Priorities and plans have been shifted, but will accelerated global digitalization only propel 5G’s critical relevance when the dust settles?

In today’s connected world, businesses rely more than ever on high quality, reliable and fast connectivity. New developments, such as 5G provide a host of opportunities to harness new innovative solutions. According to the latest Asia Pacific edition of the GSMA’s Mobile Economy series, mobile operators in the region are expected to invest over US$400bn on their networks between 2020 and 2025, of which US$331bn will be spent on 5G deployments.

In the global race to 5G, China and South Korea are considered frontrunners, as they are ahead in building networks and exploring real 5G applications. Singapore’s decision to go straight to the standalone version of 5G instead of the more common non-standalone deployment shows a strong commitment to get ahead in the development of 5G and reap the maximum benefits of the technology to boost business innovation and economic growth.

Many other any countries are now in on the race to 5G, but 2020 has brought upon new challenges and disruptions. While consumers are not going to stop using mobile phones, most will not likely spend more on a service for 5G networks. We have also seen from the pandemic that there is now a global demand for higher communications speeds and capacities, which many are hoping 5G networks can facilitate.

COVID-19 as an accelerator or decelerator?

Due to the global pandemic, the adoption of 5G is likely to experience a short-term dip as businesses shift their priorities to focus on business continuity plans.

Travel restrictions and the global delay in network roll-outs (among other considerations) have resulted in a virtual standstill in 5G implementation. The health crisis has also led to an all-time low level of consumer confidence in terms of economic recessions and drops in household incomes.

As a result, GSMA Intelligence is revising forecasts to show that the total number of 5G connections will be almost 20% lower in 2020 in the Asia Pacific than previously expected.

However, things will likely take a turn for the better, and we can expect 5G developments to accelerate globally in the long run. This is mainly due to the greater need for digital transformation. One 2020 study on Asia Pacific SMB Digital Maturity found that the pandemic has accelerated digitalization efforts for nearly 70% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across the region. Also, 86% of respondents believed digitalization will help them develop resilience against similar crises. When it comes to how connectivity will play a vital role in the digital evolution, the promising pickup of 5G is indicated.

Restructuring a new reality

5G technology may bring about promising changes, but these opportunities have not been able to fully convince developing economies in Asia to justify investments. After all, other areas of the economy such as healthcare have to take precedence over anything else today.

To go around this, governments can review the license fees for the 5G spectrum and make changes in regulations to encourage network sharing. Some countries have also set up 5G innovation funds to encourage the development of 5G applications. In addition, with the advent of telehealth and remote home-monitoring systems, 5G will also be a great enabler for the healthcare industry in the fight against the ongoing pandemic.  

For instance, West China Hospital and Sichuan University, with the support from China Telecom, have launched a 5G-based ‘Online Platform for Free Covid-19 Diagnosis and Treatment’, which provides diagnosis and treatment services to critical cases in Wuhan. In Thailand, Huawei, Thailand National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Communication (NBTC) and Siriraj Hospital have launched a self-driving vehicle, powered by 5G, to enable contactless delivery of medical supplies in remote areas and complex environments.

In Singapore, wearable technology for COVID-19 contact tracing has also been in the news, with 10,000 seniors receiving the first batch of TraceTogether tokens in July. While these tokens do not collect location data or use mobile connectivity, an area to explore would be complimenting them with emerging technologies such as 5G. Imagine the amount of extreme data sets that can aid countries with real-time insights and analytics—getting us ready for the next big disruption.

The road ahead

As 5G proliferates, so will its applications. Beyond COVID-19, we are arriving at the recovery period where the technology can help both enterprises and consumers through reimagination of the workplace and smart city infrastructures using drones and robotic solutions. Due to the high-speed of 5G networks, deploying applications can also be closer to the end-user.

Furthermore, we know that innovation never stops, and there is talk about the next step in the world of mobile connectivity—6G. Research on it has already begun, with countries like the China, Japan, South Korea and the United States making headway. According to NTT DoCoMo’s recent white paper on 6G, we can reasonably expect 6G in 2030.

In essence, the pandemic has and will continue to accelerate Asia’s 5G agenda in the long run. Given that the crisis has already driven digital transformation projects today, we are likely to see a greater need for a more robust and highly-connected digital economy.

While emerging economies in Asia need to do more to evolve and catch up with the others, they cannot ignore that 5G is our new reality, and they need to prepare its digital foundation to embrace an inclusive 5G future.