Imagine 5G in South Asia, 1.891 billion or about one fourth of the world's population, making it both the most populous and the most densely populated geographical region in the world.
Just a year after introducing 4G, the telecom sector in South Asia is turning its attention to move on to the era of 5G. While the gap between these two successive generations of mobile technologies seem quite narrow, 5G’s over-arching impact beyond voice and data has made it a must-have tool to keep South Asia relevant in the 4th Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0).
Unlike the earlier generations, 5G can bring more than an incremental change for an emerging economy of South Asia . Its underlying architecture has the potential to enable the next wave of productivity and innovation across the subcontinent – thanks to its gigabit speeds, improved network performance and reliability.
However, some of the most talked 5G uses-cases like autonomous vehicles and robotic surgery might not be applicable in context of South Asia. This is because, such futuristic use-cases requires advanced market structure and availability of digital and supporting economic infrastructure. Rather an improvised and contextual 5G would be more appropriate for the country largely driven by digitization and automation needs in the government and business sectors.
Unlike early generations of mobile networks, 5G will represent a significant shift in the telco industry’s focus away from voice and more towards mobile broadband and increased industrial applications. In other words, 5G will be use-case driven. Instead of rolling out a tower and offering voice and data services right away, 5G will solve problems across a range of sectors—including transportation, health, manufacturing and agriculture—using a combination of device, connectivity and application.
5G use cases can be divided into the following 3 categories: a) enhanced Mobile Broadband, b) massive Machine Type Communications, and c) Critical communications. Apart from these use-cases, 5G has the potential to allow tailoring of requirements for each of these use-cases categories within the same network.
Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB)
eMBB is designed to provide an improved “Unlimited” mobile experience for consumers. Superfast 5G networks with peak data rate of >10 Gbps will enable consumers to view rich content in more places, supporting the streaming of live events and high-resolution media. Increased network capacity of 10,000 times compared to today’s networks will support more users, even in crowded areas, such as large public events, and at peak times providing at least 100 Mbps throughput per user.eMBB will likely be the focus of early 5G deployments as it can immediately support the growing communications requirements for an emerging digital economy like South Asia.
Massive Machine Type Communication (mMTC)
The mMTC will support widespread and dense deployment of sensors and other network-connected devices enabling massive Internet-of-Things (IoT) deployment, such as asset tracking, smart agriculture, smart cities, energy monitoring, smart home, remote monitoring. The mMTC will significantly reduce the power requirements (battery life of up to 10 years) and provide flexible coverage across different spectrum bands with the ability to support over 1 Million devices per Sq-km.
Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC)
The URLLC will take human-to-machine interaction to the next level offering sub-millisecond latency and ultra-reliable (i.e. 1 in a million) communications networks supporing the delivery of critical communications—playing role in the technology ecosystem supporting autonomous vehicles, smart grids, remote patient monitoring and telehealth, industrial automation.
5G Opportunities for South Asia
The 5G opportunities can be divided into 3 broader segments – Consumer, Business and Government.
Super-fast, yet affordable 5G networks shall bring new services and experiences to the 1.891 billion or about one fourth of the world’s population. The first wave of 5G deployments are envisaged to be primarily based on eMBB use-cases and shall provide unlimited mobile and home broadband experience for the consumers – far better than today’s 4G and WiFi connectivity. Through ultra-high speed and low-latency connections, consumers will be able to avail a broad-range of data-hungry services, such as HD streaming and gaming services, seamless video conferencing and sharing, as well as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) services. All these services are expected to be availed keeping the same monthly budget, thanks to at least 10 times cost reduction from 4G to 5G based data services.
The eMBB services will also help the fledgling SME and Corporate businesses of the countries to migrate to Cloud supporting various cloud-based software, unified communication and conferencing needs. Using the mMTC, the companies in the RMG, Pharmaceuticals and FMCG sectors will be able to deploy various assembly line and supply chain automation techniques, which will significantly increase their efficiency. On the other hand, applications like asset tracking, logistics & workers’ safety will help the businesses to improve their productivity.
