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The Boring Investor

Author:   |   Latest post: Mon, 21 May 2018, 12:20 AM

 

Who Moved Starhub's Cheese?

Author:   |  Publish date: Mon, 21 May 2018, 12:20 AM   |  >> Read article in Blog website


Starhub has been facing declining profitability in the last few years. It even had to cut its 20-cent annual dividend last year, a dividend which it had held steady for 7 years. Why did Starhub face declining profitability and who moved Starhub's cheese? To discuss these questions, we need to first understand what were Starhub's competitive advantages in the past and how have they changed.

Starhub's Moats

Traditionally, compared to its 2 rivals, Starhub has the advantage of using its cable network infrastructure to deliver both cable TV and cable broadband services, thus enabling it to spread out the cost of operating the infrastructure over a larger number of customers.

In addition, compared to M1, which until recent years only offered mobile services, Starhub (and also Singtel) has the hubbing strategy which offers customers discounts if they sign up for 3 services, namely, mobile line, home broadband and Pay TV. The discounts range from 5% to 30% for different services. Thus, if a customer needs mobile lines, home broadband and Pay TV, he would find it attractive to sign up all services with Starhub (or Singtel) and enjoy the hubbing discounts. This hubbing strategy has allowed Starhub and Singtel to gain market share relative to M1 in the post-paid mobile services market. See Fig. 1 below for the changes in market share of the 3 telcos and the percentage of households who are members of Starhub's Hub Club.

Fig. 1: Post-Paid Mobile Service Market Share

Hence, for a long time, Starhub had been enjoying a moat which seemed impregnable. 

Cable Broadband

The first crack in Starhub's hitherto impregnable moat is cable broadband. In 2010, the Next Generation Nationwide Broadband Network (NGNBN) started operations. Instead of only Starhub and Singtel being able to offer home broadband via their cable and ADSL networks respectively, the market was suddenly opened up to many other companies, including M1, MyRepublic, ViewQwest, etc. With more competitors, prices of home broadband dropped. In addition, as more customers switch from cable broadband to fibre broadband, there are less customers to spread the cost of operating the cable network infrastructure. See Fig. 2 below for the declining number of cable broadband customers. 

Fig. 2: Proportion of Cable and Fibre Broadband Customers

Although Starhub's cable broadband market share declined, its hubbing strategy is still intact. Customers who need mobile lines, Pay TV and home broadband, regardless whether it is cable or fibre broadband, would still find it attractive to sign up with Starhub to enjoy the discounts. Nevertheless, it should be noted that M1 is now able to offer a hubbing strategy for customers to sign up mobile lines and fibre broadband. Customers who do not need Pay TV would enjoy hubbing discounts with M1 but not Starhub and Singtel.

Pay TV

With faster and more reliable broadband speed comes the ability to watch videos online. Furthermore, online viewers are not restricted to watching video on the TV; they could watch it anywhere and on the move. This has resulted in cord-cutting by Pay TV subscribers, and this trend is not limited to Singapore alone. 

In Jan 2016, Netflix entered the Singapore market, offering not only a cheaper way of watching movies but also bringing in popular exclusive original content. See Is Pay TV Still A Reliable Cash Cow? for more information. Since then, the decline in the number of Pay TV subscribers at both Starhub and Singtel has accelerated, despite the retention power of their hubbing strategies. See Fig. 3 below for the number of Pay TV subscribers. 

Fig. 3: No. of Pay TV Subscribers at Starhub and Singtel

With the decline in Pay TV subscribers, there is further reduction in the number of customers to spread the cost of operating the cable network infrastructure. The traditional competitive advantage that Starhub has in the cable TV network infrastructure is irreversibly gone.

Furthermore, the proportion of households on Starhub's Hub Club has also declined. See Fig. 1 above. Thus, with the onslaught of streaming video on demand, even Starhub's hubbing strategy is no longer as impregnable. If anything, the hubbing advantage has tilted towards M1 which requires only 2 services instead of 3 services for Starhub and Singtel.

