The GSM Association (GSMA) does not believe the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic will adversely affect worldwide 5G rollouts but concedes that near- to mid-term deployment schedules may be delayed, and demand from consumers may be weakened.
During a recent online briefing with the Malaysian media, its head of Asia Pacific Julian Gorman (pic, above) noted the industry association expects the C-19 situation to mainly affect operators who are in the process of rolling out 5G networks in varying degrees as they faced people movement restrictions.
“We’re going to see an impact in the next couple of months just from the diversion of resources and in timelines from a rollout perspective,” he conceded. “On the consumer side, the impact is that they will be less likely to buy handsets due to the economic challenges.
“We see a short term dip and have reduced our own forecast of 5G take up by about 20%,” he pointed out. “But we still expect about 150 million 5G users globally by year-end, and to largely be back on track [in the following years].”
The GSMA represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, uniting more than 750 operators with over 350 companies. It defines Asia Pacific as countries within the region of north Asia (Japan and Korea), greater China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan), Southeast Asia (Asean), South Asia (Indian subcontinent) and Australasia.
As a result of Covid-19, governments worldwide have instituted lockdowns in their respective countries from anywhere between a month and three. These restrictions have made it difficult even for those working telecommunication services, which many countries deem as essential services, and are not prevented from working.
In Malaysia, these restrictions are known as the Movement Control Order (MCO), which have to date been instituted between March 18 and May 12, with a possibility of further extensions. However, the government has since relaxed some restrictions on May 1 and May 4 respectively, although the overall MCO is still in effect.
Industry insiders Digital News Asia (DNA) spoke to said that the MCO has resulted in delays for contractors working in the deployment of telecommunications services within Malaysia.
Spectrum allotment uncertain
While the GSMA doesn’t believe that 5G rollouts are that badly affected as a result of Covid-19, industry observers DNA spoke to acknowledged that there are other challenges – particularly spectrum allocations – facing 5G rollout in Malaysia beyond what is impacted by Malaysia’s MCO.
In January, the MCMC released its final report on the allocation of spectrum bands for mobile broadband service in Malaysia. The report proposed the concept of a “single consortium” formed by multiple licensees, instead of issuing licenses to individual players in two frequency bands – 700MHz and 3.5GHz – for 5G services.
MCMC contends that the single consortium approach is intended to lower the capital expenditure by minimising costs and prevent the duplication of infrastructure, at a time where operators are continuing to make improvements in 4G networks.
It also argued that a single infrastructure consortium approach ensures that even if the entire 5G cycle fails to deliver on its promise, money will not have been sunken into multiple 5G networks with costly services passed on to consumers.
However, two senior telco executives, speaking to DNA on condition of anonymity, argued that there are difficulties in setting up a single consortium to manage the entire 5G rollout.
There are many unanswered questions as to who gets the lion share of the spectrum band, argued one senior executive.
“When talking about allocation of 5G spectrum, it isn’t merely about who gets the bands,” the insider explained. “For 5G to meaningfully work, an operator needs to have 80MHz to 100MHz of bandwidth – a block of working frequency spectrum within the spectrum band for 5G transmissions.
“Right now, the indication is that operators may be given a lot less than that, perhaps in the range of 10MHz to 30MHz per operator, which isn’t an optimum amount for meaningful 5G use cases.”
The GSMA recommends that industry regulators should aim to make available 80MHz to 100MHz of contiguous spectrum per operator in prime 5G mid-bands such as the 3.5GHz range.
“Ensuring that sufficient channel bandwidth is available for operators will boost 5G network performance, bring down deployment costs and drive significant economic benefit,” said the GSMA.
Then there is the issue of whether operators will get the best value for their respective shareholders when working within a single consortium, argued another executive.
“In my opinion, the single consortium idea has never worked around the world in several countries that have tried it,” the person said. “The competitive dynamics within a single consortium means that respective shareholders within the consortium will have different motivations and agendas.”
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6 May 2020