Singapore's direct approach

Singapore pushes ahead with WiMax, faster broadband and a standard desktop environment

In researching this story, writer David Perera participated in a group fact-finding tour sponsored by the Singapore government. The Singapore government cooperated with, but exercised no control over, this report.

SINGAPORE ' Multicolored shipping containers tower above the fleet of merchant vessels anchored beside Singapore's coast. Global commerce here isn't an abstract notion plotted on graphs but rather a reality measured by cranes loading and unloading thousands of metal boxes a day.

The shipping industry made and sustains Singapore. A prosperous island of 4.5 million people, the city-state possess almost no natural resources ' except its harbor, situated along the main shipping route between Asia and the West. By some measures, Singapore is the world's busiest seaport, and keeping the port competitive has long been a national concern. Hovering beyond the horizon are Malaysia and Thailand, catching up with modernized airports and seaports of their own.

That's one reason the Singapore government is determined to make its country a hotbed of advanced technology ' in industry, in people's lives and within the government. It's also why Singapore draws more than casual interest from government information technology planners worldwide.

In September 2007, Singapore's government unveiled its latest strategy for keeping its port on the cutting edge: a wireless broadband cloud blanketing territorial waters nine to 12 miles beyond its southern shore.

The government chose WiMax, a long-range wireless system that can provide tens of miles of connectivity and is less susceptible to environmental disruption than Wi-Fi.

Selecting WiMax as the port's wireless standard wasn't without controversy, government officials said. But it is indicative of the government's broad IT authority and its ability to implement technologies quickly.

Carte blanche

'Government for and by the technologically astute' could easily be Singapore's official slogan. It's the sort of place where if government is dissatisfied with assorted computing environments in its agencies, it can decree ' as it did Feb. 28 ' that all will move to a homogeneous desktop and messaging operating environment by the end of 2010. The Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Education are exempt. In launching the Standard Operating Environment (SOE), as the project is called, the government plans to pull the plug on agency-administered local-area networks.

The government agency charged with implementing SOE ' and chartered with extending IT into all spheres of life in Singapore ' is the Infocomm Development Authority. The IDA plays a role in government and society that probably would be impossible in the United States. It regulates the information and communications technology industry while simultaneously encouraging its growth via subsidy and by consolidating official buying power. It's also the government's chief information officer ' an Office of Management and Budget- type organization of e-government and IT with real and wide-ranging powers and a clear-cut mission.

'We want to enrich lives with infocomm,' said Geok Leng Tan, IDA's chief technology officer. IDA's goal 'is to be No. 1 in our ability to harvest infocomm,' he added.

At the government-to-government level, IDA does more than just craft policies. It's the government's information and communication technology back office, a sharedservices IT provider. 'We have IT shops in 35 agencies,' Pauline Tan, IDA's government- to-government operations executive, said in an interview at IDA's headquarters.

For citizens, IDA can implement an official program to speed consumer adoption of Internet broadband. It can subsidize the private sector to blanket the island with 7,200 Wi-Fi hot spots for a program offering free three-year access to anyone who registers. And it can offer 1,600 online e-government services, some of which require a government-administered online password to access.

Singapore's small size is partly what makes such efforts possible. It's easier to replace older equipment when the scale is island- sized. The SOE project, for example, affects 60,000 seats. By contrast, the Navy Marine Corps Intranet effort, a similar project in one large U.S. agency, affects more than 700,000 seats.

Singapore's style of government is reflected on a large scale, too. The economy depends on being an efficient regional hub, offering a level of calibrated competence 'probably lacking in a lot of other countries in the region,' said Prashent Dhami, a senior consultant at the Singapore branch of consulting firm Frost and Sullivan. The government embraces technology as a means to ensure efficiency and promote the island's competiveness, he said. Singapore is a locus of relentless modernization and a place where it's still against the law to chew gum in public.

Standard environment

SOE is IDA's marquee effort at the government- to-government level. By 2010, civil servants will have the same desktop operating system (Microsoft Vista) the same messaging service (Microsoft Exchange). They will be linked together on a centrally managed wide-area network that absorbs agency LANs. In addition, they'll have standardized video conferencing and whiteboard applications and voice over IP running either on a separate handset or within the desktop PC. Network data will be backed up in real time.

Government networks already run Multiprotocol Label Switching for network communications and some agencies ' such as IDA itself ' already have made the switch to VOIP. Next up for VOIP conversion is a group of agencies encompassing about 6,000 seats that get telephone service through a centralized private branch exchange, Pauline Tan said. The network will still mostly run IPv4, though; the equipment will be IPv6-ready, but there's no timeline for a conversion to native IPv6, she added. The first group of agencies is set to complete translation to SOE by mid-2009, with the target for completion in 2010.

The SOE prime contractor is EDS; IDA announced a 1.3 billion Singapore dollar deal over eight years with an EDS-led consortium, called oneMeridian, on Feb. 28.

