Paying your telco for 4G speeds isn't the end of the world

Unlike 3G networks, at least you're not forced to pay for it, says Tein Hee Seow
Optional payment for 4G services is actually good news

Like all 4G subscribers, I was equally shocked when StarHub announced that it’ll charge customers to get the speed boost.

And by now, most re-contract or new subscribers to StarHub's network need to make the crucial decision - to 4G, or not to 4G? Considering how the three telcos try to match each other, it wasn't surprising that M1 (my current telco) will do the same by the end of this year. SingTel, on the other hand, hasn't announced when it'll follow suit.

I know of people who'd rather keep their 12GB data plan and pay less for a more affordable 3G smartphone. Sure, you might think you won’t miss out that much if you've never experienced 4G speeds. But once you've gone 4G, you can't live without it.

Optional payment for 4G services is actually good news

I was well aware that the 4G service is an add-on when I spotted that clause while I was signing my new contract in September 2013. Fortunately, the customer service officer at M1 told me it’s a free value-added service (VAS) till further notice. Hearing that, I grudgingly gave up my 12GB of data to enjoy faster download speeds on my LTE-enabled phone.

Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy free 4G VAS forever. What took me by surprise was how back then, if I hadn't asked about the meaning of 4G VAS, I might still be unaware of the potential charges.

On the bright side, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) stepped in and issued a mandate to the three telcos - don’t charge users under contract for 4G. For those who just signed a two-year plan (including yours truly), we heaved a sigh of relief.

But what you might not have noticed, is that short of saying it out loud, IDA is agreeing with the telcos that a 4G connection is a VAS, much like your caller ID and voicemail services.

Optional payment for 4G services is actually good news

Making 4G a VAS is actually a good move. Think about it, when the first 3G data plans kicked in, did you notice that the monthly subscription was slightly costlier than the older, non-data plans?

Plus, since telcos aren't phasing out their existing 3G plans and boosted network speeds on the last generation networks, you're still enjoying fast download speeds, albeit not as swift as 4G networks.

On one hand, it sounds like a good idea to not re-contract and avoid the latest 4G-enabled Samsung Galaxy S5, Sony Xperia Z2 or HTC One (M8). You can get the Xiaomi Mi3, which supports up to 3G speeds but is nearly as good as any flagship Android devices. More importantly, it costs S$299, well within or even below the range of the subsidised pricing for a 4G-enabled smartphone.

So what if your friends load their Instagram feed faster on a 4G network? If you can live with the slightly slower speeds, you can buy a cup of joe from Starbucks with the S$10.70 (the usual price for the 4G VAS) you saved.

But if you've been eyeing the abovementioned phones, not using a 4G network is like driving a Ferrari in Singapore. You've got all the speed, but you don't have the freedom to hit the accelerator. As someone who constantly switches between 3G and 4G devices, once you've tasted the sheer power of instant downloading, you can't go back.

Me? I’ll just enjoy the free high speed access till the end of my contract and re-evaluate my options. Hopefully, by the time my two-year bond expires, an alternative and more affordable option such as a potential fourth mobile operator will be available.