Despite COVID-19, ASEAN’s 5G aspirations remain undeterred

5G deployments present attractive benefits for ASEAN nations—benefits that are too great to be ignored, even in the face of the pandemic.

By Joelyn Chan

Globally, COVID-19 containment efforts focus on reducing human interactions, primarily by encouraging people to stay isolated at home. ASEAN nations are no exception: as governments roll out social distancing measures, many people are forced to telecommute and students are learning online.

Some countries in Southeast Asia already had plans to roll out 5G—the fifth generation of high-speed mobile internet—before the pandemic hit. Given the increasing reliance on remote connectivity, these plans could be all the more beneficial.

Speaking with ASEAN Today, Julian Gorman, head of Asia-Pacific at telecom industry body the GSM Association (GSMA), said, “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, networks are experiencing a significant change in traffic and user profile. The widespread shift in working patterns and increased demand for home entertainment are leading to increased data and voice usage.”

5G promises faster data speeds and more bandwidth to carry growing levels of web traffic—it’s potentially 50 times faster and 10 times more responsive than 4G.

But due to restrictions on movement and shifts in priorities under COVID-19, 5G rollouts in some ASEAN nations are threatened with delays. “We expect some 5G launches to experience short-term delays, but longer-term, no impact is expected,” said Gorman.

5G offers attractive benefits for ASEAN nations

Apart from offering consumers higher speeds, 5G could transform some industries. Most governments recognize the critical nature of telecommunication infrastructure and hope to take advantage of the capabilities.

By 2025, 5G could increase the telecom industry’s revenues from consumers by 6–9% and its revenues from companies by 18-22%. Across ASEAN, the 5G market could be worth US$4.3-5.8 billion.

Undeterred by COVID-19 challenges, ASEAN nations are stepping back from 5G

Singapore is considered one of the Asia-Pacific 5G pioneers. According to Singapore’s Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran, Singapore remains on track to roll out nationwide 5G services by 2025 despite the high number of COVID-19 cases and the current economic uncertainties posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most developing ASEAN nations, however, have yet to put together a 5G roadmap.

Sources: Khmer Times, Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore, Inquirer.net, Digital News Asia, Financial Times, Nikkei Asian Review, The Jakarta Post, Bangkok Post

Thailand’s deployment of 5G was swift

In 2019, Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak was pushing for 5G rollout by mid-2020. He heralded the importance of 5G networks in supporting the economy and driving innovation. However, it was COVID-19 that helped 5G deployment become a reality, as the nation reportedly needed faster networks to support medical personnel’s fight against the pandemic.

Shortly after the nation’s 5G spectrum auction in February 2020, Thailand’s largest operator, Advanced Info Service Plc (AIS), launched 5G services. When the auction was held, there were still no 5G devices on the market. By comparison, when the nation held its 4G license auction, 4G-capable devices already constituted about 30-40% of the market. Thailand was one of the late adopters of 4G but is now one of the few nations with 5G commercial services.

As of May 2020, AIS has launched 5G networks in 158 hospitals in Bangkok and other major cities. It also deployed 5G-operated robots to deliver “telemedicine” services at hospitals, reducing direct contact between doctors and COVID-19 patients.

Thailand has proved to other ASEAN nations that they can roll out 5G while the fight against COVID-19 is still ongoing—and they’ve shown that doing so may actually be advantageous. The new, faster networks may mitigate the challenges posed by COVID-19 and nations would benefit by pressing ahead with 5G rollouts.