“Pragmatic” was a word that came up several times today when the Singapore government announced that it expected half of the country to be covered by full-fledged 5G networks by end-2022.
Yes, the first networks will start rolling out from next year when licences are given out, it said, but they will take time to be deployed throughout the city-state.
Pragmatism, it seems, now characterises the way Singapore is going about rolling out one of the most transformative pieces of infrastructure in the coming years.
5G, after all, promises to enable all manners of new applications like autonomous cars, remote surgery and virtual reality gaming. So, why no rush here in the world’s number one smart city?
After all, the United States and South Korea were in a bid to be the first to have a commercial 5G network earlier this year. China, ever eager to wrest technology leadership from the US, is deploying networks in 2020, as are many other countries.
If asked about this, the word you’d most likely hear from Singapore’s Minister for Communications and Information, S Iswaran, who announced the nation’s 5G plans today, is “pragmatic”.
This was how he said the country would approach 5G, so it made sense to citizens and businesses in the long term. He’s not wrong. For once, it pays to wait a little for the technology to settle.
After hearing the industry out, Singapore’s regulators today said it had decided on having two 5G nationwide networks based on the so-called standalone mode.
This means the networks are built with new radios and new network core systems, so they don’t rely on existing 4G equipment. In other words, brand new infrastructure.
This can provide one important feature that earlier, non-standalone networks cannot – the low latency needed for new applications like autonomous cars.
Starting on a clean slate also means telcos are not locked in with an equipment vendor when they need to upgrade to the standalone version of 5G in future. That’s a good reason for not rushing in.
In some countries, non-standalone 5G is used as a way to provide broadband to rural areas where it may be expensive to lay fibre optic cables. There’s no such issue here in Singapore, which is fully wired up with a nationwide fibre broadband network.
Another piece of news today that should be applauded is the way the airwaves will be parcelled out for the telcos here to run the 5G networks on. Once again, pragmatism comes to mind.
Instead of an auction that could cause telcos to spend princely sums for, literally, thin air, the government has decided to look beyond price to decide which telcos get the two 5G standalone licences.
So, they will be judged on how well a network is designed and performs, along with other criteria. This is a better way forward.
There will still be a reserve price of S$55 million for one 100MHz lot of the 3.5GHz band, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) said today. Bandwidth is a scarce resource, after all.
However, the price is reasonable if you consider that a 4G spectrum licence three years ago cost new telco TPG Telecom more than S$100 million. That’s what it had to fork out before even building a network and starting to earn any revenue.
Compared to overseas markets, the cost of a chunk of airwaves to run 5G in Singapore does not seem prohibitive, at least for now.
On October 14, four Hong Kong telcos paid about HK$1 billion (S$174 million) for 200MHz of spectrum in a similar 3.5GHz band to operate 5G in the Special Administrative Region.
On average, that’s S$87 million for each 100MHz lot. That’s significantly higher than the S$55 million starting price that the Singapore regulators are asking for.
The situation may be different in the two markets, of course. Singapore’s telecos are hurting after several years of competition so there is little appetite to go one-up over rivals with gungho bids.
As the biggest telco here, Singtel is expected to snag one of the two standalone spectrum licences. One of M1 or StarHub – or perhaps both through a joint bid, since they have been open to sharing a network – might pick up the other one.
Interestingly, the government regulator has also opened up a separate option for non-standalone networks using the mmWave band, which is mostly for short-range coverage.
These networks are not likely to be nationwide. They may be used in a smaller area, such as a factory or port, for specific businesses seeking a high-speed wireless network.
So, there is a lot of flexibility in the way 5G is being rolled out in Singapore. That it is not rushing into a technology race just to be first is a good thing. Likewise, for not making costs for telcos too high before a single connection is made on a 5G network.
This is not to say that things should be at a standstill. Technology is learnt through usage and application, as 5G should be understood through real-world tests.
Thus it’s good to hear of new trials today to use 5G for autonomous vehicles and drones at a university campus. Plus another of a tie-up to use 5G to stream and play games on the go.
As the engineers involved will learn, these are early days for 5G, with many problems to be discovered. Its lofty promises are still years away from being fulfilled.