Mobile Services

Mobile Services is the largest segment of all 3 telcos. In the last few years, it has faced many headwinds. The traditional money generator for telcos, Short Message Service (SMS), has now been superseded by messaging apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, etc. Likewise, voice is also seeing a decline as it is being replaced by WhatsApp calls, Skype, etc. Only data is seeing increasing demand. But even in this area, competition has increased. In 2016, M1 launched data upsize plans that allow subscribers to increase their data bundles with a slight increase in monthly fees. This has the effect of reducing the excess data charges that subscribers pay when they exceed their data bundles. See Impact of Data Upsize Plans on Telcos for more information.

Also in 2016 and again in recent months, new virtual telcos known as Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) have sprung up. These MVNOs buy network capacity from traditional telcos and resell to retail customers. They cater to niche customer segments and usually dangle attractive offers, such as Circles.Life's $20-for-20GB of data, ZeroMobile's Unlimited Everything and Zero1's unlimited data for $29.99. See Will MVNOs Cannibalise Telcos' Business?

In addition, there have been other disruptions to the telco industry, such as the SIM-only plans, which attract customers who do not need to change their phones every 2 years. These plans reduce the revenue but are value accretive at the EBITDA level. See Will SIM-Only Plans Cannibalise Regular Telco Plans? for more information. Finally, there is also the fourth telco which is scheduled to start operations in Jan next year. See Where Art Thou, TPG?

Conclusion

In conclusion, Starhub is facing headwinds in many business segments. The party that is moving Starhub's cheese is not a single actor. Many actors have been moving Starhub's cheese. 

P.S. I am vested in M1, Netlink Trust and Singtel.


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A Satisfied M1 Investor

Author:   |  Publish date: Mon, 14 May 2018, 12:43 AM   |  >> Read article in Blog website


I started investing in M1 in Jan last year. At that time, it was to take advantage of the crash in telco stocks due to fear of the fourth telco. Since then, I have added to my positions several times. My current position is now 5 times the initial one. This is because despite all the headwinds that telcos face, from SIM-only plans, data upsize plans, Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) to the fourth telco, M1 has performed admirably. Below is a summary of what I like about M1.

SIM-Only Plans

When M1 launched SIM-only plans in Jul 2015, I had not invested in telco stocks yet. But my initial thoughts were that SIM-only plans would lead to a drop in revenue and a smaller drop in profitability, as SIM-only plans would lead to some subscribers downgrading from the more expensive regular telco plans with handphone subsidies to the SIM-only plans. See Impact of SIM-Only Plans on Telcos. As it turns out, although SIM-only plans indeed led to a drop in revenue, they are value-accretive at the EBITDA level, as they attract new customers in addition to existing subscribers who downgrade. An analogy would be the regular telco plans are like full-service airlines while SIM-only plans are like budget airlines. Although SIM-only plans cannibalise regular telco plans, they also create new demand of their own. See Will SIM-Only Plans Cannibalise Regular Telco Plans? for more information. The popularity of SIM-only plans (together with Circles.Life) has led to strong growth in M1's post-paid customer base. See Fig. 1 below for the growth rate (note: M1's post-paid customer base includes that of Circles.Life, the MVNO that works with it).

Fig. 1: Changes in M1's Post-Paid Customers

In this aspect, I have to acknowledge that M1 knows what it is doing and is doing better than I thought.

Data Upsize Plans

This is another initiative that M1 started in Mar 2016 before I became a shareholder. Again, I believed that this would lead to lower profitability, as subscribers who used to exceed their data bundles and pay excess data charges of as high as $10.70/GB now need to pay only $5.90 per month to upsize their data bundles. See Impact of Data Upsize Plans on Telcos

This time, I am not wrong about the impact on revenue and profitability, but M1 has bigger plans. Instead of stopping at 3 levels of upsize, M1 launched big data plans in Aug 2017, including an unlimited data plan. The big data plans are clearly ahead of competition, which is quite unusual since all telcos will try to match each other. See No Competition for M1's Big Data Plans for more information. M1's prices are comparatively lower than that of the other 2 telcos, so much so that I feel that M1 did not maximise profits by pricing them closer to the competition (but also see the section on Narrowband Internet of Things).

Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs)

Long before the recent spate of MVNOs like Zero Mobile, Zero1 and MyRepublic, M1 had already worked with a MVNO called Circles.Life in May 2016 to roll out mobile services to niche segments of customers that M1 did not cater for. Since MVNOs have to buy network capacity from traditional telcos, they will never be able to offer a better deal than traditional telcos on a sustainable basis. So, MVNOs are a way of getting some extra revenue from niche market segments without taking the risks.

