National information infrastructure

Strategies, policies and schedules for implementation

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Strategies, policies and schedules for implementation

Overall implementation framework

Recognizing that the broader '3C' components of NII are under the purview of several government agencies as well as the need to involve both private and public sectors, the plan proposed a multi-agency implementation framework involving the following key organizations (Figure 1):

[Insert Figure 1 here.]

 An NII Group (NIIG) within NCB to master plan and spearhead the implementation of the NII

 Singapore Telecoms (STel) and Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) to continuously improve their network infrastructures

 A Project Specification Team under NCB in partnership with organizations in the private and public sectors to conduct feasibility studies, develop systems specifications and funding mechanisms for national IT application projects

 A high level committee to oversee and guide the highly coordinated multi-agency effort needed to implement the NII

The NII vision and implementation framework as recommended in the IT2000 report was subsequently endorsed by the government. In particular, the government agreed to entrust NCB to master plan and spearhead the implementation of NII. For this purpose, NCB was provided with funding to establish the NIIG and Project Specification Teams. However, as no specific projects had been formulated by the IT2000 Report, the government only agreed to fund the implementation of approved NII projects on a case-by-case basis.

Thus, although the plan was officially adopted by the government and subsequently received wide domestic and international media attention, it did not actually carry with it any significant budget to implement any NII project. Indeed, the document was seen as more a broad strategic vision statement rather than a concrete plan proposing specific project deliverables. Although several major project ideas were surfaced as part of the plan formulation process and mentioned in the report, none were concrete enough to be fundable. The strategic intent of the plan was to seek national consensus on a shared vision and to establish a broad framework to mobilize and coordinate the many different government agencies that have to be involved in implementing actual projects.

In line with the recommendation of the plan, the existing Committee on National Computerization (CNC) (which had oversight over the NITP) was reconstituted into a high level steering committee called the National IT Committee (NITC) to provide the needed policy coordination across ministries to oversee and guide the implementation of the plan. Headed by a Senior Minister of State for Defense, and with the Deputy Prime Minister as Advisor, the committee elevated the status of, and enlarged the representation of key stakeholders in, the previous CNC. In addition to the vice-chancellors of the two local universities, the committee members now comprise of the permanent secretaries of five ministries (Ministry of Information and the Arts, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Ministry of Communications, and Ministry of Labour), the chairmen/chief executives of four statutory boards (NCB, EDB, Tourism Promotion Board, and the National science and Technology Board (NSTB), with the chairman of Singapore Telecommunications (STel) being the lone private industry representative.

Implementation and specific initiatives

NCB's evolving role

Although NCB was given the overall master planning and "spearheading" role to promote the implementation of the plan (just as it was when the earlier NITP was formulated), it soon found this new role to be much more complex and difficult than its previous tasks. Indeed, NCB's initially envisaged role as the master planner and chief architect of the national information infrastructure (NII) turned out to be the most difficult for two reasons.

Firstly, the NII as proposed in the IT2000 was only an abstract idea without concrete specifications of the specific network technologies and applications involved. No other country, including the more advanced industrial countries, had developed a broadband NII yet, and most of the applications envisioned in the IT2000 have as yet been deployed on a commercial scale anywhere else. Performing the master planning role would thus require NCB to be at the frontier of telecommunications technologies. Moreover, NCB would need to plan for applications requirements in the abstract, as there are no actual applications ready for deployment.

Secondly, NCB has no direct jurisdiction over the development of physical network facilities which are under Singapore Telecoms and the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation. At the time the IT2000 plan was announced, the government was as yet undecided on a number of major policy issues regarding telecommunications and broadcasting which would significantly influence the future course of development of the underlying networks upon which NII was to be built.

Over 1992-94, NCB established a new NII Division to house both the NIIG and the Project Specification Teams to work on both architectural specification as well as specific project proposals. It soon became clear, however, that the original idea of formulating a comprehensive implementation master plan, including detailed architectural specifications, was too ambitious a task in the face of dynamic technological and market changes and evolving telecoms and media policy changes which were subject to broader political considerations to be elaborated further below. The ambitious goal of master planning was gradually abandoned and reduced to one focusing on the specification and design of generic "middlewares" or common utility services that are expected to be usable in many different applications. At the same time, the scope of project specifications work were also increasingly refocused on applications that are deployable on existing networks and involving a shorter time horizon, rather than to emphasize immediate broadband usage.

