Sunday, 17 June 2018

Understanding the Safeguards of Astrea IV 4.35% Bonds

Astrea IV 4.35% bonds are unusual retail bonds as they are backed by Private Equity (PE). There are 5 safeguards put in place by the issuer to ensure that cashflows from PE investments are adequate to meet the obligations of the bond. These are:
  • Reserves Accounts
  • Sponsor Sharing
  • Maximum Loan-to-Value (LTV) Ratio
  • Liquidity Facilities
  • Capital Call Facilities

To understand why these safeguards are important and necessary, let us consider a hypothetical scenario in which I wish to issue Boring Investor bonds to retail investors to raise capital to invest in public equities listed on the SGX. Cashflows for the bonds would come from sale of equity investments and dividends from investee companies. 

Generally, the Straits Times Index (STI) generates annualised returns of 7% in capital appreciation and 3% in dividends on average. To entice investors to my Boring Investor bonds, I would probably have to pay interest rate of 5% on the bonds. The first question that comes to mind is how do I ensure that I could meet the 5% interest obligations on the Boring Investor bonds on a sustainable basis when I could only receive 3% dividends from the equity investments? There are several things I can do, as described below. 

Maximum Loan-to-Value (LTV) Ratio

Supposed I intend to invest $1M in the SGX equities. At a dividend rate of 3%, the maximum dividends I could get from the equities annually is only $30K. Based on the bond interest rate of 5%, the maximum amount of Boring Investor bonds I could issue is $30K / 5%, or $600K. The maximum Loan-to-Value (LTV) ratio that can be supported by dividends on a sustainable basis is only 60%. Thus, by setting a maximum cap on the LTV ratio, I can better ensure that bond holders are paid on time.

Liquidity Facilities

There will be times when the economy is not doing well and the investee companies have to cut dividends. When this happens, I might not get sufficient dividends from the equity investments to pay interest to bond holders. I will need to borrow money temporarily from the banks to pay the bond interest.

Capital Call Facilities

There will also be times when some companies need to issue rights issues to raise money. Given that most the funds raised from the Boring Investor bonds have been invested in the SGX equities, I might not have sufficient funds to subscribe to the rights issues and buy additional shares in the companies at a bargain. To guard against this, I can set up a credit line with the banks to temporarily borrow money to subscribe to the rights issues.

Reserves Accounts

Given the unpredictable nature of the cashflows from dividends and sale of equity investments, it is prudent to set up a sinking fund to save some excess cashflows after paying the bond interest and other necessary expenses. The amount to be set aside for the sinking fund each year is a pre-determined amount, but it is only set aside if excess cashflows are available. The sinking fund will be topped up until there are sufficient funds to redeem the Boring Investor bonds in full. This would increase the likelihood that the bonds could be redeemed in full when they mature.

Sponsor Sharing

Generally, after meeting all the obligations mentioned above, any remaining cashflows would belong to the sponsor shareholder. However, as an additional gesture of goodwill, I can share the remaining cashflows 50:50 with bond holders if certain performance threshold is met by a certain date. The cashflows shared with bond holders would be used to top up the sinking fund mentioned above, if it is not full yet. 


As you can see above, cashflows from equity investments (more so for PE investments and PE funds) are unpredictable, irregular and discretionary whereas interest and principal repayment obligations of bonds are fixed and mandatory. There is a need for some of the above-mentioned safeguards (known as credit enhancements) to ensure that bond obligations can be met when they fall due. If there were no credit enhancements, and the fixed and mandatory bond obligations were solely funded by the irregular and discretionary cashflows from equity investments, defaults on the bonds would likely happen at some point in time. 

Thus, the Astrea IV 4.35% bonds are safe mainly because of the safeguards put in place. It is not a bond, but a structured bond. The credit ratings for Astrea IV 4.35% bonds are expected to be "A(sf)", with "sf" denoting structured finance. To avoid confusion with traditional bonds, it is best to refer to the Astrea IV 4.35% bonds as structured bonds, just like we differentiate structured deposits from fixed deposits. 

