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5G in ASEAN still a way off despite optimism

Spectrum is yet to be assigned in many ASEAN nations, while applications and services are still being tested in pilot projects across the region

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW ASEAN: CW ASEAN: Trend Watch – 5G

Autonomous drones, 1GB file downloads in seconds, millions of sensors connected to the internet transmitting and receiving at the same time – these are just some of the potential uses of 5G networks when they become mainstream.

But how close are we to actually experiencing this? Some network equipment makers and telcos predict that such services are expected to arrive between 2020 and 2021. But as sanguine as such predictions are, the reality for 5G materialising for the masses is unclear at best.

The GSM Association (GSMA), an industry body representing 750 telcos and 350 companies, understandably remains optimistic. Its research suggests that at least 77 operators worldwide are trialling 5G across 49 countries.

“Some 45 operators have announced 5G roll-outs across 32 countries,” claims Julian Gorman, head of Asia-Pacific for GSMA. “With that, we see that 5G is materialising globally.”

But these are only announcements. As of now, the only commercially available 5G network was launched in June 2018 in Qatar, run by Ooredoo. The coverage and 5G applications it offers are, however, limited. In the US, Verizon Communications is racing to be the first operator in a developed nation to launch a 5G commercial network in 30 cities in 2019.

China, South Korea and Japan, too, have each announced the imminent availability of their respective 5G commercial networks, targeting to launch in 2019 and 2020.

In Southeast Asia, the launch timeline is much fuzzier. Many countries have announced some form of 5G trials, which demonstrate various experimental applications and services, but none have explicitly committed to a commercial launch date.

Telkomsel, Indonesia’s largest telco, demonstrated 5G capabilities at a fairly large scale at the 2018 Asian Games.

“It’s too early to talk about 5G with respect to roll-out. I don’t expect to see any commercial roll-out of 5G in Southeast Asia before 2021-2022”
Ajay Sundar, Frost & Sullivan

Singapore, widely acknowledged as being ahead of its peers in technology adoption, is by far the most ambitious, with its minister of communication and information, S. Iswaran, declaring that Singapore will roll out 5G by 2020.

All three telcos in the city-state have announced various field trials. Starhub says it has been testing 5G since 2016, while M1 tested the transmission of virtual reality in June 2018 and Singtel successfully made a 5G test call between the city-state and Australia in February 2019.

In Malaysia, all major telcos will be piloting a 5G testbed that is expected to be set up by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) in Cyberjaya and Putrajaya by April 2019, according to local media reports.

Ajay Sundar, industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan, says there is still quite a bit of hype surrounding 5G for now, given that the market dynamic for 5G is still extremely nascent in Southeast Asia.

“It’s too early to talk about 5G with respect to roll-out,” he tells Computer Weekly. “I don’t expect to see any commercial roll-out of 5G in Southeast Asia before 2021-2022.”

Spectrum assignments

One of the most crucial issues surrounding 5G is the need to issue new spectrum – the scarce natural resource needed to carry radio transmission – to telcos. This process is managed by governments through their respective industry regulators.

In the past, spectrum assignments had been relatively straightforward. Industry regulators would either use an auction or a best-bidding company mechanism, otherwise known as a “beauty contest”, to determine which telcos should receive spectrum for a fixed number of years of operation.

However, the issue is more complicated for 5G due to the vast ranges of spectrum the technology is able to operate on. Because of the huge bandwidth needed in 5G, and the existing frequency ranges used by companies such as satellite operators, the spectrum for 5G can range anywhere between 3GHz and 86GHz.

The most commonly used wavelengths in various trials today are between 3GHz and 4.5GHz; 28GHz and 39GHz; and 70GHz and 80GHz.

Frost & Sullivan’s Ajay says the challenge for most regulators is the lack of consensus over which bands are best to use, so they are taking their time to decide.

Ajay expects the higher bands to be used for 5G in most countries. “There is also an issue with multiband operation, which means 5G devices would need to support a wide range of bands, and this will bring increased complexity to the challenge,” he says.

Ajay also believes regulators may struggle with how best to set the spectrum pricing for telcos, as higher spectrum normally commands a higher price. But this would make it tough for telcos to justify their business case, because higher spectrums would need substantial capital investment.

