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How APAC enterprises and telcos are preparing for 5G

From Singapore to Tokyo, enterprises and mobile operators across Asia have been readying themselves for the next big leap in mobile connectivity that promises to speed up business operations and improve lives

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When the cauldron lights up at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the athletes won’t be the only ones getting attention. The 5G network expected to be deployed at the global sporting event will also be in the spotlight.

The world has seen similar upgrades in mobile connectivity, each time sparking new applications, from video calling to over-the-top media streaming. This time, the transition from 4G to 5G will not only improve the performance of existing applications, but will also pave the way for new ones, such as the internet of things (IoT) and virtual reality.

“Expect 360-degree, 8K video streams that may showcase real-time action across high-resolution devices at Olympic venues,” says Aicha Evans, senior vice-president and chief strategy officer at Intel, which is working with NTT Docomo to provide 5G technologies at the Tokyo Games.

“Instead of watching surfing from the beach, for example, viewers will feel like they’re riding the waves with the athletes. Fans may be able to take in the action using virtual reality from their TV, headset or wireless device, provided through rights-holding broadcasters, running on transformed 5G networks capable of delivering massive amounts of data at multi-gigabit speeds.”

But where 5G really shines is in the enterprise, says Chong Siew Loong, chief technology officer at StarHub, a Singapore telco that started 5G trials in 2016.

Thanks to its ability to offer access speeds of up to 20Gbps, and very low latencies of around 1ms (millisecond), 5G would be the catalyst for the next wave of industrial digitisation and automation, says Chong.

Take emergency response, for example. With 5G, as paramedics race to the hospital, they will be able to transmit patient information to waiting doctors. Meanwhile, other agencies will be able to deploy remote “eyes in the sky” to assess the situation in real time and in high definition.

In China, Ericsson is already working with AstraZeneca on 5G-enabled medical devices that support predictive maintenance. The next step for the healthcare industry, says Magnus Ewerbring, Ericsson’s Asia-Pacific CTO, could be to offer remote surgery, enabling people to engage the best surgeons from around the world.

Living up to 5G’s potential

Asia presents a unique setting for 5G – a populous region with fast-growing, increasingly digital economies that have a desire for speed and connectivity.

“By 2022, there will be 280 million 5G subscriptions in Asia-Pacific, with 5G service revenues reaching $4.5bn,” says Quah Mei Lee, industry principal for ICT practice at Frost & Sullivan Asia-Pacific.

Countries such as China, South Korea and Japan are expected to be the forerunners in rolling out 5G. But successful 5G implementation across Asia is still an open question, particularly in developing countries where demand for 5G services is likely to be muted.

“Though it is possible for developing nations to jump to 5G, a key question to consider is the need for 5G within and beyond government-driven initiatives,” says Quah. “Cost remains a limiting factor and mobile operators are assessing the capabilities of 4G before deciding to invest in 5G to supplement it.”

The biggest challenge for most operators would be the co-existence of legacy 3G, 4G and new 5G networks for different use cases, leading operators to prioritise their investments, says Konesh Kochhal, director of industry ecosystem engagements at Huawei Southern Pacific.

Business and pricing models will also need to be redefined, and 5G monetisation will depend on how well 5G services and applications are received after the networks have been launched, says Kochhal.

Quah says that to monetise their 5G investments, operators will need to understand local needs and demand for the use cases they plan to serve, noting that commercial success will vary from country to country. “The early trials of 5G should help with this and are a necessary step towards 5G monetisation.”

5G standards ready, trials under way

Like previous mobile access technologies, 5G is expected to be deployed first in dense urban areas with enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) and fixed wireless access as the earliest commercial use cases. This is already being demonstrated in a number of 5G trials across Asia.

In May 2017, Malaysian telco Celcom and Ericsson conducted Malaysia’s first 5G trial, which achieved a peak throughput of up to 18Gbps and latency as low as 3ms. It also demonstrated use cases such as robotic control, IoT applications and 4K video streaming over 5G – from video capture at the server end to playback on 5G prototype devices.

More recently, Singapore’s M1 began using 5G to transmit virtual reality content at its headquarters to test the technology’s eMBB capabilities, which are part of new 5G standards ratified by global mobile industry standards body 3GPP.

Read more about 5G in APAC

  • Adoption of 5G across APAC will be led by China, South Korea and Japan, but telcos will need to find the right pricing strategy to compete with IoT connectivity upstarts.
  • Intel, Nokia and others have been working with telcos across the APAC region to test 5G technologies and applications.
  • The Singapore government has waived the frequency fees for 5G trials in a bid to lower regulatory barriers and encourage the industry to test the next-generation mobile technology.
  • From trialling 5G networks at the recent Commonwealth Games to flying drones in surf lifesaving sport, Australia is becoming a test bed for 5G services.

M1 and Huawei also plan to carry out the first 3.5GHz with non-standalone standard compliance field trial in Southeast Asia by the end of 2018, and the first 28GHz and 3.5GHz with standalone standard compliance field trial in Southeast Asia by mid-2019.  

The 5G non-standalone standard, completed in December 2017, uses both 5G and 4G networks to speed up data transmission, but continues to rely on existing 4G networks for back-end functions such as communicating with cell towers.

The standalone standard, on the other hand, was finalised only in June 2018 and enables mobile operators to provide 5G coverage in places without existing 4G infrastructures. Standalone 5G networks will also pave the way for ultra-reliable low-latency communications that are required by mission-critical IoT applications.

Frost & Sullivan’s Quah expects most early 5G deployments to be non-standalone, pointing out that mobile operators that plan to launch standalone 5G networks will still need to test the technology using non-standalone deployments.

Private 5G networks

Across the region, Thailand and South Korea have already deployed private Long-Term Evolution (LTE) networks for public safety, along with smaller-scale private networks in Australia’s mining industry.

For the most part, however, adoption of such networks is still in its infancy. Huawei’s Kochhal says this could be due to the lack of dedicated spectrum to support private cellular networks, as well as high capital and operating costs.

StarHub’s Chong says that could well change with 5G’s network slicing capabilities, which will allow telcos to offer critical service providers their own private 5G networks for secure and real-time connectivity to the cloud, helping to meet their ever-evolving infrastructure needs and improve operational efficiency.

Network slicing will also enable operators to carve out segments of their 5G infrastructure for customers with differing quality-of-service (QoS) requirements.

For example, they could offer a “hospital slice” with the bandwidth and QoS needed to conduct remote surgeries and charge more for it, says Ericsson’s Ewerbring.

“They could also offer an ‘electricity meter’ slice that transmits measurements every two minutes. That slice would be more affordable because the QoS requirements are less strict.”

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