(See what I meant by being cynical of my own cynicism? I’m not making this up! I am genuinely that conflicted internally of what I feel about my own beliefs.)
Deep breaths, Banerjee, deep breaths. Calm down. Reach your Zen state. And tidy up your fucking desk.
So, for a break from Sticking It To The Man, I decided to help out The Man instead by writing a guide on cellphone companies and Whatever Else The Title Promised You. This is first in a series of informational posts that I intend to write, which I hope will be useful for transitory residents of the island nation of Singapore – tourists, exchange students, foreign students, expats, illegal immigrants, and pirates.
I don’t promise anything interesting for my regular readers – except for a shocking statistic in the section on mobile data prices and a lone joke about a web telephony service that leverages on a racist Spanish stereotype.
Singapore’s telecom sector is an oligopoly with three operators: SingTel (government-backed, 46% market share), StarHub, and M1. All three operate a GSM-based network with support for 3G handsets. The only serious implication on this for most visitors to Singapore is that if the current cellphone you own operates on a CDMA-network – as is the case with a few (albeit large) American networks – you will be unable to use it in Singapore. Most modern GSM-handsets come with dual-band / tri-band / quad-band support so they should work in Singapore. Asia, Europe, Middle East, and Africa generally use the same frequency bands; the odd-one-out is America again, so if you’re visiting from the US then you need to double-check whether your handset will work.
Protip: In Singapore, the term ‘handphone’ is most commonly used. People will understand though if you use equivalent terms like cellphone or mobile phones; it’s usually visitors who get confused when ‘handphone’ is used.
The easiest way to get connected is to get a prepaid (or ‘pay-as-you-go’, if you prefer) SIM card. You can buy one from any operator-run outlets, convenience stores (7-Eleven, Cheers, Fairprice…) as long as you have your passport with you. The details page of your passport will be photocopied / scanned for registration purposes. The only advantage of buying at an operator’s own outlet is that you can choose the phone number that you get – and if you have a fetish for specific numbers then you might just turn out to be a lucky bastard. There is no waiting period for SIM card activation.
(India, as always, has insanely strict rules for issuing prepaid SIM cards – forms need to be filled, passport photo and proof of residence is required, there’s a waiting period of 2-3 days. Think about how hard it must be for tourists! I’d be extremely annoyed if I came across equally strict laws in any of the countries I’ve travelled to. )
A new SIM usually costs S$15-20, with S$5-10 calling balance included. In such a competitive market, there’s isn’t much price differentiation among the three operators for basic services such as voice and text, so it doesn’t make much different which operator you choose if all you want are the basics. Typical local call rates range from 8-22 cents / minute for voice calls (depending on time of day) and 5 cents / text (local) or 15 cents / text (international), so calling / texting is fairly cheap for light usage. Take note, however, that in Singapore you are charged for incoming voice calls too at the outgoing local voice call rate; this comes as a shock to visitors from countries where it’s not standard practice to do so. If you expect to receive a lot of incoming calls, you can get the incoming call charge waived by paying a daily charge of 60 cents instead; the procedure for this differs from operator-to-operator but should be included in the start guide included with your SIM. Another thing you should be prepared for is that customer care hotlines are not operated 24/7 and often there are call charges applied to speak to customer care (albeit a reduced price).
Recharge vouchers can be bought at any convenience store or operator outlet. You also have the option of paying for a recharge online via credit card. Although in theory you can buy low-value ‘top-ups’ of S$5 too, I have rarely found these on sale. Top-up vouchers of denominations S$10 and above are available widely. If you are a heavy user, watch out for promotional top-ups: all three operators have specific recharge denominations, say, S$30 for which they give ‘S$130 value’. The way this works is that the top-up denomination – S$30 in this example – is added to your ‘main’ calling balance, and deducted when you make international calls or access data; an additional S$100 is added as ‘special’ calling balance, and deducted for all incoming voice calls and all local outgoing calls. The catch is that the ‘special’ calling balance is time-limited – usually 30 days – and then expires, but your ‘main’ calling balance never affected by time restrictions.
Yes, it is as terribly complicated as it sounds. You need to evaluate your usage and see whether you can make by with ‘standard’ recharges or need ‘promotional’ recharges. More information on individual price plans can be found on the following web pages:
- SingTel ‘hi!Card‘ (This is the only prepaid SIM card that comes in separate 2G and 3G variants. If you want to access data over a 3G network, choose the right SIM. The variants cost the same as far as I know.)