Nitin Bansal, head of network solutions for Ericsson Southeast Asia, says the mid-band spectrum (1-6GHz), especially the 3.5GHz band, will play a key role in for 5G in Southeast Asia. There are challenges, however, as that band is occupied by fixed satellite services.

“One of the first steps for the regulators in the region will be to explore the feasibility of 5G and FSS [fixed satellite service] co-existing on the same spectrum band,” he says.

“High spectrum pricing has been a particular issue pan-Asia and can distort network roll-out plans and will impact availability of the service to users”
Julian Gorman, GSMA

As for higher-range spectrum, 26-28GHz are the most likely operational bands to enable 5G globally, as they have the benefit of being adjacent to each other, thereby supporting economies of scale and facilitating early equipment availability for all or parts of both bands.

GSMA’s Gorman argues that whatever bands are assigned to whichever telco, either by auction or beauty contest, spectrum should only go to the bidder that is best able to maximise efficiency and technology adoption.

“High spectrum pricing has been a particular issue pan-Asia and can distort network roll-out plans and will impact availability of the service to users,” he says. “Southeast Asian countries should avoid these pitfalls at the assignment stage and lower regulatory costs to secure investment where it is most needed.”

In Malaysia, the MCMC established a national 5G taskforce in November 2018 to study and recommend a holistic strategy for 5G deployment in the country. It will also determine identification and a timeline for the allocation of spectrum bands for 5G deployment in Malaysia, according to an MCMC spokesperson.

“Once the study is completed, MCMC will initiate the relevant process for the allocation of spectrum for the introduction of 5G in Malaysia,” says the spokesperson.

Several telcos Computer Weekly reached out to are keeping a close eye on the spectrum issue.

“We look forward to deploying a commercial 5G network when the 5G ecosystem, including spectrum, handsets and enterprise applications, are available,” says Mark Chong, group chief technology officer at Singtel.

“We are studying 5G use cases to explore future solutions and will include learning from the MCMC-led 5G testbed, and learnings from Telenor’s recent trials in Scandinavia,” says a spokesperson for Digi Telecommunication, part of the Telenor Group.

“We can’t speak to MCMC’s timetable on spectrum assignment, but Celcom Axiata believes that if 5G were to arrive in 2020-2021, we would need a reasonable time to roll out the networks. Working backwards, we hope spectrum assignments should happen this year,” says Idham Nawawi, CEO of Celcom Axiata, in response to Computer Weekly’s query.

What to expect from 5G

Even with 5G set to begin to take off in 2020, Frost & Sullivan’s Ajay stresses that the use cases for applications and services must be driven by businesses and enterprises initially, and not by consumer applications.

“The 5G business case has to be enterprise driven, and the first and easiest use case of 5G will be using 5G fixed wireless access [FWA] as an alternative to fibre,” he says. “The next industry that would benefit from 5G is automotive, and then the smart cities sector.”

Singtel’s Chong takes the cue from this and says it is already developing 5G trial solutions for the enterprise through its collaboration with Singapore Polytechnic and Ericsson.

“We are working with companies to embrace the opportunities of 5G technology, particularly for cloud gaming, high-definition video streaming and connected drones,” says Chong. “In Australia, our subsidiary Optus is one of the first operators in the world to launch a 5G fixed wireless broadband service.”

“To be successful, 5G requires a ready ecosystem comprising technology, devices, industries, service providers and regulations”
Nitin Bansal, Ericsson Southeast Asia

Celcom Axiata’s Idham says it will be investing about $25m over the next three years to develop an internet of things (IoT) centre of excellence that will encompass the building of a 5G network, and a research and development lab for an ecosystem focused on smart metering, smart cities and smart homes, virtual and augmented reality, as well as automotive applications.

As for best practices, Frost and Sullivan’s Ajay says there aren’t any as yet because 5G is still a work in progress. However, 5G brings significant shifts in latency, throughput and mass connection capabilities, so enterprises could start mapping out their use cases based on these parameters and what makes sense for them, he says.

Ericsson’s Nitin says the benefits of 5G for enterprises include reduced operational expenditure, increased operational flexibility and shorter time to market.

“Enterprises can start exploring what would be the most relevant use cases that can be addressed by 5G and collaborate with telcos, vendors and academia to test the different use cases,” he says. “To be successful, 5G requires a ready ecosystem comprising technology, devices, industries, service providers and regulations.”

Read more about 5G in ASEAN

This was last published in March 2019

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

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