Cell phone use falling in Singapore

The loss of 300,000 subscribers in November surprises at least one analyst in the region. However, the group that released the figures says it may be too soon to call it a trend.

3 min read
By Irene Tham

SINGAPORE--Citizens here, who have long been known for their chattiness on cell phones, are doing the inconceivable: They are talking less.

Figures released by the Info-communications Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) show that the island suffered a drastic drop in the number of mobile users last month, despite heightened competition in the market.

In November, Singapore's mobile subscribers totaled 2.77 million--plunging more than 300,000 from October.

The decline came as a surprise to analyst Gary Hong, who said the figure almost seemed inaccurate. "If the drop is 100,000, it could be attributed to users cutting costs," said Hong, who oversees the wireless market at IDC Asia Pacific.

The prepaid segment--more popular among infrequent mobile users, such as retirees, students and foreign workers--was the hardest hit. The number of mobile users fell from 943,200 in October to 670,000 in November as a result of operators updating customer records.

"The drop is largely due to the termination of prepaid customers who have not been active in the last six months," IDA representative Jennifer Toh said.

The island's leading mobile operator, Singapore Telecommunications (SingTel), for one, has been busy removing its inactive prepaid customers since September. In June, SingTel identified about 350,900 inactive prepaid users, a SingTel representative said.

"Inactive users are defined as those who have not topped up their prepaid cards for more than six months," the representative said. "Many of them are transit customers--visitors to Singapore on holiday or for business."

"By keeping only active users in our customer base, we free up mobile phone numbers, which are limited in supply," the representative said.

By July, the operator registered over 671,300 prepaid customers. SingTel declined to reveal its current number of subscribers.

How competitors measure up
SingTel competitor StarHub Mobile said its number of prepaid users increased in November, but the company declined to reveal specifics. By October, StarHub had about 68,000 prepaid customers.

MobileOne (M1), meanwhile, saw a 2 percent increase last month to 190,000 for its prepaid segment.

The contraction also affected the post-paid market. IDA figures revealed a modest drop in subscriptions to 2.11 million last month from 2.13 million in October.

A large part of the decline can be attributed to StarHub Mobile suspending 10,000 phone lines because of late payment.

"In November, StarHub consolidated its post-paid customer base, and this resulted in a temporary decline," said Joanna Chan, the company's assistant vice president for marketing.

StarHub had about 393,000 post-paid customers by October, but the operator would not reveal current figures.

Despite the decline registered by StarHub, M1 said its post-paid customers rose from 744,000 in October to 760,000 in November.

SingTel declined to reveal current figures but noted that it had over 1 million post-paid customers as of June.

Newcomer Virgin Mobile declined to provide subscriber figures. However, nine days after it launched its services in Singapore on Oct. 12, the company said it had registered customers "in the thousands."

Although the drop from October to November marks the second consecutive month of decline, the IDA resisted applying any significance to it.

"As the drop in numbers for post-paid customers is observed only over the past two months, it is therefore premature for IDA to establish whether this will be a permanent trend going forward or a temporary fluctuation," the IDA's Toh said.

CNETAsia's Irene Tham reported from Singapore.