Did I invest in Astrea IV 4.35% bonds? No, I did not. I prefer to invest in traditional bonds in which the underlying cashflows are sufficient to meet the bond obligations without any credit enhancements. 

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Monday, 11 June 2018

Would I Invest in Astrea IV 4.35% Bonds?

Recently, Temasek launched a Private Equity (PE) bond for retail investors known as Astrea IV 4.35% bond. It is the first PE bond open to retail investors. Would I invest my money in this bond?

First of all, let us understand what this bond is all about. This bond is issued by Astrea IV Pte Ltd, an indirect wholly owned subsidiary of Temasek, to hold a portfolio of PE investments. The investments are managed by 27 General Partners in 36 PE funds and invested in 596 companies. 86.1% of these funds are invested in buyouts, with 12.3% in growth equity and 1.6% in private debt. 

Buyout funds are funds that privatise publicly listed companies, cut the excesses in the companies and streamline their operations to make them more efficient, and seek to exit the companies by selling them or listing them again. An example is Amtek Engineering, which was delisted from SGX in 2007 after being bought out by a PE fund, and was relisted as Interplex Holdings in 2010. And the story did not end there. Interplex Holdings itself was delisted in 2016 after being bought out by another PE fund.

The issuer, Astrea IV, has 3 classes of bonds, as follow:
  • Class A-1 - SGD242M 4.35% senior bonds that are open to retail investors and which are the subject of this post.
  • Class A-2 - USD210M senior bonds open only to Institutional and/or Accredited Investors. Class A-2 bonds have the same seniority as Class A-1 bonds.
  • Class B - USD110M bonds junior bonds open only to Institutional and/or Accredited Investors. 

The structure of the bonds is such that Class A bonds have priority to interest payments and bond redemption. In addition, it can borrow money from banks to make interest payments in the event that there are insufficient cashflows to do so. Moreover, its Loan-to-Value (LTV) ratio is capped at 50% of the portfolio value. If this threshold is crossed, it will have to cut debt levels. Furthermore, Class A bonds are senior to Class B bonds and shareholder equity. For Class A bonds to lose money, the portfolio that Astrea IV invests in must lose at least 64.4% of its value. So, it is quite safe, isn't it? 

First of all, you need to recognise that Astrea IV, the company that you are investing into by buying the retail bond, is essentially a fund of funds. Although its LTV is capped at 50%, this is only at the Astrea IV level. The funds that Astrea IV invests into could have their own borrowings and these are not counted in the 50% LTV cap. After accounting for these borrowings at the lower levels (i.e. look-through basis), the leverage could be much higher. As a hypothetical example, Company A could have shareholder equity of $50M and bonds of $50M. Using this $100M, Company A invests into Company B. Company B borrows another $100M. Company B invests the $200M into a property. How much of the investment in the property is funded by equity and borrowings? The answer is $50M in equity and $150M in borrowings. Thus, even though the LTV at Company A's level is only 50%, on a look-through basis, the LTV is 75%! Does LTV on a look-through basis matter? For Company A's equity to be wiped out completely and its bonds to start losing money, the property's value only need to fall by 25% ($50M equity out of $200M asset value). So, LTV on a look-through basis does matter!

Secondly, most of the money are invested in buyout funds. Buyouts are usually highly leveraged operations. In the process of buying out companies, they take on large debts and usually pay a premium to acquire a 100% stake in the companies. After successfully acquiring the companies (which are usually cashflow-rich companies), they extract most of the cash from the companies to pay down their own debts. They also streamline the operations of the companies and load them with debts, such that the companies become more conscious about cutting costs and direct most of their cashflows to paring down the debts loaded onto them. Thus, the high returns of buyout funds are partly due to making the companies more efficient and partly due to the leverage employed. As an example, when 3G Capital teamed up with Berkshire Hathaway to buy Heinz for USD23.3B in 2013, they only forked out USD4.4B in capital each. The remaining was borrowed. (Note: Berkshire Hathaway also bought USD8B of preferred stocks paying 9% interest. I will leave it to readers to decide whether to classify this USD8B as equity or debt.)

Thus, in conclusion, Astrea IV is essentially a fund of leveraged buyout funds. I will not be investing in these bonds, even if its 4.35% coupon looks attractive.