In mid-1994, NCB began a series of demonstrations of prototypes of middlewares and potential applications to various organizations, including the Telecommunications Authority of Singapore (TAS), Ministry of Communications, Singapore Telecoms, Ministry of Information and the Arts (MITA), the IT industry, and academic and research institutions. These prototype demonstrations, as well as a number of progress reports on NCB's NII specifications efforts (see e.g. Information Technology, Vol. 6 No. 1), were received with mixed reactions by the IT community. Some experts from the IT industry and researchers from academic institutions felt that the demonstrated prototypes were still far from being implementable as scalability and technology platform issues have not been resolved. The potential applications that were demonstrated apparently also failed to attract substantial funding commitment from the NITC or from private industries. An attempt to seek funding from NSTB to provide R&D grants in support of NCB-proposed NII-related applications development projects was also unsuccessful.

It was not until 1995, when a significant restructuring of NCB itself took place, that a significant source of funding for NII-related development was established. As part of the implementation of the Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) formulated in the early 1990s by MTI, a S$2 billion industry cluster development fund (CDF) was established by the government in 1993 to fund new industry development and industry revitalization investment programs. The fund was meant primarily for EDB to fund industry restructuring programs and to co-invest in new high-tech industries with MNCs and local companies. In Sept. 1995, it was announced that a sum of S$200 million from this fund would be allocated as an IT Industry Cluster Development Fund (ITCDF) to fund IT2000-related projects.

The new funding mechanism coincided with a major re-engineering of NCB's mission and organization in the middle of 1995. As a result of the restructuring of the NCB, the new envisaged roles of NCB have been defined as follow:

 Deploying IT 2000 "flagship" projects

 Promoting IT culture

 Nurturing new emerging IT industries

 Overseeing IT manpower development

 Evolving an information infrastructure

The attendant organizational change in order to carry out its new set of missions had been described as "the biggest restructuring in NCB's 14-year history" by the new chairman, Mr. Lim Swee Say. In particular, the earlier emphasis on NII master planning and architectural specification was reduced in scope with the dissolution of the NII Division. It was also decided that the part of NCB responsible for developing and implementing applications systems for various government departments under the Civil Service Computerization Program (CSCP) would be privatized. Instead, NCB's role would be changed to one of being the "CIO" for the government, providing strategic planning advice rather than doing the actual implementation. NCB's direct involvement in applications development would instead be focused on major IT2000-related applications, with emphasis given to applications that would have nearer-term deployment prospects. Moreover, partnership with the relevant private industry or government agencies was emphasized with the splitting up of the original NII Division into eight new industry applications clusters within the NCB organizational structure. These are: Construction, Digital Library, Education, Healthcare, Manufacturing and Distribution, New Media and Internet, Public Services, and Tourism and Leisure. An Information Infrastructure Group remains, but mainly to monitor global NII developments, as well as to focus on continuing the development of prototype network "middlewares" that run on top of internet for eventual commercial deployment rather than NII master planning.

The original mission of promoting IT culture and manpower development were retained in the re-engineered NCB, but their areas of emphasis have been shifted. The existing division of Industry Promotion was reorganized as Industry and Technology Division to give it a stronger mandate to nurture the new, emerging IT industries envisioned by the IT2000 plan such as multimedia content development, networking technologies, and internet related information services. IT manpower development initiatives were also geared towards training to fill anticipated gaps in the new IT skills required, as well as to accelerate re-training of existing IT professionals to avoid their obsolescence by the new networked economy. The priority target group for IT culture promotion has now shifted to school-going children.

Thus, while the original IT2000 Vision plan envisages a central coordinating and leadership role of NCB to champion its development, in actual fact, developments since the plan indicate that a number of other major stakeholders -- in particular the Ministry of Communications and Ministry of Information and the Arts (MITA) -- have come to play increasingly important roles, as analyzed below.

Telecommunications competition policy and network development strategies in the 1990s

As in many other countries throughout the world, the first half of the 1990s represents a period of tremendous change for telecommunications development in Singapore. Four major structural changes had occurred or were set in motion during this last five years.

First and foremost was the privatization of Singapore Telecoms (STel), the national PTT, in 1993. Although preparation towards liberalization of competition was an important consideration in the privatization decision, another major factor is to facilitate the internationalization of STel to exploit growing regional and global business opportunities. The privatization of STel was also politically important as it was to be the first of a series of major privatization exercises to come. Symbolically, Singaporean citizens were allotted shares at a heavy discount to market valuation to demonstrate how ordinary citizens can share in the wealth created by well-run government enterprises.

