When exactly will Singapore rollout its 5G coverage nationwide? And should you get a 5G phone in Singapore now?

Pre-orders for the new iPhone SE went live on Friday evening, and at US399 (S$649), I argued that it challenged the notion of what we value in a smartphone.

In my article, I commented that smartphone vendors in recent years tend to tack on unnecessary “luxuries” onto smartphones in an attempt to justify price increases, and I listed 5G connectivity as one of these.

To be clear, 5G is not technically a luxury; you can’t have 5G connectivity just because you were willing to pay a premium on your new smartphone if the area that you are currently living in does not have 5G coverage.

5G is an inevitable transition, and several years after that transition has elapsed, 5G will cease to be a luxury and become the norm. This was true with 4G/LTE. But until that transition occurs, the 5G modem in your smartphone will remain idle and essentially useless. That is what I meant when I called it a luxury — you’re paying extra money for something which is inessential, until your mobile carrier switches on its 5G network at least.

5G will not work, even if you paid a premium for a 5G phone, if your carrier does not support it

But when will your carrier do so? It depends on which part of the world you are in. In the US, T-Mobile has already rolled out its nationwide 5G network. In the UK, they have begun rolling out 5G, and they’d probably be advancing along quite nicely if their citizens weren’t burning down their 5G towers.

5G phones and Singapore

But what about Singapore?

Truth be told, I was inspired to write this article after I tried convincing my mother to purchase the new iPhone SE, and she replied by saying that she’ll hold off on it because it doesn’t have 5G capabilities.

I wondered how valid that argument was, and if many other Singaporeans shared the same sentiment; I had recently moved back to Singapore from the UK and was rather unfamiliar with the state of Singapore’s 5G rollout. So I decided to do some research, and here’s what I found.

According to a fact sheet published by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) in October of last year, “The nation is on track to commence the roll out of 5G mobile networks by 2020, with full-fledged 5G standalone capability covering at least half of Singapore by end-2022”.

It further states that IMDA will “facilitate the deployment of two nationwide, standalone 5G networks“, to spark competition between the two carriers. On top of this, up to two lots of millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum “will be assigned to remaining MNOs if there is interest, with the flexibility to deploy 5G on a non-standalone basis, as a start”.

As of 17 Feb 2020, IMDA received three submissions for its Call for Proposal — one each from Singtel Mobile Singapore Pte Ltd, and TPG Telecom Pte Ltd, and a joint-submission from StarHub Mobile Pte Ltd and M1 Limited. IMDA will allocate spectrum by mid-2020.

What does this 5G talk all mean?

In summary:

  • Although 5G rollout is expected to commence at the end of 2020, widespread 5G (50% coverage) won’t be expected in Singapore until end-2022
  • Full nationwide 5G (100% coverage) won’t be expected in Singapore until end-2025
  • The widespread network talked about is the 3.5GHz (midband) spectrum, NOT the ultra-fast 26GHz/28GHz (mmWave) spectrum, which means speed improvements over 4G/LTE will be marginal

Okay, but what does this mean for me?

  • Even if you get a 5G-capable phone now, it will likely still be connected to a 4G/LTE network until end-2022 unless your carrier decides to roll out 5G in your specific area before that
  • Even if your local area is covered by a 5G network, your speed improvements over 4G/LTE will be marginal
  • Your 4G phone will continue working fine, even after 2025, as telcos will not shut down the 4G network in the foreseeable future (the 2G network was only shut down recently in 2017)

The Lowdown

So no, in my opinion, you should not hold out for a 5G capable phone if you are living in Singapore, and you’re looking for an upgrade. It’s a gamble as to whether or not your carrier will roll out 5G in your local area soon. If you insist on holding out and you want to be certain that you will be able to reap the benefits of 5G, you’d have to hold out for five years.

Even if you were to buy a brand new phone right now and use it for 2 years, 5G coverage in Singapore will still not be widespread at the end of your phone’s lifecycle.

In fact, I may argue that it might be wise to intentionally seek out 4G phones during this period of time, because they will cost substantially cheaper, and you won’t be missing out on anything. But this may soon not be an option as smartphone vendors begin to exclusively offer 5G phones.

It may be wise to seek out a 4G phone for the time being if you’re in Singapore

We live in a strange situation where smartphone vendors are starting to offer 5G modems as the only option in their flagship phones, but cities like Singapore still don’t have 5G coverage. And until coverage becomes available in your area (best case scenario at the end of 2020, worst case scenario at the end of 2025), you would have paid that extra cash for nothing.

There is a small caveat however, in that the 5G rollout for the third carrier — who is likely allowed to roll out a non-standalone 5G network — might be faster than the other two standalone network carriers. If so, you might see that carrier promoting its nationwide 5G network much sooner. But even then, you’d have to be tied to that specific carrier to reap the benefits, and the benefits will be marginal.

Going back to the original motivation behind this article: no, 5G should not be a consideration for my mother — or anyone in Singapore — when deciding whether or not to buy an iPhone SE or any other 4G-only phone.

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