The company will apply lessons learned from its rocky experience with NMCI, said Vinnie Madsen, EDS' Singapore-based SOE program director. 'I'd say there's been a pretty fair influence there' from NMCI, he said.

The company will take care to systematically double-check its implementation stages, Madsen said. Execution discipline saves money, 'and it ensures that you have buy-in from all parties as you go through the various checkpoints,' he added. But SOE differs significantly from NCMI in that there won't be much network infrastructure replacement. With the Navy, EDS often had to string fiber into buildings. In Singapore, most the existing networks will simply be integrated into the SOE WAN, he said.

One outcome of SOE is that Singapore will be heavily loaded with Microsoft products. Officials say they're not trying to close the door on open-technology standards adoption in the government. 'It's for the industry to propose what they think best meets requirements for the best price,' Pauline Tan said. IDA officials say their approach is technology agnostic.

Open-source executives say they haven't been successful penetrating the Singapore market.

'Singapore is a very government-centric market,' said Boon Leong Yap, managing director at open-source software maker Resolvo Systems. Resolvo once led a now dormant alliance of open-source companies with an eye to drumming up more IDA business. Open source faces an uphill battle in most of Asia, he said.

'It obviously helps whenever a government steps in,' Novell CEO Ron Hovsepiantold the Singapore Business Times May 8 during a visit there. The oneMeridian consortium includes Microsoft and the Microsoft and Accenture joint-venture consulting firm Avanade.

Although the government's front-end systems seem likely to remain proprietary at least through 2016, when the SOE contract expires, Singapore is adopting service-oriented architectures in other places, specifically for building e-government services.

Agencies building an e-service must use components embedded within the Public Service Infrastructure development framework that specifies Java 2 Enterprise Edition and Extensible Markup Language. The reusable modules include credit card and debit card payment applications and authentication.

Searching for government Web pages via IDA's search engine is made easier through an enforced page tagging schema that specifies a taxonomy and requires use of the Singapore Government Metadata Standard.

However, data sharing isn't a major problem in the Singapore government, Pauline Tan said. 'It's not that bad a problem'. If you need to share, you just may need to do a little transformation and mapping.'

WiMax vision

IDA's offices aren't far from the harbor that made Singapore an international hub in the first place. And it's in that harbor that IDA, in conjunction with the Maritime and Port Authority, is undertaking an ambitious adoption of WiMax.

It hired local telecom company QMax in December to start blasting the port area with WiMax signals. These signals are officially known as Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers standard 802.16. WiMax is different from Wi-Fi; its range is longer, its spectrum is licensed, and it is less prone to signal disruption. In 2005, IEEE ratified standards for mobile WiMax, the version QMax uses at the port.

The idea is to improve maritime efficiency by instantaneously delivering and receiving data ' such as documentation information from ships and navigational information from the port. QMax said connectivity will range from 512 meggabits/ sec to 8 gigabits/sec. Subscribers get a modem for connectivity and can parlay their WiMax connection into a shipboard Wi-Fi connection.

'Singapore waters are very congested,' said Peter Lam, IDA deputy director of finance, tourism, trade and manufacturing. But with WiMax, he said, 'when [ships] come into Singapore waters, they can be immediately fed with information'navigational information, about which areas to avoid, which area are congested.' Ships will be able to use the network to request bunkering services, and smaller ships that do the servicing can be equipped with transponders, Lam added.

But WiMax has been slow to gain global traction. 'Next year is always the story with WiMax,' said Adlane Fellah, chief executive officer of Canadian wireless consulting firm Maravedis. Different countries license different portions of the spectrum for WiMax to operate in. In the United States, WiMax is mostly within the 2.5 GHz range, whereas in southeast Asia it's 2.3 GHz. And only in June did the WiMax Forum begin to certify products.

Fellah said he believes next year truly will be the year for WiMax, but other analysts are skeptical. WiMax still isn't optimized for simultaneous voice and data transmission, said Luke Thomas, Frost and Sullivan's ICT Europe practice program manager. This first round of WiMax Forum certification doesn't guarantee interoperability, and competing standards threaten its long-term viability, he added. 'We don't consider this a feasible access technology,' he said.

Singapore officials appear undaunted, but some say WiMax's viability is a subject of internal debate. 'If it doesn't work, then of course we will stop it,' said Geok Leng Tan.

High bandwidth is an important concept in Singapore, so it makes sense officials would look to extend it everywhere possible, including its territorial waters.

'Broadband opens the doors to many things,' Geok Leng Tan said. 'If you have no broadband, you can't play.'

IDA views itself as a catalyst, he added. It brings industry together and uses taxpayer money to make high-tech projects possible.

'Our power is to bring people together and open doors,' he said.

Perera, dave@dperera.com, is a freelance reporter commissioned by GCN.

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Fri, Jan 23, 2009

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