Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Broadband Hustle

M1 LogoWhen it comes to marketing broadband services, there is no such thing as coincidence. Singapore has a few mobile phone carriers (SingTel, M1, StarHub) and broadband carriers (SingNet, StarHub, Pacific Internet). Now M1 is moving into fixed broadband by re-selling service based on StarHub's cable network.

It's an arrangement familiar in England where BT's OpenReach wholesales aDSL service to many ISPs, including themselves. StarHub will charge $35.71 (£13.27) a month to M1 who will then sell broadband service for up to S$88.50 pm (£32.89).

The wider story is that StarHub and M1 are in one of the two consortiums bidding for the NGNBN (new national fiber network) that is due to be announced any time, although an insider has already tipped it will go to the SingTel consortium.

The non-coincidence is that out of the blue, the Merlion household was cold-called by our existing broadband supplier, StarHub. We have been with them since we arrived 22months ago and have been contract free since the end of the first year. We pay S$59.80 (£22) for an 8Mbps/256kbps service that is Okay.

Given the choice, I'd change to SingNet on aDSL because Starhub do traffic shaping at busy hours. Trying to download (not watch, just download) YouTube videos on a Sunday night just fails, and slows to a crawl during evenings generally. SingNet have a better backend network and indeed use it to stream realtime video for their Mio (said Mee Oh) video on demand (VOD) service.

So when StarHub call and offer 25% off for a 2 year lock-in, I declined faster than a scalded cat. I hate lock-ins and, as is common with most of these deals, the cost to breakout of the deal is to pay the entire outstanding balance up to the end of the lock-in contract.

I haven't moved to SingNet for exactly the same reason. Only their entry level 512kbps aDSL has a 1 year contract term. All the faster plans are 2 years with the usual full penalty breakout. No deal.

The problem is freebies. If I commit to 30months with StarHub, I could get a 'free' laptop. Two years with SingNet gets me mobile discounts or whatever the offer is this month. I can't get a freebie-less deal without the term lock-in because the local market is saturated and stopping subscribers jumping ship at the first whiff of a better deal elsewhere is the main preoccupation of the marketing departments.

This also explains the horrible websites of these providers, especially SingTel [Ed: just re-vamped so looks nice but functionally similar] that, as you may now realise, are not there to inform, but to sell. I go looking for facts and get gypsy carnival style bait'n'switch showmanship. Just read the tiny footnotes if you doubt me.

Singaporeans are mercenary consumers who consider it a statutory obligation to change suppliers to get a better deal and publicly congratulate themselves on their savvy. Most change mobiles every 12 months. In my case, I stay with StarHub not because I'm locked in but because I am not. Lacking clarity of my tenure here in Singapore, I just sit on a contract-free, traffic-shaped StarHub line, paying a little more each month. As they say, Freedom isn't Free.