Who needs 5G? (Opinion)

Written by Mohamed Awang Lah, who has been involved in internet services since its inception in the mid-1980s. Before his retirement, he was the CEO of Jaring Communications Sdn Bhd.

The controversies with our 5G initiative seem to have no end. It started with the signing of a contract with an equipment supplier before the business model was firmed up.

The buy-in from mobile network players was not sought first. Apparently, there was no thorough discussion. The assumption was that a government company can force its way.

These are recipes for disaster, but I shall not dwell on these controversies.

Let us look at 5G in a wider perspective. Technology-wise, 5G is very advanced, better than 4G but it could be replaced with 6G.

This is the nature of technology evolution. Companies that have invested in 4G certainly want to recoup their investments before replacing the technology.

This is a business decision. The first question is: can we impose technology replacement? Or, just let competition find its own water level?

When we talk about 5G we normally bring up its good points – faster speed, low latency, high number of concurrent connected users.

These features are certainly useful for downloading movies, conducting remote surgery, or enabling driverless cars. But how many people need such features?

It may be useful in operating theatres or cities, but do we need such features in sub-urban or rural areas?

We seldom talk about the coverage of a base station, which depends on the spectrum. Low-frequency spectrum (such as 700MHz) gives larger coverage but slower speed.

High-frequency spectrum (such as 28GHz) gives very small coverage but higher speed.

High-frequency spectrum can hardly penetrate concrete walls – you may need a small base station to provide service in a room. Medium-frequency spectrum (such as 3.5GHz) falls somewhere in between.

As in any wireless system, the terrain, buildings, and trees are also big factors in determining the coverage area.

High-frequency spectrum needs more towers or poles to cover an area which can be covered by one tower or pole with low-frequency spectrum.

Every tower or pole needs power supply. Hence, the electricity bill for these operators will certainly increase many folds.

We need to know the actual size (in sq km) of populated areas to determine the overall cost. In the absence of such data, the costs may escalate.

I have written on some of these issues before – The best way forward for DNB in 5G rollout.

The implementation of 5G is certainly important but not everyone needs it. Furthermore, many people cannot afford to change their mobile phones to the latest models that support 5G.

I am sure there will be many gaps in 5G coverage areas. So, the continued dependency on 4G is inevitable. That is why replacing all 4G base stations with 5G would be a big challenge.

It is better to get all 4G base stations to work at optimum level by ensuring the availability of fibre optic backhaul connectivity.

Here lies a possible conflict, however. If 4G services are good, then the take-up rate of 5G may slow down. I leave it to readers to ponder.

Perhaps Digital Nasional Berhad (DNB) should focus on sharing the 700MHz spectrum for 5G for wide coverage per base station. The speed could then be comparable to or better than 4G.

Let the mobile operators have their own private spectrum for them to compete, especially in cities. Let the competition determine the winners.

DNB may also build fibre optic backhaul for sharing. It can serve both 4G and 5G. This is because in some places you don’t even need 4G or 5G immediately.

With fibre optic backhauls in place, FTTx (“Fiber to the x”) can be rolled out for end-users to have fixed-line broadband and WiFi at home. The speed and quality could be much better than 4G or 5G. It would be cheaper too.

I have discussed this matter in my earlier letter – Cheaper solution for rural broadband.

So, who needs 5G? The simple answer is “not everyone”.

For now, 5G is a technology for the riches. We must have a more comprehensive and integrated plan to enable 4G, 5G and FTTx for the country. Let the retail service providers compete to serve the end-users.

Only through competition can we improve the services.

The government should just focus on enabling the sharing of expensive infrastructure, such as fibre optics and towers.

The cost savings should finally translate to lower price for end-users. Broadband as a public utility can become a reality faster, for the good of the whole country.

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