5G in Asia: State of play

Telecom Asia

GSMA’s Mobile Economy report forecasts Asia to become the world’s top 5G region accounting for more than half of 5G connections by 2025. The region is expected to see a flurry of commercial launches following the launch of the technology in 2019.

South Korea

South Korea became the first country in Asia to launch commercial 5G services after the country’s three mobile carriers - SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus - switched on their 5G networks in December.

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The 5G services are being delivered on the companies’ respective networks operating on the 3.5GHz spectrum, and are initially available for limited enterprise customers only.

Both SKT and KT say they will start offering 5G mobile services to consumers when 5G smartphones become locally available next year. [See “5G phones are coming (and they ain’t cheap!]

“We are providing 5G services to corporate customers that require high-speed, low-latency, and hyper-connected communication environments,” Hyun Jin Park, senior vice president of marketing group / 5G business unit at KT, told Telecom Asia.

SKT said the first call over the commercial 5G network was made by its CEO Park Jung Ho to SKT manager Park Sook-hee, between Bundang Gyeonggi-do Province and Myeongdong in Seoul, using a Samsung 5G smartphone prototype.

To set 5G apart SKT is introducing new features, such as artificial intelligence.

“We plan to provide the best network quality to our customers. To provide the highest levels of security, we are incorporating advanced technologies like quantum cryptography as part of the network service,” a spokesperson for SKT told Telecom Asia.

Auto parts maker Myunghwa Industrial is using SKT’s 5G-AI Machine Vision solution to verify product quality. Test drives of 5G self-driving cars have also begun on public roads.

Among the three carriers, SK Telecom has the most extensive network deployment to date, covering 13 cities and counties throughout South Korea.

KT and LG UPlus marked the commercial switch-on of their respective 5G networks on the same date, although rollouts currently appear to be on a smaller scale.

Various reports said KT launched its first 5G offering in Gwacheon, while the Korea Herald reported that the operator has deployed 5G in Seoul and six other metropolitan cities across the country.

LG Uplus, meanwhile, is reported to have conducted a 5G video call in Magok, Seoul, using a laptop connected to a 5G router. The carrier has established around 4,100 5G base stations and plans to increase the number to 7,000 by the end of December.

The launches come six months after South Korea completed its 5G spectrum auctions, which raised 3.61 trillion won ($3.2 billion) for the South Korean government.   

Australia  

Australia is the second Asia-Pacific country after South Korea to auction off 5G spectrum, and is also expected to be the second nation in the region to launch commercial 5G services.

In mid-December, the country’s regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), concluded the 5G auction, with four companies - Telstra, Optus, Dense Air Australia and a joint venture between TPG Telecom and Vodafone Hutchison Australia - paying a total of a total of A$853 million ($616.02 million) for the spectrum in the 3.6-GHz band.

Licenses won at auction will be available from March 2020, although operators could have access to the frequencies earlier provided operators can guarantee no interference to existence licenses. The new licenses are valid until December 13, 2030, the regulator says.

Telstra expects to start offering mid-band 5G services in early 2019, with a full rollout across the capital cities, regional centers and high-demand areas by June 2020. The company has already switched on 130 5G-enabled sites across Australia and plan to have a total of 200 sites by the end of 2018.

 “Combined with existing holdings, Telstra now has 60 MHz of contiguous 5G spectrum in all major capital cities and between 50-80 MHz of contiguous 5G spectrum in all regional areas,” wrote Telstra CEO Andrew Penn on his blog posted on the company’s website.

Meanwhile, Optus says it is committed to commercially launch fixed wireless access services in early 2019 with plans to extend these to others parts of Australia with the addition of the new spectrum. Vodafone plans to launch 5G services in 2020.

Japan  

With Japan hosting the ninth Rugby World Cup next year, the country is setting the stage for limited pre 5G commercial services next year. NTT Docomo and KDDI both have revealed plans to launch pre commercial 5G services in limited areas in 2019, with full-fledged services in 2020.

Docomo said it will focus on enhanced mobile broadband, including the delivery of high speed connectivity to vehicles travelling at up to 300km/h.

Takehiro Nakamura, SVP and GM of NTT Docomo’s 5G Lab, said the operator is currently looking only at non-standalone 5G NR, to improve the radio access network to deliver faster speeds. The operator is working with over 1800 partners to create new use cases for 5G, Nakamura told audience at Qualcomm’s 4G/5G Summit in October.

In 2020, Docomo will launch 5G initially from areas where higher performance is required. It will also deploy 5G at venues for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games to promote the next generation mobile technology.

Both 5G NR and enhanced LTE (eLTE) are deployed with tight interworking. Beyond 2020, deployment areas for 5G will gradually be expanded while introducing additional technologies and frequency bands.

Nakamura said Docomo may consider deploying standalone (SA) mode in the future with the emergence of private networks, as well as ultra-reliable low-latency services that could drive demand for SA. At the same time, Docomo is putting backwards compatibility to 4G as a high priority, he added.

KDDI also shared a similar view, saying the 5G will revitalize the regions and resolve social issues.

“5G is actually the extension of 4G LTE technology. So, we are thinking of adding software functions which are common to 4G, and we are trying to share the facilities with other companies,” said KDDI president Makoto Takahashi at its annual reference.

KDDI will launch pre 5G services focused on applications such as distributing high-resolution images and drone security in limited areas next year, ahead of a full-fledged rollout beginning in 2020.

“We plan to provide 5G in areas of Tokyo for the Olympic and Paralympic games and in areas in accordance with the request of municipalities and our partner companies,” Takashashi added.

This article first appeared in Telecom Asia December 2018 Edition

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