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Will 5G turn Langkawi into world’s first smart island?

Malaysia telco TM is set to transform Malaysia’s Langkawi archipelago with a 5G testbed that will pave the way for 5G services across the country

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW ASEAN: CW ASEAN: Trend Watch on advances in Malaysia’s digital infrastructure

This year will see 5G technology as a “catalytic enabler” of Malaysia’s digital economy, which grew by 9% annually between 2010 and 2016, according to figures from the country’s statistics department.

That translates to some top-line economic benefits, including a RM12.7bn boost to the country’s GDP between 2021 and 2025, going by research from the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research.

When Malaysia’s 5G spectrum bands were announced recently by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) – with commercialisation due to begin in the third quarter of 2020 – the regulator made it clear that 5G adoption must be inclusive, and should improve quality of life and encourage business growth and innovation, especially among smaller firms and in the public sector.

MCMC stipulated that Malaysia would be using the 700MHz, 3.5GHz, 26GHz and 28GHz spectrum bands for 5G. The two lower 700MHz and 3.5GHz bands will be assigned to a consortium through a bidding process by the second quarter of 2020, according to MCMC.

Fired by this national call, a collaboration led by Telekom Malaysia (TM) is channelling significant resources and innovation into transforming Langkawi archipelago, a world-renowned tourist destination, into a showcase of how 5G can unlock value from digital technologies and big data.

Tech nitty-gritty

5G services can ride on the 3.5GHz spectrum, which can support more users in high-density areas, while the 700MHz extends 5G coverage more widely – for example, to connect rural areas and long-range highways.

The 26GHz and 28GHz millimetre wave (mmWave) bands allow very high bandwidth, but very limited coverage areas, and are unable to penetrate walls, for example. In tropical zones, mmWave signals are susceptible even to light rain.

Computer Weekly attended a site tour of TM’s 5G demonstration project in Langkawi, where the company’s senior management said the telco was the first to successfully test a standalone 5G network operating on the 3.5GHz and 700MHz spectrums simultaneously.

This was achieved within a month after its 700MHz standalone network – the first of its kind outside China – was put on air, offering faster speeds, ultra-low latency of under 10ms and the ability to connect up millions of sensors and internet of things (IoT) devices.

TM chief strategy officer Tengku Muneer Tengku Muzani explained TM’s spectrum priorities: “TM’s 5G aspirations have always been intermeshed with benefiting Malaysians, and our focus on 700MHz is in line with our role of enabling Digital Malaysia.”

Muneer said as a lower frequency band, a 700MHz network will offer much wider 5G coverage, adding: “A single basestation theoretically can cover up to 10km, which allows TM to better serve rural areas and puts the benefits of high-speed access into the hands of more users in remote locations.”

Nor Hisham Md Nordin, TM’s head of mobile 5G, added that with access speeds of over 200Mbps, TM’s 700MHz network is about seven times faster than what has been set out in Malaysia’s National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan (NFCP), which aims to provide broadband connectivity with an average speed of 30Mbps to 98% of populated areas by 2023.

Why Langkawi

Sharlene Thiagarajah, who helms TM’s innovation arm, said Langkawi was a logical choice for a 5G testbed. “The island’s bounded variable environment makes it an ideal location to kick-start and evolve many new use cases,” she said during a demonstration of the project’s integrated 5G operations command centre.

“The 5G command centre [5GCC], APIs [application programming interfaces] and related projects are built and developed on an open, sharing model to allow fruitful collaboration,” she said, adding that the centre can also be used by other service providers and organisations in other Malaysian states in the coming months.

TM has already started work on 11 use cases in Langkawi – with many others in development – spanning smart city, smart tourism, smart agriculture and other 5G applications in TM’s research and development portfolio.

Azrin Aris, head of emerging solutions at TM One, said the testbed and its use cases could be monitored at the 5GCC round the clock by TM’s technical team. In addition, TM has developed a mobile app, dubbed My Smart City, to provide access to a range of smart city services such as parking and public safety.

Speaking of TM’s 5G development efforts, Thiagarajah said: “Innovation is the glue that connects all the pieces. This is the start of a tidal wave of transformative benefits aimed at the betterment of life, including the digital economy.”

Collaboration and inclusivity

Ahmed Taufek, executive vice-president and CEO of TM One, said the telco’s 5G efforts were executed quickly because of industry collaboration.

These include partnerships with China’s Huawei and home-grown companies, resulting in an array of use cases seen today. “Some of the ways in which life on the island can be transformed presages what the we want to offer throughout the country,” he said.

Building on an earlier partnership to commercialise 5G services, TM and Huawei recently announced joint efforts to conduct interoperability testing, in areas such as network sharing with other telcos, on the 5G network in Langkawi.

“TM has always been a strong advocate of infrastructure sharing,” said TM group CEO Noor Kamarul Annuar Nuruddin. “The collaboration to explore network sharing opportunities using TM’s 5G network on Langkawi has been extended to other service providers in the country, with numerous as agreements announced in January this year.”

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