Imagine a driverless bus packed with 80 passengers, navigating the busy roads of a country’s bustling capital city. As it approaches a red light, the bus experiences a brief, ten-millisecond delay in its wireless signal: it plows through the light and into oncoming traffic. In a world of increasing reliance on internet connectivity, a poor signal can mean more than just a dropped call.
“In a connected car or bus, you will already have killed someone in those ten milliseconds,” explained Seng Sopheap, president of Cambodia’s National Institute of Posts, Telecommunications and ICT. “This is why a 5G (fifth-generation mobile network) connection is important – it is faster. You might think that isn’t very special, but it’s crucial if you want today’s advanced technology to work seamlessly.”
To put it simply, 5G – the latest generation of cellular mobile communications – is quicker, more stable, and offers wider coverage than its 4G predecessor. Once cellular networks begin running on 5G, entire movies will be downloadable within seconds. Doctors will be able to perform operations from remote locations via robotic arms. Musicians will be able to host entire concerts through video chat, creating lag-free harmonies. And driverless cars will be more reliable on the roads than ever before.
In Southeast Asia, several countries have already begun testing 5G within their borders. It’s no surprise that Singapore is at the forefront of the 5G revolution: the country intends to roll out 5G tech by 2020 in order to “maintain Singapore’s competitive edge in connectivity”, the Communications Ministry told local news outlets in March this year.
Singapore’s three leading network operators – Singtel, StarHub and M1 – have already begun 5G trials in tandem with industry partners, benefitting from the Media Development Authority’s 2017 decision to waive all frequency fees associated with 5G trials. Mobile operators have come together to launch a “5G Garage” at Singapore Polytechnic where 5G innovations can be tested, the first 5G augmented reality phone call was made between Singapore and Australia in late February, and the city-state has teamed up with China to expand the 5G network across Tianjin Eco-City, a joint project between the two countries located in China’s northern Tianjin Municipality.
In Thailand, 5G trials have begun in earnest: 5G labs have been set up in the heart of the country’s Eastern Economic Corridor by vendors like Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei and Thai telecom operators, the country’s telecom regulator plans to auction off 5G spectrum frequency bands later this year, and government officials have announced that the first stages of a 5G rollout will begin this year – with the goal to complete the transition to 5G by the end of 2020.
China has offered the services of its homegrown tech giant Huawei to help develop 5G technology across Asean, and has submitted proposals to various countries for 5G testing and roll out including Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Although not all have accepted the Chinese assistance yet, each are in various stages of shifting toward 5G technology. While Myanmar hosts forums on the topic and Laos is exploring the market for this technology, Cambodia’s telecom companies and government officials are preparing for what a 5G future may bring.
“I think that here in Cambodia, we are five years away from a full 5G roll out… and only two years from commercial use,” Sopheap said, adding that phones with 5G capabilities were recently put on display at the Digital Cambodia conference hosted in March of this year.
“For individuals, it won’t mean too much… you won’t be happier when you call your friend, for example. But in two years, apps will emerge and change, and we will be amazed by the new technology,” he said.
“The world is forging ahead,” he added. “And Cambodia isn’t too far off.”
The world is moving towards 5G, and Cambodia’s telecom providers are preparing for the shift. Focus Cambodia spoke with Thomas Hundt, the CEO of Cambodia’s leading mobile telecommunications operator Smart Axiata, to discuss this new technology and its potential impacts on the Kingdom
How will 5G change Cambodia specifically, and how far has Smart gone in preparing for a 5G network?
5G is the next generation of mobile and wireless broadband technology. As a technology, it will improve data speeds, will significantly improve mobile experience and will unlock opportunities for data-heavy users. Excitingly, 2019 appears to be the year during which the first couple of commercial 5G launches will be happening. This will doubtless drive the adoption of 5G-equipped devices, and will make the decision for mobile operators to launch their own 5G service easier than before.
Like other providers around the world, we at Smart are exploring the feasibility of this advanced technology and making sure we are ready to transition to 5G. Globally, there is a debate about the use of the C-band spectrum, which in some markets are used by satellite providers and which is now the prime band for 5G mobile technologies. As Cambodia does not have any satellite operations, we have a unique opportunity to leapfrog our regional neighbours by being one of the first to launch 5G – if we act fast.
What further steps must be taken for Cambodia to be ready for widespread use of 5G, by both the telecom operators as well as government?
5G requires a new, harmonised mobile spectrum. In Cambodia, the government should aim to make available 80-100MHz of contiguous spectrum per operator in prime 5G mid-bands, so that we can begin operating on these 5G spectrums. Moreover, we know for a fact that significant investment is needed for 5G, as more sites need to be built while consumer adoption rate will likely take some time. Hence, policy makers should explore ways to incentivise rollout of this new technology and promote investment in the already hypercompetitive sector. This includes allocating 5G spectrum at a reasonable cost, by adopting a balanced taxation approach and facilitating right of way to build site infrastructure.
How many years would you guess Cambodia would need to be able to have a significant 5G network in the country’s main cities? Approximately how long do you think it will take for Cambodia to phase out 2G?
If we refer to the evolution of mobile technology, the time taken to transition from one technology to another is getting shorter and shorter. So, I won’t be surprised if 5G takes us by storm! Nevertheless, for the next two to three years at least, I expect that high data capacity and speed demands will become increasingly popular. In terms of a technology shutdown, if I were to take a guess, I would probably anticipate that 3G will be phased out earlier than 2G. In Cambodia, there is still a high percentage of feature phones in the market that are using 2G, though the gap is decreasing year-on-year. On the other hand, most mobile operators are investing heavily into 4G and will have rather ubiquitous coverage, which can then replace 3G technologies in the future without impacting smartphone users.