National information infrastructure

NII Services: Present and future

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NII Services: Present and future

Present NII services

In investing in the nation-wide cable TV program, the government has basically provided one major application that will help pay for the cost of one access conduit to all homes, while the VOD trial by STel portends another potential application that will contribute towards funding a second conduit. However, the deployment of these applications will take some time, and their commercial viability is not ensured.

In the mean time, many network services will continue to be provided over existing telecommunications infrastructures. In particular, internet is rapidly spreading in usage. Besides email, WWW publishing and surfing are surging in popularity. The growth of internet has contributed to slowing the growth of the existing videotext service, Teleview. As pointed out earlier, although various proprietary EDI networks run by SNS have continued to enjoy wide usage by specific business groups, SNS has clearly perceived the threat of internet, and has recently ventured into on-line information services by acquiring a license to a prototype NII information service software called "Livewire" that NCB has been developing. Videoconferencing on narrow ISDN has been deployed since Singapore provided nation-wide narrow ISDN service in the early 1990s, but their use has been mainly confined to large businesses teleconferencing with their headquarters or business partners overseas, or local universities for distance education purposes. Personal videoconferencing has yet to take off on a major scale, partly due to lack of an industry standard and their low penetration elsewhere.

New NII applications in the pipeline

As mentioned earlier, NCB has re-focused its efforts towards accelerating the development and subsequent deployment of several new NII applications. Some of these efforts have reached the threshold stage of deployment. For example, as pointed out earlier, by late 1995, a prototype version of its middlewares that runs on top of internet (called "Livewire") was licensed to SNS to form the basis of its new thrust into on-line information services. Another imminent deployment mentioned earlier is the public information kiosk system ("Singatouch").

In addition to these, other flagship projects currently under active development include:

Construction and Real Estate Network (CORENET): The objective of CORENET is to re-engineer the business processes in the construction industry, enabled by IT, so as to achieve a quantum leap in turnaround time, productivity and quality. The proposed network is envisaged to provide a wide range of system services such as : plan checking, concurrent design, electronic submission, information services, automatic quantities takeoff system, electronic inspection, and integrated project management system

Student's-Teacher's Workbench (STW): The aim of STW is to enhance teaching and learning in secondary schools by giving teachers and students access to a rich depository of multimedia courseware and contents. The project was initiated as joint program with the Ministry of Education (MOE), with the first pilot phase involving six secondary schools. Ten industry partners have so far committed S$5 million in equipment and manpower resources to participate in the pilot project. These include PC hardware & systems companies (Creative Technology, Aztech Systems and IPC), software development companies (Primefield and Ednovation), courseware development companies (Time Publishing, ST Computer, Jostens Learning Corporation and Educational Trend), and a tertiary educational institution (Ngee Ann Polytechnic).

Digital Museums/Library: The project follows from recommendations by a national review committee tasked to examine the future development of Singapore's public library system. Called Library 2000: Investing in a Learning Nation, the committee's report highlighted the need to transform the traditional public library system into a network of multimedia information services. The development of digital contents formed a key element of this transformation strategy. Initial projects include one involving the National Science and Technology Board to develop an S&T InfoNet to link 8 tertiary and special libraries to provide information electronically to the R&D and scientific communities in Singapore, as well as a project to develop a virtual museum for the National Museum.

Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) System: Singapore has been among the first country in the world to introduce road pricing to control traffic congestion in the early 1980s. Plan for an electronic road pricing system that would automatically detect and charge road usage fares on vehicles entering selected roads via wireless communications technology had been announced in the early 1990s. After two rounds of testing, a tender has been awarded in 1995 for the construction of an Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system to replace the existing manual road pricing system. The new system would require the attachment of a pre-paid cashcard on all vehicles entering selected roads, where usage fares would be deducted automatically by the system. Full deployment of the system is expected in 1997.

Issues and prospects for the future

The IT2000 Vision plan started as a broad vision with few details. The plan attracted wide media attention, and to a certain extent may have raised expectation beyond what is realistically achievable in the short run. The initial years of trying to implement the vision has to grapple with rapid technological change and the complexity of policy coordination, further complicated by the absence of clear policies on telecommunications and broadcasting. In the 4 years since the plan, however, major new policy decisions have been made in several critical area, and a coherent policy framework is beginning to emerge. At the same time, NCB has developed a narrower but sharper focus on its implementation role. Although technological and industry dynamics remain fluid and dependent on developments in advanced countries, there is now a more concrete sense of strategic directions and visible progress. Nevertheless, future NII development in Singapore will face a number of new and important challenges.

