Southeast Asia (SEA) has been witnessing significant development on the 5G front. Operators and governments are expediting service roll-outs and tapping new 5G opportunities. That said, large-scale deployment of 5G has its own set of challenges such as high capex requirement. The ongoing battle between the US and China-based Huawei has also affected SEA’s 5G plans to some extent. Nonetheless, it continues to be one of the most promising markets as far as 5G is concerned and is progressing fast to achieve its 5G targets.

A look at the ongoing 5G developments in SEA, the recent partnerships being forged and the future outlook…

Recent developments

Countries across the SEA region have been engaging in a series of trials and pilots to test 5G technology. Singapore has been at the forefront of the 5G revolution in the region. Recently, in April 2020, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) awarded provisional rights to operate 5G networks across the city-state to Singtel and a joint venture set up by StarHub and M1. The regulator has allotted 100 MHz of 5G-suitable spectrum each in the 3.5 GHz band to Singtel and the StarHub-M1 JV. Going forward, IMDA is also planning to allocate 800 MHz of millimetre-wave spectrum (mmWave) each to the mobile network operators for the provision of high-capacity 5G hotspots on a localised basis. In February 2020, Singapore’s fourth mobile operator TPG Telecom (Singapore) selected its Japanese counterpart Rakuten Mobile to run joint 5G OpenRAN trials on a new network in the city-state. Prior to this, in November 2019, the operator had also collaborated with Netlink NBN Trust to lay out its 5G trial network at the Singapore Science Park 1 and 2.

While Singapore is in the lead, Malaysia is not far behind. In January 2020, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission published a final report on the allocation of spectrum, including frequencies suitable for 5G. Around the same time, Telekom Malaysia carried out a stand-alone dedicated 5G network mode test using 700 MHz and 3.5 GHz (C-band) spectrum simultaneously on a converged 5G core network. Telekom Malaysia has been pursuing its 5G goals with much rigour and has already developed a total of 11 use cases in Langkawi. Further, the operator has set up a 5G command centre (5GCC) in the same district. Various industry players are working towards strengthening the infrastructure for 5G. Earlier, in November 2019, Celcom Axiata and Maxis signed an MoU for the joint deployment of 5G infrastructure, which would cover selected areas. Maxis is also working with Huawei to modernise its existing LTE network to make it 5G-ready.

Thailand is yet another country that has been quick to jump on the 5G bandwagon. Both the government and telecom operators have made significant strides to launch 5G in the country. In February 2020, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission completed its 5G multiband spectrum auction. Following the completion of the sale of 5G spectrum, AIS launched the 5G service using frequencies in the 2600 MHz band. Meanwhile, DTAC announced plans to launch 5G broadband services on its newly acquired 26 GHz band in selected locations by the first half of 2020. Further, True Corp has selected Ericsson as its 5G RAN vendor. As part of this partnership, Ericsson will provide products and services from Ericsson Radio System to enable True to operate 5G on 700 MHz, 2.6 GHz and 26 GHz frequencies in the north, central west and upper south regions of Thailand.

Vietnam is perhaps one of the few countries that are focusing on developing domestic 5G capabilities. The country’s largest telecom operator Viettel, which was handed the country’s first licence to trial 5G in January 2019, is planning to introduce 5G services in June this year, using network equipment and software it has developed on its own. Following this launch, Viettel aims to enable 5G across its mobile network within 12 months. Earlier, in September 2019, the telco also carried out trials for this purpose. Other incumbent players of the country are not far behind. In March 2020, MobiFone successfully completed 5G trials in the cities of Hanoi, Da Nang, Hai Phong and Ho Chi Minh. VNPT-Vinaphone has been piloting 5G services in Ho Chi Minh City since September 2019.

In Indonesia, too, all major telecom operators have been trialing 5G technology. In October 2019, Nokia and Hutchison 3 Indonesia (Tri) completed an end-to-end live 5G network trial in Indonesia. In August 2019, XL Axiata, in partnership with Ericsson, completed the third 5G trial in Jakata, wherein, among various other things, it showcased the ability of 5G to communicate virtually through a holographic display. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s largest telecom operator by subscribers, Telkomsel, has been carrying out network upgrades in partnership with Ericsson to launch 5G in the near term. As part of this alliance, Ericsson is providing Telkomsel NFV infrastructure core network technology, which has enabled the telco to improve speed, efficiency and agility for its current operations across Indonesia. Meanwhile, Telekom PT Smartfren has been working with ZTE on the development of 5G technology in the country.

Tapping the 5G business opportunity

Operators have been exploring avenues and forging partnerships to develop industry use cases of 5G. For instance, in March 2020, Singtel collaborated with Nokia to develop and trial 5G network slicing capabilities. Through these trials, the telco aims to develop 5G use cases in areas such as cloud gaming, manufacturing and maritime operations. Meanwhile, in December 2019, Singapore’s second largest mobile operator by subscribers, StarHub, signed an MoU with the National University of Singapore to jointly develop innovative AI and VR solutions over the former’s 5G network. Earlier, in November 2019, Telekom Malaysia and Huawei Technologies had signed an MoU to collaborate on use cases ahead of the launch of commercial 5G services in Malaysia. As part of this partnership, the two companies are working together in a number of areas, such as fixed wireless access technology, vehicle-to-vehicle/vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X) solutions, and the study of smart cities. They are also exploring future cooperation opportunities for the deployment of a fully fledged 5G end-to-end system. In July 2019, M1 and the Singapore University of Technology and Design entered into a partnership to carry out research on advanced robots that use 5G technology.

East-west pull for the 5G SEA market

According to a report by AT Kearney, 5G promises to fuel the next wave of growth in SEA and the operators in this region have an annual unconstrained additional revenue potential of $4.5 billion-$6 billion by 2025. Given the immense opportunity the SEA market presents, a tug of war has been going on between vendors from the eastern and western parts of the world for this market.

On the one hand, the US continues to press allies in SEA not to partner with Huawei in building their 5G networks, highlighting security concerns in doing so. On the other, Huawei already enjoys a long-standing presence in the region and also has the advantage of being a low-cost provider of 5G technology. In fact, some countries in the region have openly dismissed any security risks in deploying Huawei technology for 5G development. Malaysia is a case in point. The country has been actively engaging Huawei in various trials. However, there are some countries that are absolutely averse to listing Huawei as their 5G partner. Vietnam, which is embroiled in a maritime dispute with China, has so far been focusing on developing its own 5G capabilities. This is a potential market that can be explored by the US or other western vendors.

Meanwhile, there are several other countries in the region that have chosen not to take sides and have taken a neutral stance. Thailand, for instance, is engaging both Huawei and Ericsson for its 5G roll-out.

Still a long way to go

According to an Opensignal report, current 5G networks have limited reach in the region and a vast majority of users are still relying heavily on 4G. Further, the economic disparity among the countries in the region cannot be overlooked. The per capita GDP in the region varies widely. While at one end of the spectrum, there are wealthy countries like Singapore, at the other end there are less developed countries like Cambodia and Myanmar. This disparity in the financial and economic standing of the countries will play a decisive role in determining how 5G progresses in the region as a whole.

By Diksha Sharma