- StarHub ‘Green’
- M1 ‘M Card’
Mobile Data Usage
While standard usage (voice + text) is fairly cheap in Singapore, smartphone users need to prepare themselves for bill shock. Standard pay-as-you-go data transfer charge is 1 cent / kB but this is usually charged in blocks of 10 kB, so you end up paying 10 cents for even the ‘lightest’ web page you load. There is no distinction between 2G and 3G data transfer – both cost the same. If your phone is a BlackBerry, you cannot use the standard pay-as-you-go data plans – you need to get a BlackBerry-specific add-on service. Also, all three operators offer ‘prepaid data SIM cards’ with seemingly better rates but be careful of these as they are exclusively for data usage, i.e., you cannot make phone calls or receive texts on them; the data SIM cards are primarily intended for PDAs / netbooks / tablets that accommodate SIM cards.
All three operators, however, run periodic promotions where the charge is reduced to 0.2-0.5 cents / kB. Still, data on prepaid mobile phone plans is expensive in Singapore. To take an example of a fairly common smartphone app like Google Maps, initial load results in a transfer of ~100 kB of data, which works out to 20-100 cents. As you continue using the app, the amount of data transferred continues to pile up resulting in a deduction of anywhere between S$1 to S$5 for using an app once or a standard browsing session!
Some rough estimates for amount of data transferred for typical usage:
- Browsing 10 pages via Opera Mini: ~500 kB (Using Opera Mini browser instead of your phone’s native browser is a good idea, as it compresses data from the site you want to access before sending it to your phone, thereby reducing the amount of data transferred.)
- Using Google Maps: ~1-3 MB (~1000-3000 kB)
- Skype call over 3G: ~600 kB / minute (I believe Skype uses a variable data transfer rate, so your mileage may vary.)
- Watching a clip on YouTube: 1 MB / 2 minutes (This is, I think, for the lowest quality version – which is the only version the YouTube app on my smartphone supports. ‘Smarter’ phones like iPhones / Androids may guzzle more.)
Fortunately, there is some relief at hand. Here’s a list of special plans that the operators offer:
- Prepaid data plans: S$1 / 10 MB / 7 days or S$7 / 1 GB / 7 days. If you’re data usage is very light, mostly restricted to emails then the first plan should be enough for you as it is just an additional S$4 / month. However, if you are a regular / heavy data you might have to choose the second plan, and then if becomes quite expensive as it’s S$28 in addition to whatever however much you recharge your main balance.
- 0.facebook.com (that’s a zero, not an ‘o’): 0.facebook.com is a ‘light’ version of the Facebook mobile website, text-only. Only for SingTel subscribers in Singapore, if you visit the ‘zero’ mobile version, then you don’t have to pay anything for data transfer. Quite handy if you’re a heavy Facebook user.
- Prepaid data plans: S$2 / 30 MB / 3 days, S$4 / 200 MB / 3 days, S$7 / 1 GB / 7 days. Slightly varied pricing, but the structure is the same.
- Although I cannot find a reference to it anywhere on the StarHub website, I remember chancing upon advertisements for a StarHub prepaid card that comes with 50 MB / month of data included on a specific monthly top-up. It might bear fruit to ask about this at a StarHub retail outlet, for low-usage customers.
- I used to be an M1 prepaid subscriber earlier, and as far as I know, M1 does not offer any data plans to its prepaid customers. There are bolt-on packs listed here, but apparently they are only for postpaid users – or so I was told by M1 customer care.
I am a heavy mobile data user. My current (postpaid) plan comes bundled with free 12 GB of data transfer per month, out of which I use around 1 GB per month. Take a look at the screenshot below to see how much it would have cost me if was paying pay-as-you-go rates – more than S$2000!
I constantly access a bevy of websites – my email, Google Reader, Facebook, Twitter – which adds up over time. (In fact, I prefer to read long text articles on my phone, somehow I can concentrate better reading through a smaller ‘viewport’ than my laptop.) I do, however, use Opera Mini to reduce data transferred. I’m also very navigationally-challenged and resort to Google Maps for directions, and I usually have to keep it running to give me real-time update on my location when trying to get to a new place. I also occasionally use Skype over 3G or browse YouTube via its app. I’d love to listen to online radio on my cellphone too, if only it could last more than a five hours of usage with heavy data usage.