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Sunday, 27 May 2018

Possibly The Worst Time to Invest – 4 Years On

This once-a-year post probably sounds like a broken record, but 4 years after I thought it was a bad time to invest (due to record high Dow Jones Industrial Average and record low interest rates then), the DJIA has not crashed yet, despite a series of corrections along the way, with the most recent one in Feb. I have 2 passive portfolios invested in index funds and adopting the portfolio rebalancing strategy. The plain vanilla portfolio has 70% in global equities and 30% in global bonds since Dec 2013, while the spicy portfolio has 70% in US equities and 30% in Asian bonds progressively built up over 2015. 

To-date, the plain vanilla portfolio is up by 31.4% while the spicy portfolio is up by 24.2% since they were started approximately 4.5 years and 2.5 years ago. Needlessly to say, had I worried about the high stock prices and low interest rates back then and not started the 2 portfolios, I would not be sitting on such paper gains. 

I am tempted to allocate more money from my active investments to the 2 passive portfolios, considering that all it takes is to monitor occasionally whether the relative allocation between the equities and bonds has moved significantly away from the initial allocation of 70% stocks and 30% bonds and rebalance them when it happens. In contrast, active investment requires a lot of hard work. I need to read the financial statements and annual reports, attend Annual General Meetings, understand pricing strategy and competitors' activities, etc. to understand how well the business is doing. Just take a look at M1, a stock that I blogged about recently. I spent no less than 6 posts (and another 3 posts on its competitors) to describe the various aspects of M1. Even then, there are probably still a lot of areas about M1 that I do not understand. Furthermore, the size of my M1 position is only 1/3 that of the 2 passive portfolios!

So, would I be worried if I were to invest more into the 2 passive portfolios and the crash finally happens? Obviously, I would be quite upset if it were to happen, but I would attribute it more to bad timing. One way to mitigate this risk is to spread out the investment, similar to what I did when I initiated the spicy portfolio. The plain vanilla portfolio was a lump-sum investment in Dec 2013, but the spicy portfolio was built up over 12 months in 2015. Furthermore, the rebalancing strategy will ensure that if stocks were to crash significantly, the bonds would be sold to buy more of the now cheaper stocks. There is inherent defence mechanism in the portfolio rebalancing strategy.

This time next year, I am not sure if I will be happy or upset over my 2 passive portfolios (which depends on whether the crash happens or not), but likely, it will be business as usual.

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Monday, 21 May 2018

Who Moved Starhub's Cheese?

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?


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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Monday, 14 May 2018

A Satisfied M1 Investor

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.


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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Monday, 7 May 2018

NB-IoT – The Next Frontier for Telcos

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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Sunday, 29 April 2018

No Competition for M1's Big Data Plans

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) 0.1 2 3 6 12
Data X2 Cost - $48.80 $74.80 $101.80 $245.80
Data X2 (GB) - 4 6 12 24
Data X3 Cost - $52.80 $78.80 $105.80 $249.80
Data X3 (GB) - 6 9 18 36
X Infinity Cost - - $108.80 $135.80 $279.80
X Infinity Data - - 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
Plus 3 Cost $54.00 $74.00 $94.00 $114.00 $244.00
Plus 3 Data (GB) 6 7 8 11 15
DataJump Cost - $78.00 $98.00 $118.00 $248.00
DataJump Data (GB) - 9 15 23 32

At the low end of the spectrum, M1's plan for 5GB costs only $40 per month. Singtel's Combo 2 Plan with Data X2 add-on costs $48.80 (for 4GB) while Starhub's XS plan with Plus 3 add-on costs $54 (for 6GB). There is simply no competition at this end of the spectrum.

At the middle of the spectrum, M1's plan for 15GB costs $70. Singtel's Combo 6 plan with Data X2 add-on costs $101.80 (for 12GB) while Starhub's M plan with DataJump add-on costs $98 (for 15GB). Again, no competition.

At the high end with unlimited data, M1's plan costs $118. Singtel's Combo 3 plan with Data X Infinity add-on 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, Netlink Trust and Singtel.

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