Which 1Gbps plan works best for you?
HOW things - or rather, prices - have changed in the span of 12 months. Just a year ago, most consumers were priced out of a speedy 1Gbps fibre broadband plan, as it could easily cost between $400 and $500.
But this changed when MyRepublic introduced 1Gbps fibre plans with prices starting at $49.99 per month in January. ViewQwest then dropped the price of its 1Gbps plan from $499.95 to $149.95, and more recently, to $89.95.
We also saw M1's 1Gbps offering drop from a high of $399 to $129, then to $99, and finally to a MyRepublic-matching $49 in September.
To put things in perspective, this magical $49 price point used to be the typical price of a 200Mbps plan. We cannot think of anything else to call it other than a price war.
StarHub has a 1Gbps plan too. The telco stopped selling it for a few months in the second half of this year, but it is now back with a significant price drop - from $395.90 per month previously to $69.90 now.
SingTel announced its Unlimited Fibre plan in August, which comes with an advertised typical speed of 800Mbps and goes for $54.90.
To enjoy the lowest 1Gbps price from each of these Internet service providers (ISPs), you have to agree to a two-year contract. Only MyRepublic offers 12-month 1Gbps plans for new subscribers, and they are priced higher (from $65 per month) than the corresponding 24-month contracts.
MyRepublic is also the only ISP to offer a Gamer Ultra Edition for its 1Gbps plan. This plan includes several gaming-oriented features, privileges and freebies, and costs $10 more than the regular Ultra plan.
Looking purely at monthly subscription fees, it is clear that M1 and MyRepublic have the two most affordable home 1Gbps plans in Singapore. But price is not everything.
For ISPs with higher-priced 1Gbps plans, they believe they can differentiate themselves from their competitors based on unique services, after-sales support and reliability.
What are some of these differentiating factors, and is there anything you should look out for before signing up for a top-tier plan?
One big advantage the three telcos here - SingTel, StarHub and M1 - have is that, being mobile and telephony providers, it is easy for them to bundle free mobile and carrier-specific services in their fibre broadband plans, in addition to the free or discounted networking equipment offers (usually routers) that can be replicated easily by the competition.
The smaller players - MyRepublic and ViewQwest - have their own ways to differentiate themselves. A common one is to make use of the broadband connection to offer a triple-play service that covers Internet access, online TV and Internet-based phone services.
Both have services that allow subscribers to easily access popular video streaming websites, such as Netflix, that are usually not accessible from Singapore due to online geographical locks - with no complicated settings to configure.
But the telcos have their own options for Internet voice calls and Internet TV too.
It is hard to say which provider has the best triple-play offering, especially for the TV leg. But for tech-savvy users and those hooked to overseas content, there is no doubt that the flexibility of MyRepublic and ViewQwest's services provides a strong counter to the telcos' more traditional and curated Internet TV offerings.
Now, if there is one thing which is directly linked to the price of a fibre broadband plan, it is speed. After many years of dealing with the ISPs, most of us should know by now that this subscribed speed is just a theoretical maximum speed, and that no ISP is guaranteeing that you will achieve it all the time.
A better metric to pay attention to is the typical speed range, which is a range of download speeds that you are more likely to experience. In some cases, such as for M1 and ViewQwest, this range consists of a mix of local and international downloads, and the result is applicable 80 per cent of the time. Such tests are always done with a wired connection. So do not complain if you are limiting your speed by using a slow Wi-Fi router.
SingTel does not publish typical download speed ranges for its fibre plans, other than saying that subscribers should be able to "experience average download speeds as advertised 95 per cent of the time". But it did list an 800Mbps typical speed claim for its Unlimited Fibre plan.
According to a SingTel spokesman, 800Mbps is not the plan's maximum speed. But the telco stopped short of calling it a 1Gbps plan outright.
For MyRepublic, there is no speed limit imposed on international downloads, and the company claims that its unique data prioritisation system affords everyone maximum advertised bandwidth 99 per cent of the time for streaming, surfing, gaming and Internet calls. A spokesman said that the company has plans to publish typical download speeds soon.
Of course, making a promise is one thing; whether the ISP delivers is another. Unfortunately, data published in the Infocomm Development Authority's Consumer Broadband Report does not cover plans over 200Mbps, so it is hard to tell who has the fastest speeds in this category.
The best alternative is to listen to the experiences of other users.
Last year, we saw most ISPs move from asymmetric bandwidth to symmetric bandwidth, whereby the subscribed upload speed is the same as the subscribed download speed. Most ISPs have since moved to symmetric bandwidth for most, if not all, of their home fibre broadband plans. Exceptions are the 1Gbps plans offered by the likes of M1, MyRepublic, StarHub and ViewQwest.
For their 1Gbps plans, the upload speed is capped at 500Mbps. Put another way, if upload speeds matter to you (maybe you put a lot of files in the cloud), SingTel is the only ISP at the moment to offer symmetric upload and download speeds for its highest-end Unlimited Fibre plan. SingTel does not explicitly say so on its website, but we have confirmed it with a spokesman.
NO P2P THROTTLING
Traffic shaping is a network management technique often used by ISPs to ensure that their networks operate in an efficient manner. ISPs which implement traffic shaping (or traffic management) are very concerned with P2P (peer-to-peer) traffic such as file sharing using BitTorrent software. For the most part, the reason given is sound: it is to ensure that the small percentage of P2P users do not use up the majority of the bandwidth at the expense of other users.
In Singapore, the three telcos have a history of performing network management. In general, they all target P2P protocols and the traffic shaping kicks in during peak hours. Of course, each ISP has its own implementation details, so one ISP's network management policy may kick in earlier or throttle the speed more than the others.
While traffic shaping is not usually done during off-peak hours, it is not a rule cast in stone. It may still kick in if the level of P2P activity crosses a threshold. When it happens, the download speed of your P2P application is greatly reduced, sometimes by as much as four times. Because of this, many people have turned to new players like MyRepublic and ViewQwest, which say they do not enforce hard bandwidth caps or throttle popular file-sharing applications.
That said, it looks like the telcos are softening their stance on P2P throttling, especially for their high-end plans. The three telcos have indicated that their 1Gbps plans, and in SingTel's case the Unlimited Fibre plan, do not throttle P2P traffic.
With ever-falling prices and rules that make sense (no speed throttling), there has never been a better time to sign up for a 1Gbps plan.
Moving forward, it is clear that speeds will get faster. The first to fire a warning shot at its competitors was ViewQwest, which has announced that it will launch a 2Gbps plan early next year. Sure, most consumers do not need that kind of bandwidth, but as history has shown, competition always leads to more innovation and price cuts, especially at the lower tiers.