Free Nationwide WiFi
There is one way you can minimise mobile data costs if your phone / device has WiFi support: [email protected] (pronounced ‘wireless at SG’). Sponsored by the Singapore government, [email protected] offers free WiFi to all residents and tourists at public places throughout the island. You do need to register for the service, and for this you will need to fill out a form the first time you connect to [email protected] hotspot. Once you’ve created an account, you can use the login details to sign on to any [email protected] location. Watch out for ‘[email protected]SGx‘ connections, as these are usually faster (apart from being more secure). As you can imagine, speeds vary wildly depending on how many people are connected at any given location so browsing during peak times can feel slow; still, the utility of free nationwide WiFi cannot be denied!
Having said that, I cannot my say experience with [email protected] has been without frustration. The actual network operation has been assigned to three operators – SingTel, M1, and iCell Wireless. Depending on the location you are at, you will see a network / login page by a different operator – though you can still sign on with an account from any operator. The first time I created an account, I got an icellwirless.net ID which FOR THE LOVE OF MY LIFE I COULD NEVER GET TO CHANGE MY PASSWORD ON. Yeah, it was that annoying when you have a randomly assigned initial password. To make matters worse, it often failed to authenticate when trying to logon. I finally got fed up and signed up for a new [email protected] account, this time with / from a SingTel-operated location. From experiences I’ve heard, the SingTel and M1 operated locations / services are on average are better than iCell’s. Leaving aside password reset issues, I have often found randomly unable to sign on to a network – and the culprit usually is iCell.
Note that browsing data over WiFi instead of 3G depletes your phone battery faster. You will also not be able to use the connection on the move. Also, as an additional note of caution, sometimes you may see a network titled ‘Free Public WiFi’ show up in your list of networks to connect to. I don’t know what this is or why this network exists in so many areas in Singapore, but this is NOT [email protected] and your device will never successfully connect. Knowing this should save you hours of frustration.
If you are a heavy voice + text user, you might find ‘special’ recharges enough to last your usage, without having to pay a minimum fixed amount. If you are a heavy data user, however, and planning to stay in Singapore for a while then you should consider getting a postpaid phone contract. Phone contracts come both with or without a handset included – if you already have a phone, then you could opt for a SIM-only contract. Handset contracts – with free or otherwise cellphone included – run for two-year durations (this is a fixed rule). For SIM-only, there are options for monthly contracts that can be discontinued any time you want without a termination penalty as well as fixed duration contracts of 12-24 month duration. The difference between fixed-length and flexible contracts is usually in the ‘extras’. SingTel, for instance, on its student/youth plans offers a free subscription to its unlimited music download service. Similar perks exist for standard plans too.
There are caveats to getting a contract though:
- You can apply for a contract only if your foreign pass (student / temporary worker / work) is valid for more than six months. Yeah, so most exchange students who come for a semester (four months) don’t have recourse to this option and you’ll just have to suck it up with prepaid data plans.
- No roaming or international calling if your foreign ID is a Student Pass. Don’t bother going shop-to-shop, because ALL three operators have this policy. You’re actually worse off than when you were using prepaid, who get both these services. Roaming isn’t a big deal though, as in most neighbouring countries you travel to you can pick up local prepaid cards for the duration of your stay – a lot cheaper even for short stays as roaming rates are very expensive (S$1/min for calls!). International calling is dealt with in a separate section, read on. It seems Singaporean operators don’t trust students to keep a tab on their bill – for good reason. I know friends who ran up bills of S$100-200 in a month.
- Deposit of around S$300 when signing contract. The good news is that deposit is refundable. The bad news is that it’s still not particularly cheap, so getting a contract
Calling / text rates are same as prepaid, though you shouldn’t have to pay if you choose your price plan carefully the amount of minutes you need. Most of the operators throw in generous data plans of up to 12 GB of data transfer per month, the only reason why I’m not hit by a 2000-dollar fee every month! Depending on which country you’re coming from, you might be surprised to find that you have to pay extra for ‘features’ such as caller ID. (I personally don’t it’s worth it to skimp on caller ID, it’s way too crucial on a cellphone.) Usually though the companies waive off bolt-on fees for the initial few months.