Secondly, a major policy shift in favor of liberalization for competition was introduced, resulting in an increasing range of telecommunications services being made open for competition. Table 4 summarizes some of the key liberalization decisions made by the Telecommunications Authority of Singapore (TAS) in recent years. Although the pace of liberalization may be less than in some other countries like Malaysia or Hong Kong, the changes introduced so far have nonetheless been very significant indeed from the historical perspective of Singapore's telecommunications development. In the face of three years, several new and powerful players have emerged in the telecommunications industry where only one existed before. The new entrants include some of the largest conglomerates in Singapore which have significant government investment (known locally as "government-linked companies" or GLCs), including the Singapore Technology Group, the Sembawang Group, the Keppel Group, and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).

[Insert Table 4 here.]

Thirdly, a policy decision was made to accelerate the island-wide deployment of optical fibres. Even before its privatization, STel had announced plan to wire up all buildings and homes in the island with optical fibres by the year 2005. As part of the conditions for its privatization, STel had apparently been committed to continue the fibre-to-the-curb laying program after privatization.

This task had been made easier by the fact that Singapore's building codes had already established some years back the requirement that all high-rise buildings must be equipped with a Main distribution Frame (MDF) room to house equipment that provide telecommunications services to the building occupants. By Dec. 1994, all MDF rooms in the Central Business District have been linked by optical fibres, while 75% of all public housing (HDB flats) were so linked. By August 1995, it is estimated that some 158,000 km of optical fibres have been laid, covering 80% of all high-rise buildings in Singapore (Koh, 1996).

Last but not least, a major policy decision had been made in 1994 that in effect would encourage the convergence of telecommunications and broadcasting. In an interview published on 1 Sept. 1994, the Information and the Arts Minister stated for the first time that the government's long term intent is for Singapore homes to be plugged into the interactive multimedia world via two separate lines: One to be provided by the telephone company and the other to be provided by the cable TV company.

To move in that strategic direction, the government had earlier in 1993 decided to promote cable-TV with the setting up of Singapore Cable Vision (SCV) (more on this later). SCV began a program to wire up all homes in Singapore in 1995 by laying coaxial cables to individual housing units, while relying on STel's optical fibre network as the back-bone. This policy ensures that there will be at least one conduit to each home, i.e. the government was committed to provide broadband universal access before the year 2000. However, the option is also open for STel to lay a second conduit to the home if it makes business sense. Thus, the "last mile" will in effect be serve by a dual conduit policy. Although SCV are currently allowed to carry only video signals through its coaxial network, there are strong hints that, in time to come, SCV may be allowed to carry telecommunications flows as well. According to a recent statement by the Minister of Communications, this could come as early as 2002 or even sooner, even though STel's original monopoly license extends to 2007. Meanwhile, STel was given a license by the Telecommunications Authority of Singapore (TAS) in 1995 to conduct Video-On-Demand (VOD) trial, with a strong possibility that, should the trial be successful, STel will be given a full license to provide interactive video services to the home. This could come as early as 1997 depending on the results of the VOD trials now being undertaken by STel (Koh, 1996). The fact that Hong Kong Telecoms had announced plan for a full commercial launch of VOD in 1996 has given added impetus for STel to be allowed to go into VOD as well. The stage has thus been set for the convergence of telecommunications and broadcast media.

In addition to universal access via broadband fixed wireline, TAS has also been actively promoting the deployment of wireless technologies by introducing greater competition. Even before liberalization, Singapore had achieved the highest pager penetration in the world, and one of the highest mobile phone penetration in Asia. Three new paging services licenses and a second cellular phone license had since been issued, with the latter committed to deploy PCs based on new CDMA technology. Singapore is also among the first in the world to commence implementation of electronic road pricing (ERP) using wireless technologies, and among the first in Asia to promote wireless tracking services using geographic positioning system (GPS) technology.

Corporatization of national broadcasting authority

To prepare for the impending technological convergence, the government made major policy decisions with respect to the broadcast media industry as well. In Oct. 1994, the national broadcasting corporation -- Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) -- was corporatized and replaced by a new holding company called Singapore International Media (SIM). The old SBC functions were broken up to become four separate subsidiaries of SIM. Two of the subsidiaries -- Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS) and TV Twelve -- were each given two public broadcast channels, the latter being tasked with providing programs that are of public interest and hence not necessarily commercially viable. The third subsidiary, Radio Corporation of Singapore (RCS) took over all the existing radio stations of SBC, while the fourth subsidiary, SIM Communications, was newly established to move into cable TV and multimedia.