Perhaps, the most transformative impacts of 5G will be in the government sector for South Asia. 5G powered Smart Cities can implement use-cases like smart parking, smart waste-management, smart street-lights, smart public safety, etc and enable smart decision making and planning to optimize the quality of life for citizens and increase productivity.
5G can accelerate implementation of Smart Grid/Utilities in South Asia to a great extent, enabling use-cases like smart metering, service quality monitoring, fault localization, automation and control, infrastructure management and demand management. The utilities can utilize these services to better manage between demand & supply, improve service quality & reliability, and ensure precision billing and revenue collection. On the other hand, customers can monitor and manage their consumption in near real-time and pay bills and get notified about alerts and outages through their smart phones.
Apart from the above, 5G can help government implement digitization and automation projects across several sectors like health, education and agriculture.
Key Challenges for 5G deployment in South Asia:
Despite many potential benefits, there are significant challenges exist to implement 5G and get the most out of it. Operators are skeptical about the business case given the high-levels of investment needed to deploy 5G networks, as well as its dependencies on device and apps ecosystem readiness. In such a scenario, actions from the policy-makers will make a great difference in facilitating a robust 5G investment case.
Some of these key challenges are outlined below:
Spectrum: The key features of 5G, i.e. speed, reliability and capacity mainly come from more and new bands of spectrum. Price and allocation modality of spectrum will play a major in the business cases of the 5G operators. With the current level of spectrum price, operators will hardly see any business case for immediate adoption of 5G in South Asia . Moreover, lots of clean-ups and harmonization are required in the 700 MHz, 3.5 GHz and 26-28 GHz bands to make them available for 5G deployment. Affordable access to these spectrum and a clear road map of their availability are the keys to encourage investments in 5G.
Infrastructure: Along with spectrum, easy and affordable access to infrastructure (poles and towers, antenna, fiber network) is also critically important to ensure 5G capacity and coverage. Hence, attention needs to be paid to reform some of the guidelines and arrangements related to authority policies, so that all players can offer their complementary assets and capabilities under a harmonized 5G infrastructure sharing guideline .
Policy: Unlike 2G/3G/4G, the use-case driven 5G technology require close engagements with devices and application developer communities, government agencies and telecom industry. Taxation regime for IoT sensors/devices and connectivity (e.g. SIM TAX, VAT/SD/SC) needs to be reformed to encourage proliferation of IoT applications. Cross-Industry collaboration is required to expedite national ICT projects, such as Smart City/Grid/Education/Health to prepare ground for 5G-based digitalization and automation projects. Also, right and pragmatic policies based on international best practices needs to be put in place for Cloud and Data Centers to cater for the ‘Data Tsunami’ that 5G will fuel.
Security: As 5G networks are expected to become the backbone of many critical national IT applications, such as Smart City, Smart Grids, Healthcare, etc. the integrity and availability of those networks will become major concerns and challenges from national security perspective. Due to its dependencies on devices and applications, risks related to major security flaws may significantly increase. For example, threats deriving from poor firmware and software development processes which make it easier for the hackers to maliciously insert back-doors into products and make them harder to detect. Hence, necessary security and data privacy policies and best practices needs to be in place, such as data encryption, device/software certification, network slicing, etc.
5G is expected to play a key role in an emerging economy of South Asia , improving economic growth, enhancing citizen experiences and creating new business opportunities. The implementation of 5G in South Asia would be quite different than the rest of the world as, the most populous and the most densely populated geographical region , is leap-frogging from a completely analog to a digital economy bypassing the intermediary steps.
However, significant skepticism exists regarding the investment case of 5G, which needs to be addressed by carefully crafted spectrum, infrastructure, taxation and cloud hosting policies. This can reduce business uncertainties and create an encouraging investment environment for all 5G players, including operators, infrastructure providers, device vendors, developer community, and most importantly, government and business customers.