First and foremost, the Singapore government clearly needs to attract more companies, both local and foreign, to invest in new NII-related innovation and applications deployment in the near future. The lead that Singapore has developed now over most other Asian countries in terms of physical infrastructure development will not be translated into superior competitive advantages unless there is a continuous stream of new, leading edge applications being deployed to exploit the more advanced infrastructures. Establishing or creating market demand for new applications and services will be the key factor, not technology. The small size of Singapore's domestic market is clearly a disadvantage that needs to be offset by skillful exploitation of her dense urban configuration as a lead user market for other Asian cities and regions. By going down the learning curve faster than her neighbors, Singapore can hope to gain a temporary window of competitive advantages, as well as to leverage her early experience to quickly export the know-how to other parts of the region. In the latter endeavor, however, Singapore will need to compete against more advanced countries even further down the learning curve by focusing on those applications, knowledge and contents that have uniquely Asian or regional characteristics.

Another major challenge facing Singapore is how to promote the growth of more indigenous start-ups to ride the wave of the new emerging NII-related industries. So far, most of the major players that have entered into the emerging NII-related business segments are either MNCs using Singapore as a regional hub, or large local conglomerates, primarily the GLCs. The recent success of Singaporean firms in the soundcard industry -- Creative and Aztech -- serves as a clear example of what the Singapore government would clearly like to see replicated in other emerging NII-related markets. Although there has been some promising recent spin-offs from government research institutes and universities (e.g. the first internet publishing and packaging firm, Silkroutes, was formed by ex-NCB staff), the challenge facing the government is how to nurture and promote a more vibrant local multimedia and other NII-related services industry in the face of two major obstacles -- the absolute scale disadvantage and distance from lead user markets, particularly the USA. One emerging approach that we can expect to see happening more is the formation of collaborative R&D consortia to pool resources among small local firms and government R&D institutes. The recent formation of the NSTB-funded Digital Media Consortium (DMC), which involves three public R&D institutes (ISS, ITI and IME) and three local IT companies (Creative, Aztech and IPC) working with MIT's Media Lab is a good example of this kind of development.

Thirdly, while a clear policy framework towards encouraging competition, providing universal access, and user choices over "the last mile" has been laid, many contentious policy issues can still be expected to surface in the future. Debates over the extent of editorial controls that the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) can exercise over contents that can be delivered via SCV's cable TVs or STel's potential VOD services are likely to emerge when these services go into widespread deployment. The monopoly dominance of STel over the fixed telecommunications backbone and SPH over local press contents may diminish over time as a result of increased competition via internet and other NII-related developments, but if they do not, then policy issues over the need to accelerate the liberalization of fixed telecommunications, or over cross-media ownership and control will doubtlessly be raised. An immediate concern, for example, is whether the current high narrow-ISDN tariff rates are justified, or that STel should be asked by TAS to reduce them substantially to promote the spread of internet use (and possibly personal videoconferencing usage in the future).

Last, but not least, it will be interesting to see how far the Singapore government will succeed in reconciling her unique brand of communitarian ideology with the challenge of information abundance posed by NII developments. The Singapore political leadership has consistently argued that a communitarian political system can clearly co-exist with a free market capitalist system for business operation and economic development; indeed, they argue that the former will provide a superior enabling institutional framework than the western social democratic system for rapid economic growth in the developing world. The economic success of Singapore so far has provided the political leaders of Singapore with the proven track record to back their claim. Despite major clashes with the western press, Singapore has continued to attract MNC investments throughout the first half of the 1990s. More recently, the success of Singapore in developing herself into a regional broadcasting hub, despite the continuation of her strong stand towards media ("right-of-reply" rule, strict ban against pornography and satellite receiving dishes), has once again confounded certain foreign critics who predicted an early demise of Singapore in the information age. The Minister of Information and the Arts, Mr. George Yeo, has asserted that, while control over information will become increasingly difficult with technological advances, the Singapore government will not give up trying to deter what she considers "information pollution". However, the recent policy developments suggest that the emphasis may be shifting towards taking a pro-active role to create more "wholesome" alternatives, rather than stopping non-wholesome ones. Greater emphasis will also be expected on parental responsibility in providing guidance and supervision over information access by children within the family, and local community responsibility in exercising control over the distribution of undesirable information.

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