I would like to say that the collaboration with Circles.Life has been a successful one. Customer numbers have been increasing as shown in Fig. 1 above. Furthermore, Singtel and Starhub have recently been copying M1 in working with MVNOs as TPG's timeline for setting up operations in Singapore by Dec 2018 approaches. As they say, imitation is the best form of flattery. 

I might be wrong in this aspect, but I somehow suspect that M1 learnt something useful from Circles.Life's operations. Customers of Circles.Life use an app known as CirclesCare to manage their plans, including activating additional services on-demand. See CirclesCare features. M1's app has similar features, which saves customers' time from not having to call the customer service line and reduces the no. of staff they need to service customers. 

Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT)

NB-IoT is a new 4.5G network designed for machine-to-machine communications to facilitate Internet-of-Things (IoT). Like most other new services, M1 is the first telco to roll out this new service in Aug 2017. There are some advantages in being the first mover and the lowest cost provider in big data, but it is still a fairly new service and not many companies are ready to launch IoT devices, so it is worth watching whether this new service will bring in good revenue for M1.

In an earlier section on data upsize plans, I mentioned that although M1 has a cost advantage in big data, it has not taken advantage of it to maximise profits. This might be because M1 is trying to attract more companies to use its NB-IoT services. Once on board, M1 could upsell to customers its data analytics services to derive better value. Furthermore, compared to traditional 4G services that cater to individuals, NB-IoT has higher switching costs and hence, customers are less likely to switch to a different telco. See NB-IoT - The Next Frontier for Telcos for more information. Thus, I am willing to accept that M1 has priced its big data plans lower than necessary to capture this new market segment.

Overall

M1 is the smallest telco in Singapore. Perhaps cognisant of its small size, it has always been willing to try out new things. It is the first telco to launch 3G mobile services in Feb 2005, mobile broadband in Dec 2006, fibre broadband in Sep 2010, 4G mobile services in Sep 2012, 4.5G mobile services in Dec 2014, etc. Nevertheless, despite being the first to deliver, it has always come in last in terms of market share. Yet, it knows that if it is not the first to deliver, it will not only come in last, but also become irrelevant, given that it had no Pay TV, cable/DSL broadband and analogue/digital voice businesses (before the Next Generation Nationwide Broadband Network came on board and disrupted the playing field). To stay relevant and survive, M1 has to constantly innovate. Innovations are in M1's DNA.

The innovations mentioned in earlier sections represent a desire to disrupt itself and competitors to stay ahead of the competition. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the disruptions in the telco industry in recent years did not come from the fourth telco; they came from M1 (and Singtel to a smaller extent). All these disruptions have also made the fourth telco fairly irrelevant, even if TPG were to start operations in Dec 2018 as scheduled. M1 has established a clear lead in big data (for now) and a toehold in NB-IoT. Perhaps this time round, it would not come in last among the 3 telcos.

On my investment in M1, despite averaging down 4 times, I am still sitting on a small paper loss. Nevertheless, the actions that M1 took make me confident that it is a matter of time before the market recognises M1 is a technology disruptor rather than the disrupted and the share price recovers to my cost price. I am satisfied with my investment in M1.

P.S. I am vested in M1, Netlink Trust and Singtel.


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NB-IoT - The Next Frontier for Telcos

Author:   |  Publish date: Mon, 7 May 2018, 11:58 PM   |  >> Read article in Blog website


NB-IoT sounds like the name of a robot, but it stands for Narrowband Internet of Things. You probably have heard of Internet of Things (IoT), in which every device is collecting data and connected to the internet. As an example of the benefits of IoT, an IoT fridge can keep track of the groceries stored inside. If any grocery were to run low, it can place an order for fresh groceries to be delivered to your home automatically. You do not need to worry about groceries running low any more. It is an exciting future, isn't it? For the IoT fridge to be able to place orders online, it needs to be connected to the internet, either through WiFi at home or the telco network. Herein comes the NB-IoT. It is a 4.5G telco network that caters for machines instead of humans. NB-IoT is not the only telco network that machines can get connected to the internet, neither will it be the final telco network, but for now, it is a feasible network that enables IoT to take off.

