No real consumer usage for 5G in Thailand, for now

Now that it is arriving, does Thailand really need a fifth generation (5G) mobile internet network? Yes, the data speeds – up to 100 times faster than 4G – would enable us to download things faster, for robots to work faster, and for cars to drive themselves. But most of us do not own the technologies that would require such speed. 

For example, the concept of the self-driving car is still just a concept in Thailand where even electric vehicles still have not caught on. Closer to your hands, only 1 per cent of the country’s smartphones are 5G compatible, according to Samak Simpa, Head of Network Services Division at Total Access Communication (DTAC). He has been helping the company set up all of its connections ever since 2G first became available. 

“The use case for 5G is still limited here and 4G can still do a lot of the services that 5G promises to bring in the next two to three years, such as online education,” he told Thai Enquirer.  

DTAC was the smallest spender at last month’s 5G spectrum auction, during which the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) raised 100.52 billion baht (US$3.2 billion) auctioning the technology. 

Advanced Info Service (ADVANC) was the biggest spender with 23 licenses across all three spectrum bands from possible 48 licenses. True Corporation (TRUE) and DTAC, the second and third-largest telecoms operators, bought 17 and two licenses respectively.

ADVANC, TRUE, and DTAC will have to pay 42.07, 21.45, and 0.91 billion baht for their licenses, respectively. ADVANC won licences for the 700MHz, 2600MHz, and 26GHz spectrums. TRUE won 2600MHz and 26GHz, and DTAC got two licences in the high band of 26GHz as well. 

With the acquisition, ADVANC now has all the frequency 700 MHz (30 MHz), 900 MHz (20 MHz), 1800 MHz (40 MHz), 2.1 GHz (30 MHz) 2600 MHz (100 MHz) and 26 GHz (1200 MHz) spectrums with a total of 1330 MHz. Combined with the leftover from 4G, they would now have a total 1450 MHz in terms of bandwidth, the most in the country.

DTAC said they did not bid for any low bands as they already had leftover space under the 700MHz spectrum, which around 60 to 70 per cent of mobile devices can support. 

“We will concentrate on the 700MHz and the 900MHz spectrums this year along with the Massive MIMO to develop the 4G experience as we believe that 4G would continue to be a big portion of the market,” he said. 

MIMO stands for ‘multiple-input multiple-output’ and is a wireless network that allows for the transmitting and receiving of more than one data signal simultaneously over the same radio frequency. It is also a key component for 5G systems. 

“At the soonest, it will take at least two to three years before 5G can play a bigger part in the network,” he added. 

For consumers 

DTAC announced last Friday that they will launch their 5G services for mobile phones within the second quarter of this year with the leftover space in the 700MHz spectrum that they own, which still has “more than enough room” to support the technology, Samak said.

“[The 5G services under the 700MHz] will meet the demand from our consumers by 100 per cent but what this is affecting is the image,” he added.

Samak referred to “a rumour” about people being encouraged to change their provider to AIS or TRUE if they want a better 5G experience because both of them obtained more 5G licenses than DTAC. 

“It will take time before 5G can [have an] impact on general consumers’ usage because of the current prices of compatible smartphones and network equipment,” he said.

“For consumers, there is no real usage right now and what is out there are just gimmicks, where the real benefit for the country will come from business application,” he added.

AIS said after they announced of its commercial services for 5G that there are now 16 million mobile phones in their system that can use 5G. They will be the first in Southeast Asia to provide such 5G services under the 2600 MHz spectrum. 

They will also be the first in the region to offer 5G international roaming as well, which can be used with Swisscom in Switzerland, Etisalat in the United Arab Emirates, and soon with SK Telecom in South Korea.

AIS’s consumers with 5G compatible mobile phones would have been able to connect to the fifth generation speed since March 2, which is solely users of Huawei Mate 30 Pro 5G that is compatible to the 2600MHz spectrum. 

