Post-pandemic economies across the globe – APAC not being spared – have been struggling to rebuild in the face of economic headwinds.

While hyperconnected technologies – from edge-to-cloud services to industrial IoT and AI applications – have the potential to recession-proof businesses, such investments need time and the right strategies to succeed amid current economic headwinds. 

In the digital economy firmly established in the APAC economy, connectivity has become even more critical to business operations and survival. It is also the backbone for the emerging hyperconnected technologies mentioned above.

Would the slow but steady rollout of 5G over the last few years help? What about other competing and/or complementary connectivity technologies such as satellites, Wi-Fi 6 and other offerings from hyperscalers?

DigiconAsia discussed these challenges and developments with Joshua Eum, General Manager, ANZ/SEA Service Provider, CommScope.

What are the challenges in building the region’s next-generation broadband networks, and what should the APAC telecom sector’s wireless roadmap include?

Eum: In Southeast Asia alone, about 150 million adults are currently digitally excluded, with the region lagging at fifth place out of the seven global regions covered in consultancy Roland Berger’s Digital Inclusion Index.

It is key that everyone across the world has the same access to the opportunities brought about by broadband connectivity. Closing the digital divide will be integral in facilitating the delivery of a wide range of services and applications to improve business efficiency and productivity, as well as enhancing everyday lives.

In developing markets like Vietnam and the Philippines, governments have hence been zeroing in on improving infrastructure in mobile data availability and coverage, while also encouraging market competition to increase affordability. Networks are thus under constant pressure to cope with increasing demand, while evolving alongside new technologies and remaining flexible for further expansion.

Joshua Eum, General Manager, ANZ/SEA Service Provider, CommScope

The telecom sector will form the infrastructural backbone needed to drive such measures and digital-friendly policies, and the wireless roadmap will see network providers continuing to work closely with government agencies to strengthen digital inclusion. There are already increasing funds allocated from various governments and agencies around the world and the investment in digital transformation and infrastructure will provide long term and far-reaching benefits for us all, both economically and socially.

The “5G cost” question often arises in the industry – so how should service providers approach ROI for 5G networks?

Eum: In today’s digital era, Internet access and fast speeds have become a necessity. According to a report by GSMA, 62% of the region’s population will be subscribed to mobile services, with close to 200 million new subscribers expected in Asia Pacific by 2025. 

However, with an impending recession and heightened concerns around a rising cost of living, consumers are likely to be forced to start making decisions about the types of devices and network services they can afford. And, while some may downgrade or cancel their plans, others will upgrade to new devices to gain access to the benefits of improved digital connectivity that come with 5G.

The anticipated uptick in consumer 5G adoption, coupled with the rising adoption of commercial 5G services which is now available in multiple markets, are expected to drive up to 400 million 5G connections in the region across the next two years.

To meet such growing demand, the industry will selectively implement 5G standalone (SA) capabilities to unlock the full benefits of 5G technology, including support for latency sensitive, high reliability, and extended Internet of Things (IoT) service capabilities. Such benefits are huge for individuals, communities, and businesses, and will drive digital economic growth and innovation.

That said, mobile operators and service providers could look for ways to maximize use of their current infrastructure while reducing power consumption. The goal is ultimately to minimize the need to build new towers or add structurally to existing ones.

Operators will seek technologies that optimize their tower space and wind loading while combining multiple antennas under one radio.  More network operators may turn to neutral host providers to reduce footprint, cost, and increase energy efficiency.

What are some real-world use cases of 5G connectivity and AI-enabled network automation?

Eum: As emerging technologies like cloud services, artificial intelligence (AI), IoT, and edge computing evolve, the demand for better access to latency-sensitive data increases. Today’s growing importance of AI, coupled with 5G’s ability to provide high speeds and low latency will be the foundation supporting this growth and innovation. The potential of these applications will be unlimited, and some use cases can include:

    1. Manufacturing – The integration of industrial robots alongside human workers necessitates precise control to prevent accidents and injuries. To achieve safe operations, these robots rely on fast and low-latency connectivity provided by 5G networks, both indoors and outdoors. Meanwhile, automated inventory systems can function effectively using Wi-Fi connectivity.
    2. Healthcare – The availability of a robust network offering high network speeds and stringent security measures is critical in hospital and clinical settings comprising various IoT devices, sensors, and telemetry systems. While some applications can function adequately with Wi-Fi connectivity, others, such as remote robotics surgeries, require the low latency provided by 5G networks.
    3. Logistics – The low latency of 5G allows for real-time data processing and analysis. In a warehouse environment, this enables the timely monitoring and optimization of inventory levels, supply chain operations, and equipment performance. Real-time insights derived from the data can help warehouse managers make informed decisions and quickly respond to changes or disruptions.

Is there actual or potential threats for mobile telecom service providers from the satellite industry, hyperscalers and other tech players? Is partnership a feasible opportunity to pursue?

Eum: While satellite internet is seen as a viable option to bring internet access quicker to the rural areas where density is typically sparse, affordability and accessibility issues will remain a huge challenge for consumers especially in the rural areas.

Hyperscalers are expanding cloud-based services that will help service providers to stream all kinds of entertainment and information content to homes, laptops and mobile devices in a seamless mesh of connectivity. Tech players are also exploring trends such as AI and immersive reality technologies that may create new possibilities that will change the way we work and live. 5G technology will help to enable applications brought forth by these new trends.

Traditional mobile telecom businesses are also rethinking how to go after new opportunities and cope with new challenges in today’s evolving digital landscape. While forging strategic partnerships with satellite companies, hyper-scalers, and other tech players, it is important to find value where innovation overlaps and work together to unlock new opportunities.