How will 5G impact industries in Southeast Asia?

Do the use cases exist within the ASEAN region to justify the 5G hype?

5G mobile wireless network

After years of talk and hype, 5G is starting to emerge as something of a reality, with a number of projects already well on their way to meeting fruition. Champions of the superfast network are promising increased data speeds that will not only change how people interact with the internet but can help to connect rural communities, boost self-driving car initiatives and improve everything from healthcare to tourism.

Earlier this year the British government set aside £25 million for a number of test projects and telecoms companies are expecting 5G enabled handsets to be available as early as 2019. In the West, the continued explosion of the IoT market is also fuelling the need for a low-latency 5G network, as the current 4G network will not be able cope with the huge demands bought about by a growth in machine-to-machine communications.

But what impact is 5G set to have on Southeast Asia? Although Singapore is listed currently amongst the countries leading the way in the global 5G race, the rest of the region isn’t expecting to see the fifth-generation network until 2020 at the earliest.

Will 5G change the world?

With population growth and increased mobile penetration, capacity is one the most prominent use cases being touted for 5G. As we continue to consume and create more data, stream music, video and play games online, existing spectrum bands are going to struggle to cope and congested areas will frequently experience a poor-quality service.

On the opposite end of the 5G spectrum, despite the advantages of the new superfast network, less densely populated rural communities are unlikely to see any of the benefits in the near-future. The high-frequency bands the network operates on might have an increased capacity but currently, they are only able to cover shorter distances.

Furthermore, there is a high cost associated with 5G deployment, meaning that without government subsidies, remote areas will be reliant on network operators to provide the necessary infrastructure. 

“Regulators will need provide more license exempts and shared spectrum to lower the cost of spectrum access.” Kalpak Gude, President of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, explains. “Carrier technologies have generally not been well suited to deploying in rural areas or areas with less dense populations. Higher frequency bands will make this even more difficult.”

However, the digital economy in Southeast Asia is on the rise and cross-country bandwidth in the region has seen a 45-fold increase since 2005. According to Anthony Ho, Director of Regional Product Management at Equinix, “interconnection – the private data exchange between businesses – plays a critical role in the 5G revolution as well.”

“Interconnection Bandwidth in Asia-Pacific is expected to grow 46% per annum to reach 1,120 Tbps of installed capacity, approaching nearly a quarter (22%) of global traffic.”

Do the use cases exist in Southeast Asia?

Like the rest of the globe, ASEAN countries are looking to leverage 5G effectively and innovatively. “Some industries within the region will start to see a definite advantage.” R. Ezhirpavai, the Vice President of Technology at Aricent, tells me. “For example, agriculture. Large plantations in Indonesia are using 5G drones to collect information on soil conditions and moisture levels. The drone captures images of agricultural land to get details of the plantation, soil, weather and sends high resolution images over 5G for analysis– all in real time.”

The same technology also has a number of public safety use cases. Traffic monitoring and crowd control are two examples that have already been trialled, with drones offering pinpoint positioning and a sustained viewing platform that can assess and monitor situations long before the arrival of ground patrols. 

SME’s and start-ups, both of which are prolific in the region, are also set to capitalise on the opportunities bought about by 5G to generate business growth and support digital transformation initiatives.

Furthermore, Ho explains that “while the technologies needed for smart cities already exist, the capacity for the technologies to operate in real-time across an interconnected network has mostly been contained and restricted by current network standards.”

5G will therefore help with the future development of smart cities, supporting applications that will enhance the lives of citizens by bringing about greater efficiency to a large number of vital services.

However, as every country in Southeast Asia has a different expected deployment date, there are different requirements for each country in the region. The consumer smartphone market is still growing and as it becomes more saturated, it will impact on the way 5G is implemented and the problems it is used to solve.

One such example can be seen with the Internet of Things. The IoT market is yet to fully mature in the ASEAN bloc however, Ezhirpavai explains that because of 5G “a number of local businesses are already looking at using large-scale IoT devices.”

“Some Southeast Asian countries are also looking at 5G for production line verification and the real time analysis of sensors within enterprise IoT. In this instance, 5G can be delivered over mid-bands. These can cover larger areas with higher bandwidths for spectrum to achieve higher throughput.”

However, although 5G is one of the core tenets of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the majority of countries looking to deploy 5G within the next two to three years are still unable to supply adequate 4G services to their citizens. Major cities including Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Jakarta all currently have 4G mobile download speeds which rank below the global average, with users in Yangon and Ho Chi Minh reporting a decrease in connection speeds as more people connect to 4G networks.

What’s next for 5G throughout ASEAN?

While there has been a lot of talk from countries in the region about when they expect to see 5G deployed, only a few have taken pro-active steps to make the dream of 5G a reality.

The timeline for deployment varies from country to country. Brunei, the country with greatest mobile penetration in the region doesn’t expect to see 5G before 2021. Chinese telecom giant Huawei have notably been working with local telco companies in the Philippines and Vietnam to help strengthen their networks for roll out in 2020.

Most recently, the Vietnamese government awarded the country’s first trial 5G licence to its largest telecommunications company, Viettel. The company is expected to work in conjunction with Ericsson and Nokia, deploying technologies from the two organisations and using base stations manufactured in Vietnam in order to boost economic development. The trials are expected to run until 2020 throughout Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, although Viettel will not be able to generate any revenue from the project until the pilot is over.

Cambodia and Thailand have said they expect to see 5G deployed around 2021 and Malaysia has started running tests with various technology partners, although the network won’t be commercially available until 2020.

These opportunities aren’t all hypothetical, however. “In Singapore, 5G is already expected to be rolled out by 2020 and authorities have recently announced drone and autonomous vehicles trials over the 5G pilot network.” Ho explains.

Indonesia also launched trials for its own 5G network in Jakarta and Palembang during the 2018 Asian Games. The South Korean telecoms company KT used the event to showcase its current 5G capabilities before it launches in commercial service in its home country later this year. Those watching the games in Indonesia were able to experience a number of different sport-related VR activities, ride in autonomous vehicles and use tablets all powered by 5G technology. 

Ultimately, when it comes to 5G, Gude makes it clear that Southeast Asia has the same possibilities and challenges as the rest of the world. However, in a region that has both densely populated cities and large, rural expanses; governments and telecom companies need to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is made available to not only mobile carriers but small rural providers, community connectivity organisations, building owners, factory owners and schools. Only then can 5G become a reality.