Once again, the offerings of SingTel, StarHub, and M1 are very much similar for postpaid plans. If I may be so biased, I would suggest my current provider – SingTel. As the market leader, it is a sponsor for many events in Singapore such as Singapore Formula 1 Grand Prix, Singapore Beer Festival, music concerts, New Year parties at Sentosa, et al – and you’ll often find some perk or the other at every venue / event from SingTel. It also has a comprehensive rewards programme which allows you to earn points for usage over time, and trade it in for bill reductions, new phones, discounts / vouchers at a wide range of retail partners. You get even sweeter deals with SingTel if you’re a student with free music downloads and free tickets for events.
Retaining your exist number is possible if you switch mobile operators but only if you’re shifting from postpaid to another postpaid provider, or from one prepaid to another. (You might need to confirm this for prepaid, I’m fairly sure it’s allowed. Anyway, my point is that you cannot port a prepaid number to a postpaid plan or vice versa, even within the same mobile operator. Sucks, yah.) You need to call up your existing provider to consult the exact procedure they have. Generally, however, the porting is done within two business days. With offerings so similar, there is hardly any incentive to switch!
Dialling direct to a foreign destination (by adding country code) is a bad idea in Singapore – it’s just too expensive! The cellphone operators are quite smart though, and offer their own Voice over IP (VoIP) services. You don’t need to be at a computer, it works from your normal cellphone. The way they offer cheaper rates is that the carry that voice data to destination country over the Internet, so you only pay for last mile connectivity over cellphone at your and their end. Long story short, you get cheap calls – as low as 20-30 cents per minute. They call these services ‘IDD’ (International Direct Dialling, although strictly speaking it isn’t) and offer two options: a ‘basic’ service with (supposedly) lower quality, based on VoIP; and a ‘premium’ service with (supposedly) higher quality, based on normal phone networks.
The basic, VoIP-based international calling service is offered to select 18-20 countries which shouldn’t be an issue for most users (given the demographics of visitors to Singapore) as all major European, Asian countries as well as USA are covered under this list. To make an international call with the ‘basic’ dialling service, you dial prefix number + country code + destination number, where ‘prefix’ is an operator-specific prefix that you add. Here’s a list, with links to the operator’s website for further information on rates and usage:
For prepaid subscribers – if you have a ‘special’ balance arising out of a ‘special’ top-up (see previous information on this) – then the balance will be deducted from your ‘special’ balance, thus leaving your main balance intact. This is really useful if you make a large volume of international calls as the special top-ups give S$100 or above to be used in a month. Postpaid users – if you have international calling facility, as I mentioned, student pass holders don’t – have these calls count towards their local usage or have these charges shown separately.
I regularly used M1’s ‘basic’ IDD service when I was a prepaid customer with them. Never once during a conversation did I feel any lag, noise, or any disturbance that hindered the flow of the call. To me, the ‘premium’ service just seems like a ploy by The Man to con gullible people into buying superior service where no advantage exists; my sympathies if you’re forced to used it because your VoIP calls to your country are not supported.
VoIP for International Calling
Foreign/exchange students on a postpaid students – or people otherwise without international calling facility – will have to figure out alternatives, as we are not allowed to use even the basic IDD service. Most buy ‘calling cards’, which I find stupid as you end up paying twice – once to the local phone number you need to dial for the card, and then the amount deducted from calling card value. My suggestion would be to not go for this option.
Jajah.com is the VoIP service that I currently use to make international calls. Unlike most other services that require you to install software on your computer / phone and require that the destination party also has the same, Jajah works directly from phones. The concept is simple: set your current phone number on Jajah, enter the phone number you want to call on the Jajah website / app / mobile site, and Jajah then rings your phone as well as the destination party. (Behind the scenes, Jajah transfer voice data over Internet and you only pay for the last-mile termination on phone networks.) All you need is to pick up and talk! Obviously, this frees you from being tied down to your desk when talking, and doesn’t require large data transfers over mobile.
Jajah’s calling rates are cheap yet still relatively higher than a majority of VoIP calling services. I find the 1-2 cent premium worth it as long as I don’t have to rely on a spotty internet connection. Voice call quality is usually good with slight lags at times, although if you’re trying to call a number that requires you to key in numbers (customer helplines, for instance) I sometimes find that Jajah is unable to send the DTMF tones required to register your input. Redialling the number might help. Also, Jajah starts billing you the moment you pick up your phone and wait for the other party’s phone to ring – so merely dialling a number and picking up Jajah’s callback incurs a (small) charge. Which is standard, if you think about it.
