the ranks of 'first world economies' of the Net age.
In setting out broad directions and strategic thrusts, Infocomm 21 is a result of a collaborative effort involving Government agencies, the infocomm industry, academia, research institutes, community groups, industry associations, and professional societies. Implementation of Infocomm 21 is industry-focused and industry-led. The Government's role is catalytic, functioning as a facilitator, promoter, educator, and 'anchor tenant' for the testing and pilot deployment of new applications.
The aim of Infocomm 21 is to develop Singapore into a vibrant and dynamic global Infocomm Capital, with a thriving and prosperous e-Economy and a pervasive and infocomm-savvy e-Society. To realize this vision, Infocomm 21 has defined six focus areas:
i) Developing Singapore into a premier infocomm hub, where infocomm will be the key engine of growth in Singapore's e-economy.
ii) Business-to-business and business-to-consumer e-commerce will play dominant roles in business and consumer transactions.
iii) The Singapore government aims to be one of the best e-Government in the world, delivering high quality services to companies and people.
iv) Singapore will cultivate an infocomm-savvy population with a pervasive e-lifestyle that extends beyond the workplace into the home.
v) Singapore will be the location of choice for foreign talent looking to work and/or relocate to Asia, and a locus for the best e-learning practices.
vi) Singapore will create a pro-business and pro-consumer environment to foster the development and growth of the digital economy.
In Singapore, infocomm is already the fastest growing sector, contributing 7 per cent or almost S$11 billion to Singapore's gross domestic product (Source: Infocomm Industry Survey (1999-2000) - details can be found in the newsroom of the IDA website, www.ida.gov.sg). Long-term growth prospects for the infocomm industry appear promising, and Singapore is committed to achieving its target of S$40 billion infocomm revenue by 2005.
Q: Which countries do you think have the most favourable Internet sector infrastructures in place?
IDA firmly believes that in Asia, we are all partners in growth. That is why the long-term perspective is to link the infocomm centres of excellence in Asia. This is to leverage on one another's complementary strengths and reap synergies to enhance the overall growth of the infocomm sectors and markets in the region. Through such integration, Asia would then be able to compete with the likes of the US and EU in the new global economy.
Q: How will Singapore fare in the emerging wireless wave?
Singapore intends to be major player in the emerging wireless space. Wireless technology and the Internet will form an inherent and important aspect of Singapore's infocomm development.
Singapore is now working with leading industry players in the wireless arena on a S$200 million 'Wired with Wireless' programme that was launched in October 2000. This programme focuses on creating a living lab for wireless developments, and to give our industry players the tools to excel. This programme aims to create a vibrant community of industry players to provide stimulus and partnership, and a platform to the global market. The programme will also help to position Singapore potentially as a premier location and launch pad for wireless developments in Asia.
'Wired With Wireless' is a multi-pronged programme that complements our broadband initiative - SingaporeONE, the world's first nation-wide broadband initiative. This programme will enable Singapore to have an integrated infrastructure with extensive connectivity to other Asian cities, while promoting the development of mobile infrastructure, services and products, as well as the widespread adoption of mobile communications.
Singapore is already enjoying some success as the local burgeoning wireless scene boasts of a few world's firsts, including:
· Orktopas, the WAP search engine developed by VOIum (formerly known as WAPWorks), and currently marketed by AirGateway;
· Single-point, multi-platform WAP interaction service by Iteru.net;
· WAPman Colour, a colour WAP browser for Palm-OS based PDAs by Edgematrix;
· Software for media-rich content repurposing on multiple Web channels by NewsTakes; and
· Software that runs the infrared port on Palm Pilot by Extended Systems Singapore.
Q: What is the original vision behind the founding of IDA? How has it grown since then?
IDA was legally formed on
The formation of IDA reflects the Government's emphasis on bringing an integrated perspective to developing, promoting, and regulating info-communications in Singapore. In the fast-changing and converging spheres of telecommunications, information, and media technologies, IDA acts as the catalyst for change and growth in Singapore's transformation into one of the world's leading centres for Information Communications Technology (ICT). Since its formation, IDA's industry promotion/ development group and policy/ regulation group have been working closely together to create the conducive regulatory environment for infocomm industry and businesses to thrive in Singapore.
The first priority action agenda for IDA is the formulation of the Information and Communications Technology 21 (ICT 21) masterplan, now known as Infocomm 21. Today, Singapore continues to focus on three strategic thrusts: (a) to develop the infocomm sector as a major sector of growth, (b) to leverage on infocomm as an enabler to boost the competitiveness of key economic sectors, and (c) to prepare Singapore for the information society of the future.
The formation of IDA has benefited the infocomm industry at large. For instance, the telecommunications sector was liberalised in April 2000 and since then, it has yielded good results. Competition has been aggressive and both corporates and consumers have benefited - IDD rates have fallen by 60 per cent on average and innovative service providers are aggregating partnerships with different telcos, and offering aggressive promotions. The tariffs for such services (e.g. callback, VoIP) have dropped by as much as 80 per cent.
Liberalisation has also created spin-offs in other components of the infocomm cluster. It has also led to an increase in investments in each component of the industry value chain. For example, B2B e-Commerce sales value grew from $40 billion in 1999 to an estimated $92 billion in 2000. This figure is projected to reach $109 billion in 2001 (Survey on E-Commerce 2000, conducted jointly by the IDA and Department of Statistics).
Liberalisation and open access have benefited the Singapore broadband market as well. There are now six broadband access providers, more than 325,000 users, over 300 broadband industry players and 200 broadband applications and services. Singapore is now moving from the early adopter to mass adoption phase.
Q: Any other parting thoughts for Internet professionals in Singapore, and the region as a whole?
Internet professionals should continue to exploit the potential of the Internet despite the recent fall of the dot.com phenomenon. With an almost limitless reach to world markets, the Internet presents immense business opportunities for Internet professionals.
Basic business fundamentals remain crucial for any Internet start-up to succeed. A robust business model coupled with an understanding of technology, as well as a desire for continuous learning and skills upgrading will help Internet start-ups to sustain long-term growth.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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