Other phones don’t work at the moment where the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G that is being sold by AIS will not be able to use the 5G services until the next software update by its producer in mid-March. AIS, however, expects more than 20 new models that are going to be compatible with the 5G network that they are offering to enter the market this year. 

“What I am asking is which consumer application that we are using actually requires a speed of more than 20 megabytes per second at the moment?” Samak said. 

“The use case of 5G for consumers in Europe right now is more about augmented reality and virtual reality. Other applications involve viewing live sports events on your smartphones and distance learning but the speed that is required for these kinds of applications can already be achieved with 4G,” he added. 

For businesses 

AIS chief consumer business officer Pratthana Leelapanang said on March 2 that the company has expanded 5G coverage over 25 square kilometres in Bangkok and they expect the super-fast network to be adopted by various industrial sectors in the near future. 

AIS said they will spend at least 10-15 billion baht within the next 12 months to expand its 5G coverage. DTAC said its capital expenditures for developing 5G will be 12-14 billion baht for this year. 

The NBTC estimated earlier that the private sector will have to invest around 103 billion baht in 2020 and another 200 billion baht in 2021 to build cell sites for faster connections. Right now, there are more than 130,000 cell sites in the country but that is still not enough for the 5G connection. 

Software provider for enterprise resource planning, Netizen, also expects the software market to be boosted by 5G investment worth 400 billion baht in the next five years. This will mainly be a digital core investment of collect and store data for big-data analytics, cloud computing and cyber security to combat the faster speed that hackers will be working on under 5G.     

While working to expand the network, Pratthana acknowledged that 5G mobile service has yet to reach mass usage globally but the company is expecting the 5G support medical and logistics applications first. AIS said that amid the outbreak of the coronavirus, medical professionals could use the 5G connection to fully enable telemedicine with real-time diagnosis in order to prevent the spread of the virus. 

TRUE is advertising that online education will now be better than ever as the company has been working to drive quality education to people in rural areas via distance learning for a long time now.

For robotic examples, AIS said that they are now working with Hutchison Ports Thailand to use 5G technology to control their container cranes. The high-speed technology allows for the cranes to be operated from a remote control room as 5G enables a rapid response with low latency reception of CCTV signals from cranes. It also immediately sends signals from the control room back to the crane.

According to the Board of Investment (BOI), 30 per cent of manufacturers in Thailand have adopted automation with an investment worth 12 billion baht in 2018. The number of adoption and investments are expected to reach 50 per cent and 200 billion baht by 2022. 

BOI believes that by 2030, 650,000 manufacturing workers will be replaced by machines and 15 per cent of manufacturing labourers will be replaced by robots. The top industries that are adopting industrial robots are the automobile industry and the electronics & electrical appliance industry, which currently account for 35 and 31 per cent of the adoption, respectively. 

Thailand is the number one producer of automotives in Southeast Asia and the second largest air-conditioner and washing machine producer in the world. 

Thavorn Chalassathien, chairman of the Human Capacity Building Institute, told Thai Enquirer that most of Thailand’s workforce is still not automated, but the advent of 5G will speed up this robotic adoption.

He said that most of the adoption is in the automobile industry, electronics industry, and some in the food industry, while most of the jobs that have been replaced by robots are still minimal. He said most of the adoption still requires people to work with machines but the problem is that even though the layover caused by robots is small, factories that have adopted automation are not hiring new people either. This is because they are producing with fewer people already.

“The arriving of 5G will provide better use of internet of things because of the faster speed, which will be more directly linked with artificial intelligence than robotics right now,” he said.

“If 5G is really here, I do not see that it is here right now but when it arrives, self-driving cars and passenger drones will definitely happen because of lower latency, but we are talking years from now,” he added. 

Thavorn said 5G will enable self-driving cars and passenger drones but how fast Thailand will adopt them is a whole other issue.

“With 5G, passenger drones will be enabled because we can control them from further distances while the network would also allow for a traffic control that involves both cars and drones hovering over the same road,” he said. Only Singapore has passenger drone technology in Southeast Asia right now.

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