M1 is the first telco to launch NB-IoT in Aug 2017. This is followed by Singtel in Feb 2018. Starhub's roll-out is still in progress, together with its enhancement of the 4G peak speed from 400Mbps to 1Gbps. How is the NB-IoT network going to play out for telcos?

Unlike the 4G networks that cater for human-to-human communications, there is an inherent advantage that incumbent telcos have in NB-IoT networks, which is switching cost. It is easy for 5 million people in Singapore to replace the SIM cards of their 8 million handphones to that of a different telco, but it is not easy for, say, an utility company to replace the SIM cards of the smart power meters in 1 million homes. To do so, they have to incur much manpower and transport costs to visit these smart power meters. Thus, if the differences in monthly subscription costs from other telcos are not too much, customers are unlikely to switch to a different telco. First-movers will have some advantages. Having said that, NB-IoT is still fairly new and not many companies are ready to launch NB-IoT devices now.

In the area of data costs, M1 seems to have an edge for now. If you read last week's post on No Competition for M1's Big Data Plans, it appears that M1 has a cost advantage over the other 2 telcos on big data.

Although NB-IoT holds promises with millions of devices to be connected up, I am still not particularly excited over telcos' prospects. The key question I have is that is the NB-IoT service that telcos provide a dumb pipe or a smart pipe? If it is a dumb pipe, any telcos could have provided the connectivity and price competition would be present. However, if it is a smart pipe, telcos would be able to hold off the competition and derive better value from NB-IoT.

Let us consider M1's collaboration with Otto Waste Systems and SmartCity Solutions to implement an intelligent waste management system based on NB-IoT. The sensors used to determine whether the bins are full is provided by Otto Waste Systems, while the centralised management system to monitor which bins need to be cleaned is provided by SmartCity Solutions. M1 provides the NB-IoT connectivity and the data analytics to determine the distribution of bins and the frequency of collection. Based on this description, M1's pipe is a half-dumb pipe. They could derive some additional value from the provision of data analytics, but M1 is not the only telco that has such data analytics capabilities. Otto Waste Systems and SmartCity Solutions could have worked with any other telcos and still not suffer a drop in the quality of service.

In conclusion, NB-IoT is the next frontier for telcos. Unlike 4G networks, telcos can better hold on to their customers because of high switching costs. They probably also can derive more value from the provision of data analytics to their customers, but some levels of price competition among telcos will still be around. 

P.S. I am vested in M1, Netlink Trust and Singtel.


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No Competition for M1's Big Data Plans

Author:   |  Publish date: Sun, 29 Apr 2018, 11:30 PM   |  >> Read article in Blog website


Usually, the 3 local telcos are very competitive. Whenever 1 launches a new service, the other 2 will follow quickly. However, for the new big data plans that M1 launched in Aug 2017, the follow-ups have been fairly feeble. Starhub launched its unlimited weekend data plans immediately, but that came with additional monthly subscription fees of $5.10. Only Singtel came up with something close, offering a Data X Infinity add-on for unlimited data for additional $39.99 per month 2 weeks later. However, that add-on only applies to higher mobile plans. Let us look at the offerings from each telco.

Do note that M1's big data plans do not come with much talktime and SMS. All the big data plans (except for the most expensive one) have only 100 mins of talktime and 100 SMS. For extra talktime, there are add-ons that range from $5 (for extra 200 mins) to $15 (for unlimited talktime). These big data plans do not replace M1's more traditional mobile plans that have a balance of talktime, SMS and data. For Singtel and Starhub, there are no new mobile plans that are equivalent to M1's big data plans. They are just enhancing their existing mobile plans to add more data. Thus, the comparison below is not a like-for-like comparison. However, for users who use a lot of data, this comparison is relevant.