Cable TV

As mentioned earlier, the government announced a policy to promote public cable TV for the first time in 1993, reversing an earlier stand that prohibited cable TV to compete with free-to-air broadcast TV. This was shortly before the corporatization of Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) was implemented, A company called Singapore Cable Vision (SCV) was established initially as a joint venture between SBC and Singapore International Media (SIM) offering three subscription TV channels via free-to-air broadcast. In July, 1994, a new four-member consortium comprising SIM, two other local government-linked companies (Singapore Technologies and Singapore Press Holdings) and US-based Continental Cablevision Inc. (CCV) was formed to invest in a S$500 million program to provide cable TV access to all Singapore homes by 1998. SCV signed an agreement to connect its "to-the-home" coaxial cables with ST's optical fibre networks to the curb. A 30-channel service commenced in a regional town center (Tampines) in June, 1995. As of Nov., 1995, it was reported that 36,000 homes were already cabled up, with actual cable subscription reaching 4,300 (the original 3-channel service has meanwhile attracted about 30,000 subscribers).

Although SCV is currently licensed to provide cable TV services only, the two-conduit policy announced earlier has given it the option to seek a license to provide interactive multimedia services to the home via PC or TV in the future as well. Meanwhile, direct satellite broadcast reception dishes continues to be banned for the general households in Singapore, although usage by business corporation for data communications has been liberalized.

One strategic intent behind the decision to accelerate cable TV deployment is to pre-empt the demand for access to satellite broadcast. The government evidently believed that she can exert greater control over the contents being piped through cable TV channels than contents sent via satellite broadcast.

On-line information services and the Internet

Singapore was one of the early adopters of videotext technology in Asia. In the mid-1980s, STel (a PTT then) was asked to deploy videotext services on a national scale. The result is the development of Teleview, which initially was meant to be accessed through TV in the home, but subsequently was redirected to be linked up through PCs. Although Teleview boasted of having the state-of-art videotext technology at the time of its public launch in 1989, the text-based interface and proprietary nature of information presentation software became significant liability when internet began to take off in the early 1990s, particularly more so when WWW made graphical user interface (GUI) the de facto norm for on-line information service users. A number of other implementation decisions, including the centralized server architecture and limited server channel capacity (resulting in long response time), coupled with inappropriate pricing policies, had further limited the initial appeal of Teleview, with subscription plateauing at less than 20,000 (3% of households). Although a promotional strategy in 1994 to boost subscription through bundling with 14.4kbps modem at subsidized price did raise the total subscription base to over 30,000 or about 5% of households, subsequent growth was flat, and many subscribers are very low frequency users.

With respect to internet, Singapore was again one of the first adopters in Asia. The National University of Singapore was among the first in Asia to introduce WAIS and Gopher server in 1992, and subsequently WWW server in 1993. Although internet service went nation-wide in 1993 (under the name of Technet) with funding by the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB), it was initially confined only to the research community, defined as covering all tertiary educational institutions, public research institutes and private companies engaging in R&D activities. While there has been a substantial increase in research and innovative experimentation on internet among this select "elite" community since its inception, the widespread diffusion of internet among general businesses and households was delayed until late 1994, when the government finally decided to promote internet on a wide scale. The initial government hesitation was due primarily to its concerns about widespread access to pornographic materials, although some overseas commentators have ascribed an intent to perpetuate strict censorship over information in general.

As characteristic of the Singapore government, actions have been shift once a clear policy decision was made. While STel was initially the sole licensed public internet service access provider ("Singnet"), the government subsequently privatized Technet in 1995 through public tender bidding. The bid was won by a consortium comprising of subsidiaries of several government-linked corporations (GLCs) (Sembawang Corp (via Sembawang Media), Singapore Technologies (via ST Computer Systems) and SIM), and the service was renamed Pacific Net. A third access license was offered for public tender, which was subsequently won by another consortium of GLCs (Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and ST Telecommunications), even though a consortium led by a major foreign telecoms player (AT&T) submitted the highest bid. Prices had been falling steeply as a result of the competition shaping up.

Besides increasing the number of access providers, the government also announced policies to promote the diffusion of internet to secondary and primary schools. A pilot project called Accelerating the use of IT in Primary schools (AITP) was launched in 1995 by NCB and the Ministry of Education to trial test the use of multimedia courseware and internet in primary schools, with eventual deployment in all primary schools targeted for 1997. Internet access was encouraged in secondary schools one year earlier.

While the status of Teleview remains uncertain at this stage due to the explosion of interest in internet, another player has recently entered the public on-line information services scene in the form of Singapore Network Services (SNS). SNS was originally formed to commercialize TradeNet and other EDI services in Singapore. Its main shareholders are the Trade Development Board, STel, Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) and Port Authority of Singapore (PSA), which were all intimately involved in promoting the use of TradeNet to facilitate external trade and transport transaction. The successful and widespread diffusion of TradeNet has won SNS international recognition (including its inclusion by the magazine ComputerWorld as one of the top 100 IT user in the world in 1995). SNS has since introduced a wide array of EDI network services in Singapore (e.g. LawNet for the legal community, MediNet for the healthcare industry, ProfNet for public procurement, RetailNet for retailers, etc.), and now boast of more than 13,000 business customers. SNS has also recently started to internationalize by exporting its network management expertise and/or co-investing in EDI network services in Canada, Mauritius, China, Philippines and Malaysia.

