Photo: Bangkok Post
After years of hype, hope and techno-futuristic promises, Thailand will finally see the beginnings of the fifth generation of wireless broadband as the nation's telecoms bet big on 5G.
On Feb 16, the three major mobile operators and two state telecom enterprises bid a combined 100 billion baht at the auction for the spectrum required to set up 5G infrastructure.
The high winning prices raised eyebrows among industry experts, media outlets and the general public.
The haul the state raised is the envy of neighbouring governments and a big blow to the budgets of domestic telecom companies.
The auction for three spectrum ranges ran for over five hours with a total of 23 rounds of bidding, raising some 30 billion baht more than targeted by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC).
The high bidding prices came as a surprise, as telecom companies had earlier loudly contended that the auctions came too soon after last year's spectrum bid, that the nation was not ready for 5G adoption and that the government still lacked a clear roadmap for frequency allocation.
Despite all this, at least two major telecoms spent big on the licences.
Even more surprising was how state enterprise CAT Telecom fought tooth and nail against two private operators to win two out of three licences on the 700-megahertz range.
Questions have been raised as to whether CAT was right to use taxpayer money to invest in a mobile business that has failed to see significant success spanning four wireless generations.
While questions remain over possible security concerns sprouting from relying heavily on Huawei technology in 5G networks (due to Huawei's cosy relationship with the Chinese government), the transformational impact of 5G on the nation is an opportunity that the private and public sectors don't want to miss.
With as much as 100 times the speed of current wireless networks and with significantly reduced latency, 5G use cases are endless, not just for improving the efficiency of mobile phones, but for growing networks of Internet of Things (IoT) devices in areas like manufacturing, transport, healthcare, education, agriculture and more.
The upgrade to 5G has potential to enable Industry 4.0 and support new services that will in turn drive economic growth and job creation for decades to come.
Adopting 5G this year could contribute 177 billion baht to the economy, or 1.02% of GDP, the NBTC said. The intake could rise to 332 billion baht in 2021 and 476 billion baht in 2022.
Industry veterans say each major operator is carefully outlining its business strategy, network engineering and marketing for 5G services, since 5G-linked use cases have yet to reach maturity.
Wuttichai Wutti-Udomlert, head of network solutions at Ericsson Thailand, said the initial 5G roll-out in Thailand will focus on enhanced mobile broadband and fixed wireless access service to boost data bandwidth and connection reliability.
"Real commercial 5G use cases for vertical industries will be seen next year," he said.
There remain no clear models for 5G service charges that could apply to vertical industries. Each operator is expected to make thorough studies to construct models.
Thailand is the first-mover in Asean for the 5G licence auction, in contrast with the 4G bid in which the country came in late from a global perspective.
The difference is that there are still no 5G devices in the market, in comparison with the market featuring 30-40% 4G devices in 2015 when the 4G licence auction was held.
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