M1 Plans
mySIM 40 mySIM 70 mySIM 90 mySIM 118
Monthly Cost
$40.00 $70.00 $90.00 $118.00
Data (GB)
5 15 30 Unlimited

Singtel Plans Combo 1 Combo 2 Combo 3 Combo 6 Combo 12
Monthly Cost $27.90 $42.90 $68.90 $95.90 $239.90
Data (GB) 0 2 3 6 12
X Infinity Cost - - $108.80 $135.80 $279.80
X Infinity Data (GB) - - Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited

Starhub Plans XS S M L XL
Monthly Cost $48.00 $68.00 $88.00 $108.00 $238.00
Data (GB) 3 4 5 8 12

At the low end of the spectrum, M1's plan for 5GB costs only $40 per month, whereas a similar plan from Singtel costs $95.90 (for 6GB) while that from Starhub costs $88 (for 5GB). There is simply no competition at this end of the spectrum.

At the middle of the spectrum, M1's plan for 15GB costs $70. Comparable plans for Singtel and Starhub cost $239.90 and $238 respectively. Again, no competition.

At the high end with unlimited data, M1's plan costs $118. Singtel, with a Data X Infinity add-on to its Combo 3 plan, costs $108.80. Starhub has no credible response here. Although Starhub's plans offer unlimited data during weekends, they are not comparable to M1's and Singtel's unlimited data plans that are unlimited any time of the week. Thus, at this end of the spectrum, only Singtel is able to beat M1.

The figure below shows that subscribers are consuming more and more data. The average usage for M1 subscribers has risen from 3.2GB in 1Q2015 to 4.5GB in 1Q2018. The no. of subscribers who exceed their primary data bundle is also on the rise, from 20% in 1Q2015 to 29% in 1Q2018.  If this trend continues, and if the other 2 telcos do not start offering similar big data plans in the near term, M1 might grab a bigger share of the mobile services market.

Fig. 1: M1's data usage trend

P.S. I am vested in M1, Singtel and Netlink Trust.


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Do M1's Acquisitions Make Sense?

Author:   |  Publish date: Mon, 23 Apr 2018, 12:30 AM   |  >> Read article in Blog website


It is a well known fact that competition among telcos has been heating up in the last couple of years. All 3 telcos have been finding new sources of revenue outside their traditional telco businesses. They have been busy acquiring companies, such as Singtel's acquisition of Turn for USD310M in Feb 2017 and Starhub's acquisition of D'Crypt for up to SGD122M in Dec 2017. In comparison, M1's acquisitions have been very small. So far, their acquisitions are as follow:
  • Aug 2016 - SGD3.0M for a 30% stake in Octopus Retail Management, which provides Point-of-Sales (POS) solutions for retailers and Food & Beverages (F&B) outlets.
  • Oct 2017 - SGD2.45M additional investment in Kliq, which provides digital mobile remittance service.
  • Apr 2018 - SGD3.0M for a 25% stake in Trakomatic, which provides Business-to-Business video analytics solutions to retailers.

Do these acquisitions have synergy with M1's existing businesses? Let us look at them one by one.

Octopus - Point-of-Sales

The POS solution is provided by Octopus Retail Management. This is an independently run business and not marketed together with M1's other services. As such, there is no synergy with M1's existing businesses. In fact, M1 has another mobile POS solution that is developed independently! To be fair, M1's in-house mPOS solution only facilitates payment transactions whereas Octopus' POS solution covers inventory tracking and customer loyalty programmes.

It is a bit difficult to see how this acquisition ties in with M1's overall business strategy. For FY2017, this associate lost $0.29M for M1.

Kliq - Digital Mobile Remittance Service

Though Kliq, M1 provides remittance service to 9 Asian countries such as Bangladesh, India, Philippines, etc. Users have to M1 customers. Payment for the remittance is made through AXS machines (which accept ATM, credit and debit cards), m-AXS mobile app (which accepts internet banking, credit and debit cards) and at M1 shops at IMM and Paragon  (which accept cash).

Although users have to be M1 customers, there is no integration with other M1 services. Users cannot pay for their remittance through their M1 monthly bills or their pre-paid stored value accounts. Furthermore, M1's share of the telco market is only 24.0%; by limiting the service to only M1 customers, they are effectively reaching out only to a small group of potential users.

I cannot see how this business ties in with M1's overall business strategy. Perhaps, someone from the remittance industry can see how it makes sense. In Oct 2017, M1 announced that it jointly invested an additional $5.02M in Kliq with Merchantrade Asia Sdn Bhd, thereby diluting its stake from 100% to 51%. Merchantrade is 20% owned by Axiata, one of M1's controlling shareholders.

