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The 5G Frontier
DRIVERLESS cars, drones and virtual reality. These are just some of the headline-grabbing technologies that could be part of our lives once fifth-generation, or 5G, mobile networks roll out, telcos say.
5G networks would enable faster and more reliable connections, which could speed up the Internet of Things (IoT) and open new fronts for telco incumbents under pressure. A pilot network in the one-north district is in the pipeline, announced jointly by Singtel and Ericsson in July.
M1 will start South-east Asia field trials, and StarHub plans to switch on 5G base stations, both by year-end. But experts and industry players acknowledge that there may be a long road to 5G coverage in Singapore, not least because the dots that are to be connected aren't all in place yet. While the propounded benefits of 5G include higher data volumes and speeds, some raise eyebrows at holding trials and building infrastructure for a system not yet in place.
Shekar Ayyar, executive vice-president for strategy and corporate development at communications company VMWare, says: "The rational way is to look at the market demand today, and then, based on that, come up with an ROI (return on investment) use case and therefore go and make the deployment of investment.
"Unfortunately, I think that the kinds of applications that are going to be opened up by true 5G, that are going to leverage that architecture, are not yet there today. Trying to build your business case based on existing applications is, to me, a fallacy."
Still, he says that both today's and next-generation applications - such as augmented and virtual reality, artificial intelligence and IoT - will "inevitably" need 5G to function.
Setting up 5G "is crucial to the development of a smart city", as Navin Vohra, CommScope vice-president for Asia-Pacific service provider sales, points out. "With 5G, we will see IoT sensors and devices everywhere, and there will be bespoke applications such as traffic management, dynamic parking, public Wi-Fi, smart meters, for land-scarce Singapore... Even if every corner of the city is 'smart', it would be pointless if data cannot be transmitted in real time to deliver critical information."
With the IoT expected to add billions more smart devices, such as robotic manufacturing in smart factories, "network operators need to consider how to meet increased connectivity demands", Mr Vohra adds.
Neo Teck Guan, director of strategy marketing for Huawei South Pacific, also notes that connected cars and drones, as well as virtual and augmented reality, are some use cases that are gaining traction here. "But how feasible the use cases are depends very much on the industry's and end-users' acceptance of the packaged services, which are too early to determine at this stage," he says.
Mark Jansen, technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) industry leader at PwC Singapore, says that use cases "will be both public and enterprise... because the initiatives around smart cities also draw in enterprise to do things in an ecosystem".
Who stands to gain?
Drone deliveries and augmented reality experiences would certainly be life-changing for ordinary citizens. But telcos may also be counting more on 5G tech than consumers are aware, as their core consumer businesses get eroded by virtual operators and over-the-top services.
Fixed wireless access - a 5G alternative to fibre broadband networks, and one that Singtel's Australian subsidiary Optus is eyeing - is pegged as the immediate consumer use case.
But Andrew Milroy, head of Asia-Pacific consulting for technology consultancy Ovum, tells The Business Timesthat "in Singapore, because of the high level of fixed broadband connections, the urgency from the consumer perspective won't be as huge".
StarHub, for one, has an eye on new enterprise solutions, and work on a pilot 5G network is under way, says its chief technology officer Chong Siew Loong. "Where 5G would shine is in the enterprise space," he says. "Its ultra-low-latency data transfer and network slicing abilities, for instance, can open up new business opportunities in terms of digitalisation and automation."
Credit Suisse analyst Johnson Loh also notes that some early industry trials are focusing on narrower, enterprise-related scenarios, such as process automation and drones to carry out tasks like building inspections. "Over time, new innovative consumer-related use cases should appear as the technology matures. Meanwhile, given the telcos' declining traditional revenue streams, we have seen a greater focus towards product and service offerings in the enterprise sphere, such as cybersecurity and cloud-based solutions."
Whether telcos are truly ready to put their money where their mouth is remains uncertain.
Ovum's Mr Milroy believes that, while smart factory adoption of 5G could be on the cards, "the extent to which people are going to make the investment in it is still inconclusive".
He argues that telcos, facing stiff competition, would be less willing to make costly investments - especially with the business case as yet unclear. "From a consumer perspective, we've done a lot of work around 5G," he says, adding that the market has eyed localised applications such as stadium coverage. "In spite of the early expectation... the use case, on a large scale, has to be consumer."
Likewise, Kenny Liew, an analyst at Fitch Solutions, predicts that 5G won't yield new gains in the enterprise business: "While having the first-mover advantage is important, we maintain that 5G will be niche at the start, and being late to the market will not have adverse effects on any telco."
Yet Mr Liew is bearish on consumer demand too: "Singapore, with its technologically advanced populace, will be keen to adopt 5G when consumer handsets are launched. But for the most part, if 4G trends are to be believed, this will not have a very significant impact on the mobile ARPUs (average revenues per user) of telcos."
Mr Ayyar predicts Singapore's network operators will pick specific business niches for a 5G roll-out. "Not that they'll remain within their boxes and offer only one service or the other. But I think the reasons and the justifications... will be segmented as they begin."
M1's chief technical officer Denis Seek agrees: "Eventually, it's a matter of time that of course everyone will cover a big area, because Singapore is a small island. But (operators) may start off very differently, and they will grow the network very differently."
Singtel, Singapore's biggest telco, referred BT to an earlier statement by group chief technology officer Mark Chong, which said 5G could "accelerate the digital transformation of industries, as well as empower consumers with innovative applications".
