Unveiled: StarHub wants to disrupt Singapore’s tuition industry, and more



Singapore’s tuition industry, where parents hire private tutors to give their kids the extra edge for school examinations, stood at S$820 million ($565 million) in 2008, double the figure from a decade earlier and just under a third of the nation’s education spending.

StarHub (SGX:CC3), Singapore’s second largest telco by mobile subscribers known best for its cable TV service, wants a slice of that pie.

While its efforts to penetrate education have been low-key, it has begun stepping up its marketing by announcing a partnership with Popular Bookstore, a well-known brand in Singapore, to introduce a new online learning service called AssessMe.

Essentially, the web-based, mobile-friendly service lets parents and primary school children access thousands of digital worksheets for English, mathematics, and science. The content is curated by Popular’s in-house team of former school teachers, and will be updated weekly to follow the national teaching syllabus. Chinese and secondary school subjects will be introduced from next year.

The service costs S$11.90 ($9.46) per month per child, but parents can get it for free if they subscribe to one of the telco’s cable broadband plans.

Part of a larger plan

AssessMe is just one component of StarHub’s Learning Hub website, which gathers all of the company’s educational products in one location.

According to Stephen Lee, head of i3 at StarHub, the aim of the website is to “offer critical learning tools that supplement the school curriculum” and give students access to these materials wherever they are.

It’s currently testing video conferencing tuition for the Chinese language, where a teacher can mentor a student using a microphone and webcam.

StarHub is supplementing its educational content by providing Teamie, an online platform where educators can communicate, share knowledge, and monitor the progress of students using Learning Hub. The Singapore-based startup was the winner of Tech in Asia’s Startup Arena competition in 2012.

StarHub will also introduce educational video content on the platform, such as Big History, a documentary about the universe, and ZooMoo, a show about animals that offers interactivity through an app.

If StarHub’s experimentation with education develops into a full-fledged service, it could give the tuition industry a tough fight since students would be able to get enrichment content at home and receive one-on-one attention without a tutor needing to travel. Theoretically, there’s cost savings for everyone, though parents will need to be convinced that not having an instructor by the child’s side will not compromise teaching quality.

Like SingTel, its biggest competitor, StarHub is betting that its penetration into the mobile and home entertainment space will help it develop a digital content business that can do battle against traditional media players in Singapore.

Leading StarHub’s transformation into an online media company is i3, a department within the telco that’s involved in all things to do with internet innovation.

StarHub versus Google

Recently, StarHub announced a partnership with popular note-taking app Evernote to bring a special edition of the software to StarHub subscribers. It unveiled an API that allows developers to access call and SMS features. It even launched an e-bookstore called Booktique that it hopes can succeed where SingTel and MediaCorp failed.

MediaCorp, Singapore’s largest traditional broadcaster, had a tough time with its e-bookstore ilovebooks.com due to what it describes as a lack of access to book publishers and insufficient traction in terms of number of titles, which numbered at 700,000. Furthermore, it doesn’t really have a foothold in mobile devices, making its app a tough sell.

StarHub clearly has some advantages over MediaCorp in this arena. But it has been vague about what edge it has over SingTel, a company with a far larger mobile subscription base. SingTel shut down its online bookstore Skoob in September because it felt its other businesses had stronger growth potential.

Recently, the competition in digital books has gotten even tougher. Google has brought its Play Books store to Singapore, carrying with it massive economies of scale, an easy-to-use payment system, and wide distribution through its Android devices. Again, it’s unclear how Booktique can stand up against Google’s might.

Whatever the case, the telco’s experiment is bound to have mixed results. But for startups looking for a distribution and marketing channel, this is good news since its easier for the telco to procure a ready-made product than build something from scratch. Startups have plenty to offer here.

With that in mind, Teamie could become just one of many local tech startups that will have StarHub as a customer.

(Editing by Paul Bischoff and Steven Millward, image credit: eefeewahfah)

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