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Southeast Asia is accelerating a 5G shift to close the development gap

HANOI / BANGKOK – Southeast Asian countries are struggling to introduce 5G networks, determined not to fall behind developed countries, as technology is crucial for innovations such as autonomous driving and digital medical services.

Thailand and Vietnam are planning to start 5G services as early as 2020, with only a year or two lagging behind rich countries. In contrast, they introduced 4G services five years after their Western counterparts.

The steep costs of 5G infrastructure weigh on telecommunications companies, which are still struggling with heavy spending on 4G technology. This factor may be reflected in the decision to exclude cheaper offers from the Chinese company Huawei Technologies, as advocated by the US.

In Thailand, the government is also considering ways to encourage companies that are still saddled with 4G investments to bid on parts of the 5G spectrum when they appear at the auction. One of the incentives being considered is low-interest financing.

Thailand has become the leading manufacturer of Southeast Asia, but it is stuck on the eve of an advanced economy. To stimulate growth, the Thailand 4.0 government initiative focuses on promoting high technology industries that use 5G infrastructure. With speeds up to 100 times faster than 4G, technology will be important to the success of this strategy.

"We want to create industries that can play a crucial role in the near future," said Pichet Durongkaveroj, the minister of digital economy and society.

In Chonburi Province, just southeast of Bangkok, the Thai government has set up a 5G test facility in the Eastern Economic Corridor, hoping to continue innovations in areas such as self-driving cars and remote-controlled robots. Participants are the country's leading telecommunications provider, Advanced Info Service and runner-up True Corp., alongside foreign players such as Huawei and Ericsson from Sweden.

Singapore, a regional leader in 5G, said in July that the Singapore Telecommunications was testing 5G networks together with Ericsson. Singtel also works with Garuda Robotics on drones for security and package delivery. It also performs tests for cloud gaming with which users can stream games.

Thailand's True Corp. introduces drone technology that uses 5G communication. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

The government plans to use 5G, which provides seamless data transmission, to install around 100,000 smart street lamps that are equipped with sensors and surveillance cameras. It is also expected that the technology will be used for communication that is involved in automatic driving.

But the financial burden of 5G investments is just as daunting in Singapore. This has led to the conglomerate Keppel Corp. and Singapore Press Holdings have jointly taken over the island's third largest wireless provider, M1.

In Myanmar, where the 4G service was only fully launched in 2017, the government is aiming for a shift to 5G by allocating parts of the new spectrum to mobile providers in the next decade. Healthcare consultancy Golden Zaneka is exploring telemedicine for rural areas to close the gap in service with major cities.

There is a struggle for dominance in the information infrastructure as US President Donald Trump squatters Chinese competitors, including Huawei. Chinese base stations are considered to be 20% to 30% cheaper than those of Western rivals such as Ericsson and Nokia, and many Southeast Asian companies use Chinese products for their 4G networks. No country in the region has said it will ban Chinese devices.

Although it is expected that most Southeast Asian countries will maintain that course, Vietnam is in a somewhat different position. The Viettel Military Industry and Telecoms Group is planning to launch its 5G pilot network this year and is striving to develop its own base stations.

"We used to rely on input, but now we want to develop self-developed 5G technology," said Nguyen Manh Hung, minister of information and communication.

Although China is Vietnam's largest trading partner, Hanoi also maintains a cooperation relationship with Washington, which is trying to ban Chinese telecommunications products, in the area of ​​security. The dilemma has aroused interest in which side the country will choose when building its 5G network.

Worldwide, the telecom sector has focused on 2020 to standardize 5G and make it commercially available. In Europe, a framework established by the European Commission aims for large-scale commercial introduction by the end of 2020.

The United States rolled out 5G commercially in certain cities last year. South Korea completed a spectrum auction in June and will start commercial services this month. Japan plans to offer a pre-commercial launch this year.

Some Southeast Asian countries are expected to lag behind. A report from Moody's & # 39; s Investors Service said that "details and timelines [of 5G] are unclear "for countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, which remain focused on 4G.

Mayuko Tani in Singapore, Yuichi Nitta in Yangon and Akane Okutsu in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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