The much-vaunted launch of 5G networks would need a significant infrastructure upgrade, much like roadworks on the Internet highway.
Liu Enxiao, from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) Institute of High Performance Computing, compares it to "expanding a busy road so that it can deal with more traffic, with a higher speed limit".
"Along with the expansion, checks and balances will be put in place to ensure that data transfer will be optimised," adds Dr Liu, who is deputy director of the institute's electronics and photonics department. One key tool is network slicing, where operators split a single physical network into multiple virtual networks to cater to the services needed by different customer segments.
A mixed blessing
Mr Ayyar says that a challenge is to spur adoption in such a way that all earlier investments can be carried over. "One of the big concerns is: if we have to wait until 5G, then maybe we have to wait, in some cases, two years; in some other cases, five years. Alternatively, (the concern is that), if we go and re-architect our network to be virtualised in the current 4G or prior context, then we'll have to throw away that investment and go to 5G."
He calls the Republic's "pretty mature existing architecture" - such as a high level of fibre broadband connections island-wide - a mixed blessing because "it'll probably cause them to think twice before uprooting that".
While Singapore's relatively small subscriber base would make it easier to implement a new network, "the fact that they have very successfully deployed end-point technologies in a landline telephony architecture is probably going to cause them to be a little slower than the rest of the world in jumping to 5G", Mr Ayyar adds.
Another head-scratcher is the issue of real estate. 5G will require a much denser base station network, due to the type of signals emitted.
M1's Mr Seek says that the telco's strategy has been to "move in early", with more than 400 small cells already set up at hot spots like train platforms. M1 will also focus on areas such as ports because "we're very focused on shore-to-sea coverage" as an enterprise application.
But the economics of network acquisition may not work out the same way for all players. Site acquisition "might also prove particularly troublesome", says CommScope's Mr Vohra, "as Singapore is a very dense urban environment and land is scarce and very expensive".
Mr Ayyar says that 5G deployment will need "some economically efficient and, frankly, socially efficient model". "If you have right of way or right of location for a tower, then you have the ability to maximise the potential across everybody who wants access to that," he says, adding that policymakers will need to think in "a local, geography-centric way".
According to Mr Seek, M1 has not had to spend a cent on 5G tests, with vendors keen on joint tests: "With the 5G small cell, they even want to make sure it can work in our kind of environment, because they may design for temperate countries and want to figure out whether that kind of frequency will transmit too much heat. So far, I must say, our investment is only human resources."
But, with telcos trying to stretch their dollars, Ovum's Mr Milroy says that top-down measures to facilitate 5G testing will be "something (the authorities) would have to consider".
The Info-communications Media Development Authority has already waived frequency fees for 5G trials, until end-2019, and might extend the waiver, if needed. Researchers at A*Star are also tackling projects such as machine learning and artificial intelligence for 5G devices and networks, to ensure consistent performance for industrial use.
"This whole concept around sandboxes is very pro-active, and is part of our competitive advantage, because a lot of other countries can't do that," says Mr Jansen, from PwC.
DBS analyst Sachin Mittal says that 5G spectrum auctions are expected to take place only in 2021, but warns that capital expenditure is likely to be two to three times as much as what was spent on 3G and 4G roll-outs.
"One cannot rule out government potentially funding 5G in a similar fashion to NBN, allowing players to lease out 5G capacity, although there has been no official word on this," he adds, using a term for the nationwide broadband network.
Forecasting a 15-year investment cycle, Mr Ayyar notes that telcos have historically worked on a longer investment timeframe than other parts of the information technology sector.
Mr Chong, from StarHub, adds: "Depending on 5G spectrum availability, we can expect to see pockets of 5G deployment in a few countries in the months to come. Extensive commercial roll-outs will likely happen sometime after 2020 when 5G devices become mainstream."
As for those driverless cars? Mr Loh says: "As we are in the early stages of 5G deployment, major envisioned use cases such as autonomous cars that aim to utilise 5G improvements in wireless communication will take time to develop."
The fast lane to the future is still under construction.
5G: what is it?
5G refers to the "fifth generation" of mobile network communication technology, and has been billed as the successor to the 3G or 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) networks that much of Singapore now uses.
5G technology is still under development worldwide, but when completed, "5G networks are expected to bring multiple benefits to users, such as enhanced mobile broadband, ultra-reliable low latency communications and massive machine-type communications," says Sun Sumei, head of communications and networks at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Institute for Infocomms Research (I2R). "With the accelerated pace of technological advancements, the increasing number of smart devices and the push towards IoT (Internet of things), 4G networks will soon be inadequate to cope with the amount of data that needs to be transmitted. This is why 5G networks are designed to operate on higher frequencies with larger bandwidth."
Higher frequencies and greater bandwidth allow more information to be sent at the same time. This will bring faster connections and lower latency (what is colloquially known as "lag" between a message being sent and received). Dr Sun says 5G networks are meant to support 1,000 times as many devices in an area, and be 10 times more reliable. They are also expected to boost the peak data transfer rate by 100 times, compared with 4G, and to increase the volume of data by 1,000 times.
The 5G network will operate in both frequency bands below 6GHz and those above 20GHz. 4G networks, in contrast, operate on lower frequency bands below 6GHz.
The frequency of radio waves is a function of their wavelength. One gigahertz (GHz) is equal to one billion Hz.