Keeping Hong Kong's economy competitive with 5G

Charles Mok
5G Insights

5G will be a key enabler of smart city services such as video-centric apps, sensor-networks, and autonomous driving. But as the world moves towards 5G, is Hong Kong keeping pace?

The Innovation and Technology Bureau recently published its Smart City Blueprint Consultancy Report, which highlights the importance of making available radio spectrum for 5G services.

The report recommends that the government allow specified venues to serve as testbeds for 5G technology, and anticipates a meteoric rise in small cell penetration. But Hong Kong remains behind most of the world in 5G development.

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Regional telco pioneer

Hong Kong pioneered communications technology adoption and was a leader in 3G and 4G development, but when the ITU identified the 700-MHz and 3.5-GHz bands for telco use in 2015, regulatory authorities in other regions re-purposed the 700-MHz band for 5G usage. France, Germany and Taiwan have already auctioned the band, while Ofcom in the UK proposes 2018-19 allocation, and China’s SARFT is managing the band for LTE trials.

Operators in Japan and South Korea plan provide near-5G/5G services in the 2018 and 2020 Olympic Games, while 17 operators and vendors in the EU are committed to multi-country 5G trials from 2017, with plans to deploy a commercial network in at least one city per EU country by 2020.  

China is testing pre-5G technologies in the 3.5-GHz band. A Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer has submitted and received approval for partial 5G standards by the ITU-and they expect to launch 5G services in 2020.  

Hong Kong: 5G pioneer?  

In LegCo, Hong Kong’s legislative body, I’ve repeatedly urged the government to plan and re-allocate spectrum so that MNOs can launch 5G services here as soon as possible. At first, the government refused to acknowledge that our city lags behind in 5G and said it was impossible to plan spectrum allocation before the ITU’s 2019 conference.  

This is unacceptable. Local MNOs pointed out that no new spectrum had been made available for mobile services until 2019. The lack of predictability for spectrum release also caused investment worries for the industry. Fortunately, in recent months, we’ve seen signs of accelerated decision-making.  

In March, the Communications Authority (CA) finally announced its plan to make additional spectrum available for the telecoms industry. The CA plans to assign spectrum in the 26-GHz and 28-GHz bands for the provision of 5G services in Hong Kong in 2019 at the earliest. They also launched a public consultation in July on re-allocating the 3.4-GHz to 3.7-GHz band to mobile services in 2020.  

Can we keep pace?  

While other regions develop their 5G policies, we need to keep pace with developments in mobile apps that leverage smart transport systems, VR/AR/AI, and the IoT. In 2017 Hong Kong’s OFCA began offering licenses for the provision of public IoT services with use of license-exempted bands, and providing temporary permits for technical trials of 5G and IoT technologies.

The government’s usual spectrum-auction process (highest bid wins) means consumers end up footing a larger bill. Could that revenue be put to more beneficial use-for example, a fund for improving public telco infrastructure in remote areas? The government must manage and allocate spectrum with a focus on using public resources efficiently and strengthening our economy.  

Hong Kong is one of the most successful mobile communications markets in the world. The government should publish a clear 5G spectrum supply roadmap, review the allocation approach, and enhance the efficiency in assigning spectrum bands such as spectrum trading-all with due speed. This will encourage MNOs to invest in infrastructure and create better consumer services. A holistic approach is needed to keep Hong Kong’s digital economy competitive.

Charles Mok is Hong Kong’s Legislative Councillor for Information Technology

 This article first appeared in Telecom Asia 5G Insights October 2017 Edition

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