Trakomatic - Video Analytics Solution

Trakomatic provides video analytics solutions to businesses to understand the movement and profiles of customers in their stores. The solutions can leverage on existing cameras and sensors that stores already have. This can complement M1's own data analytics solution, which analyses and provides similar information from the telco data of its customers. Trakomatic can provide information of customers within the store while M1 can provide information of potential customers in the vicinity of the store. Taken together, the data analytics created by M1 and Trakomatic will be more comprehensive and more valuable to businesses.

Conclusion

So far, M1 has acquired small stakes in 3 companies for a total of less than $10M. Among these 3 companies, 2 of them do not seem to complement its existing telco businesses very well. The more exciting acquisition is Trakomatic, which complements its data analytics business. M1 should be very careful about acquisitions, as its debts have been steadily climbing from $250M in Dec 2013 to $450M in Dec 2017.

P.S. I am vested in M1.


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Where Art Thou, TPG?

Author:   |  Publish date: Sun, 15 Apr 2018, 11:45 PM   |  >> Read article in Blog website


Just when I thought TPG was very quiet in its plans to roll out its 4G network, it suddenly announced on 19 Mar that it would provide the elderly with a free mobile plan for 2 years that includes unlimited calls and 3GB of data. That sounds really good on paper, but is TPG's 4G network ready?

According to the terms of the spectrum auction, TPG has to achieve the following network coverage by certain dates following the commencement of its spectrum rights on 1 Jul 2017:

Coverage Quality of Service Duration Date
Street Level 95% coverage 18 months 01 Jan 2019
In-Building 85% coverage 30 months 01 Jan 2020
MRT Underground Stations & Lines 99% coverage 54 months 01 Jan 2022
 
Thus, if TPG's roll-out schedule follows the above milestones, its network coverage is good only at the street level when it launches next year. Within buildings, the coverage will be sporadic. What is the use of having free mobile plans if they cannot be used to make or receive calls within buildings? 

Between street level and in-building coverage, TPG only has 1 year to roll out to all buildings. Given that there are so many buildings in Singapore, I do not think TPG can achieve the required Quality of Service (QoS) imposed by IMDA. Thus, if my guess is correct, it will be several years before TPG's 4G network is capable of matching those of the existing telcos. 

On the capex to build the nation-wide network, TPG has quoted a figure of $200M to $300M. If you compare to M1's fixed asset costs for "network and related application systems" of $517M as at end Dec 2017, TPG's proposed capex of $200M to $300M is on the low side. No doubt, M1's fixed asset costs include the 3G, 4G and Narrow-Band Internet-of-Things (NB-IoT) networks, but to build a nation-wide 4G network capable of meeting all the QoS standards at $200M to $300M still looks low.

Perhaps, what TPG is thinking of is to leverage on the 700MHz frequencies, which require less base stations than the traditional 900MHz and 1800/1900MHz frequencies. However, the 700MHz frequencies are dependent on the population switching out of analogue TV into digital TV, which is expected to be completed only by end Dec 2018.

In an interview by Zaobao on 27 Mar, M1 also had doubts on whether TPG could complete their network by the end of the year, noting that to set up a network, a telco has to purchase land, build base stations, connect the base stations to the core network and configure them. The largest obstacles are in buying the land and building base stations. M1 has around 2,500 macro base stations, and that does not include smaller base stations which are 2 to 3 times that number. Based on their observations, TPG does not seem to have started building the base stations.

In its results presentation for 1H2018 on 20 Mar, TPG reported actual capex of only AUD29.7M (or approximately SGD30.3M) for the Singapore mobile network. This is only 10% of the estimated total capex of $300M, providing further evidence that TPG has been slow in rolling out its network.

It is not easy to set up a telco network from scratch. Based on the experience of U Mobile, the fourth telco in Malaysia, it had to leverage on Celcom's network (i.e. act as a Mobile Virtual Network Operator, MVNO) while it rolled out its own nation-wide network concurrently. But for the case of Singapore, it is highly unlikely any of the existing telcos would allow TPG to come on board as a MVNO, since once TPG's network is completed, it would pose a threat to the existing telcos' business. 

Thus, I do not see TPG as posing a serious threat to the existing telcos any time soon. TPG, I am waiting for you.

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