Texting om Jajah is a big hit-or-miss. Sometimes it delivers texts, sometimes doesn’t. Singapore’s operators offer low text rates themselves so this is a non-issue. Conference calls and scheduled calls can also be set up via the Jajah website, as well as local number aliases for your contacts that you can call directly from your phone. Actually, Jajah offers many different mediums to initiate a call. It also has opt-in pre-call advertising supposedly pays you for listening to a commercial before your connection is completed but the payout are very small.
I’m fairly happy with Jajah’s call products; what I’m not as happy is with their customer support. Their support forum seems practically abandoned since 2009 / 2010, with spam posts going unchecked. The other option is to email customer support – which I have done thrice so far without ever getting a reply from their ‘dedicated support engineers’: first, to change the billing currency of my account from British pounds to Singapore dollars; second, to ask why DTMF tones don’t work sometimes on calls; third, to complain about isolated incidents when I my phone rang but the called party’s didn’t despite the call ‘connecting’ according to Jajah. The FAQs / how-to’s cover basic queries, though. Despite a seeming lack on interest demonstrated by poor customer support, none of my issues have been show-stoppers and it seems that they are working on new products.
(Jajah was bought out by Spanish telecommunications giant Telefonica. Now that it’s owned by a Spanish company – and you know how Spaniards pronounce ‘j’ as ‘h’ [roughly] – I expect Telefonica executives refer to that division as ‘Hahah’. Must be the laughing-stock of the whole company; the nerds who get ribbed by the jocks at company events.)
Wait, don’t leave yet! Yes, I know everyone knows about Skype but only for freebie calls. It doesn’t have to be that way! Pay-as-you-go rates for calling phones from Skype are 3-15 cents / minute, with cheap subscription rates for specific countries available too. In addition to this, I also bought a SkypeIn number with a London area code – $15 for 3 months – which I use in conjunction with call forwarding in Skype that allows my UK friends to call me easily, even if I’m not online. Whenever anyone calls – either by dialling my UK number or from within the Skype software – I get the call transferred to my phone and chat with them on it.
For some reason, my netbook (a Lenovo S10-3c) internal microphone does not work with Ubuntu despite trying out the workarounds mentioned in this bug report. Thus, I am unable to use Skype on Linux for voice chats, forcing me to reboot into Windows every time I want to have a long conversation that I want to conduct free through Skype. Which is very annoying.
Off late, Skype on Windows has been particularly bothersome too as it doesn’t log me in – not straight away. The first time I launch Skype after a fresh boot, it just gets stuck on the login screen and then stops responding. I need to kill the process, and then launch Skype again – and then it logs in straight away. I have no idea why this has to be so but it has become a ritual for me now as the only way to get Skype working on my PC.
Thus I grew to prefer to talk on my cellphone rather than being tied down to my computer. Using Skype on my mobile is a hit / miss. Thankfully, my post-paid data plan means I don’t need to worry about data usage. You can always Skype over WiFi of course. Get Skype for your phone here. I have a Nokia 5630 XpressMusic S60 phone that isn’t officially supported, and yet the Symbian app works fine. What’s annoying is that Skype doesn’t allow you to download the mobile app to your desktop, and when accessing from your phone browser blocks any downloads from ‘unsupported’ phones. I got the .sis installer from a friend who had a Nokia N95; a quick search throws up multiple results for Symbian installers for Skype – try them! iPhone / Android users should find the app install task fairly hassle-free.
Even though I get a ‘full-strength’ 3/3.5G signal in my hostel, I can still never seem to use Skype over 3G unless I walk to this very specific spot outside a cafeteria near by hostel block; otherwise, the call is too distorted / unstable. I study electronic engineering and it beats me why this happens with practically the same signal strength! Maybe this is an isolated issue with SingTel.
Bonus tip: Sure, Google Talk Voice Chat offers voice / video calling for free between Gmail users. What you may not know is that if you change you country to ‘USA’ in your profile, then you can even call landlines or cellphones in the US for free!
Yeah, I don’t think anyone’s going to read all this. Oh well. This is way too long to copyedit and I don’t have time, so if you come across any errors – copy or factual – do point them out!