Good times for consumers ahead as MyRepublic rattles the incumbents

THIS week in telecommunications may have proven a recently much-discussed stereotype: that startups are outspoken, eager disrupters of the establishment - and incumbents careful, sophisticated veterans ever wary of upstarts.

When fourth telco hopeful MyRepublic confounded the market on Wednesday by unveiling its proposed mobile plans - one as low as a third the price of the incumbents' - even before it has won the fourth telco licence, the Big Three telcos responded (hours later) in classic painstaking fashion.

M1 said it was "far too premature to comment at this point", Singtel said "no comment", and StarHub literally did not comment.

(In fact, Singtel somewhat sprang a countermove, announcing after the market closed on Wednesday a new feature DataX2, that offers customers double their mobile data allowance for only S$5.90 more a month, as part of efforts to expand its data-centric plans. It's imaginably a direct challenge to MyRepublic's proposed mobile plans, which - by coincidence or not - are all data-only plans.)

To be fair, it's very early days. The New Entrant Spectrum Auction will happen in Q3 2016, and spectrum rights for the new entrant will commence only in April 2017. It remains to be seen if MyRepublic will meet the pre-qualification criteria and raise US$250 million for its mobility bid - although, in true ambitious startup style, it has publicly assured that all preparations "should be finished" by April 2016.

Meanwhile, incumbents on Wednesday got into full-force questioning mode, having examined MyRepublic's proposed plans in great detail. The big question on everyone's minds was if MyRepublic's pricing strategy would be sustainable in the long term - to which MyRepublic said yes, given a more cost-effective and future-proof network type it plans to leverage.

One incumbent also spotted a clause in MyRepublic's terms and conditions for its mobile plans - that an Acceptable Use policy will apply to all unlimited data plans to prevent abusive practices and illegal activities - and asked if this meant that data would be capped if used over a certain limit, and hence not be absolutely unlimited. MyRepublic told BT: "Actually, no - it's mostly for things like they can't run a business using a residential mobile unlimited line."

While enforcement of this rule will likely be arduous, it testifies to the startup's aspirations. MyRepublic promised last year that it would offer unlimited mobile data - potentially surpassing the Big Three telcos in this offering - as "nothing compares to the peace of mind" such a plan would bring. Consumers clearly lapped it up; over 37,000 of them have since reportedly registered support for MyRepublic as the country's fourth telco.

Earlier this week, when boutique ISP (Internet Service Provider) ViewQwest flaunted its 10Gbps fibre broadband plan for homes, effectively getting in on the high-speed broadband race here, the incumbents responded with care, showing a studied understanding of the technology.

Singtel, the first to launch 10Gbps services for homes, said consumers do and will appreciate the "super fast" downloads of large data files, simultaneous streaming of multiple 4K videos, multi-player gaming and home networking functions.

It added: "We expect exponential growth in data-intensive applications and inter-device connections with the rapid development of IoT (Internet of Things) . . . fuel(ling) the increasing need for faster, smoother connections that come with 10Gbps technology."

StarHub, albeit the only Big Three telco not yet in the 10Gbps game, observantly flagged that devices (such as mobile phones and networking equipment) that support higher speeds are currently not "affordable" for the mass market. It told BT: "We know our customers' preferences, and we constantly ensure our plans remain relevant to them."

Interestingly, MyRepublic - whose values are speed, freedom and choice - took a moderate stand on the high-speed technology, saying: "Speed is certainly important, but it should be speed customers can experience. Right now, a 10Gbps line will end at one's doorstep because wifi and consumer home connectivity solutions can't support 10Gbps - and will likely remain so for the near future. We will likely launch 10Gbps in the future when the technology ecosystem looks ready to support it."

Its peer ViewQwest was decidedly more bullish. Even as it acknowledges there is "very little real-life advantage of having a 10Gbps line over a 1Gbps line today because 1Gbps is fast enough for the vast majority of consumers", it is confident that new applications that can take advantage of the technology will emerge. "We are building this for the future," it said. Spoken like a true disrupter.

And this is how it will go. Like it or not, disrupters will disrupt the industry, and only the genuinely innovative incumbents will last. One thing's for sure in this rapidly evolving landscape: consumers ultimately win. Thursday's full- blown mobile data price war is proof of that - and it's only the tip of the iceberg.