Despite such regional expansion, SNS clearly felt threatened by the mushrooming of internet as a universal network platform as opposed to SNS' proprietary networks. In late 1995, SNS therefore decided to enter the public on-line information service business by licensing the Livewire technology developed by NCB. SNS also seeks to enter the internet content publishing and packaging services. In this, it joins a number of earlier entrants consisting not only of entrepreneurial startups but also the like of publishing giants, SPH.

To complete the picture on public on-line information services, it should be pointed out that NCB has been working for some time on a project to develop a nation-wide public information kiosk system ("Singatouch") that would enable members of the public to conduct a variety of transaction and information retrieval tasks on conveniently located information kiosks. These transactions include reservation and purchase of ticket for events (e.g. cinemas, concerts, sports events) and tourist resorts, banking transactions, on-line tourist guide, electronic bus guide, government transactions, etc. Commercial roll-out of the project is planned for 1996, with NETS (the company currently involved in providing on-line financial transactions services for bank ATMs and retail EFTPOS) likely to be a major partner. Promotion of smartcard technology is also being pursued actively.

Strategic response by the publishing media industry

The "3C" convergence's effect on the media industry extends not only to the broadcasters, but also the major print media publishers as well. Chief among these is SPH, the giant newspaper publishing house in Singapore. SPH was formed in 1984 from a merger of the major newspaper groups in Singapore and currently publishes all the major dailies in the three main languages (English, Chinese and Malay). As a major content owner, SPH made early moves into videotext (via Teleview) and audiotext services, in addition to on-line database services (Newslink). SPH similarly embraced the internet revolution quite early. Not only does it now publish WWW versions of all its major dailies and periodicals, but it also was among the first to offer on-line financial information services. Moreover, as a major stakeholder in the consortium holding one of the internet access provider licenses, SPH is in a strong position to leverage its strong position in contents as a potential differentiation tool. The fact that SPH has been allowed into internet services as well as other telecommunications and broadcasting services (SPH is an equity partner in SCV as well as in a cellular and paging consortium) clearly indicates that the government has adopted a flexible policy towards cross-media ownership.

Development of broadband network testbed

Quite early in the implementation planning phase, NCB recognized the need to establish a broadband network testbed that can be used for experimental testing, research and trial deployment of potential NII applications prior to their full commercial launching. A "collabrium" concept was formulated by NCB to involve potential NII application developers and users, whether from private or public sector, to collaborate through sharing the cost of developing and running a common testbed network that provides sufficient functionality and scalability features. However, the proposal initially did not attract sufficient funding commitment from interested parties, partly due to its ambitious scope and partly due to uncertainties in technological platform in the face of rapid technological change. It was not until early 1995 that funding from the NSTB was secured for the broadband testbed to get off the ground. Called the National High Speed Testbed, the network is based on ATM, which by then has become the de facto switching technology for broadband testbeds around the world. The testbed currently has 9 approved participating organizations (NCB, three public IT R&D institutes (ITI, ISS and the National Supercomputing Research Centre), three tertiary institutions, STel, a leading local IT firm (IPC) and a developer of intelligent buildings (Orchard Park Suites). NCB serves as the host for the Project Management Office. Meanwhile, STel had started to conduct broadband ISDN trials on its own.

Promotion of Singapore as a regional telecommunications and broadcasting hub

One of the strategic thrusts of NII is to enhance Singapore as a regional business hub. even while the physical infrastructure is still being built by STel and SCV as highlighted above, the government has begun aggressively wooing global MNCs to use Singapore as a regional telecommunications and broadcasting hub through a combination of investment incentives, liberalization policies as well as promise of sustained superiority in infrastructures when compared to other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. By the end of 1993, Singapore has succeeded in attracting a significant number of value added service providers like Reuters, Telerate and SITA to use Singapore as their regional hub. More recently, a regional broadcasting hub role is emerging with several major broadcasters, publishers and other content providers such as HBO, Discovery Channel, Time-Life Asia, Walt Disney, MTV and ESPN and ABN setting up their regional content production and distribution operation in Singapore to service the Asian region.

The development of these regional hub operations are regarded as important not only as creating new high-value add jobs, but also as critical in providing the commercial demand and applications expertise that will eventually drive the deployment of broadband network services in the future.

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