NBTC ordered to set up 5G by 2020
Telecom spectrum payments still in play
Thailand has committed to developing the necessary telecom infrastructure to fully adopt fifth-generation (5G) wireless systems by 2020, with the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) responsible for the development.
The timeline was announced Wednesday by Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak during a keynote speech delivered at Huawei Asia-Pacific Innovation Day 2018.
"I have already ordered NBTC secretary-general Takorn Tantasith to prepare for the adoption of 5G," Mr Somkid said.
The state's emphasis on 5G development signals the government's intention to ease the licence payment schemes of Advanced Info Service (AIS) and True Move, according to industry veterans.
The country's two largest mobile operators have said (one officially and the other unofficially) that they will be unable to take part in this year's 5G 1800-megahertz spectrum auction, as they are still mired in debt from the previous auctions.
A firm commitment from the government on new-generation technology may persuade academics and civil society organisations to tone down opposition to alleviating the two largest mobile operators' financial burdens.
Thailand should take a big leap and adopt 5G technology within two years rather than implementing it under a step-by-step approach for wireless system development because gradual progress may be too slow, Mr Somkid said.
The NBTC is required to discuss the development with the private sector and prepare for 5G infrastructure.
"I have already talked to many private companies, and they have agreed that Thailand should develop this technology," Mr Somkid said.
He said the International Telecommunication Union is scheduled to announce a standard for 5G technology development by the end of this year or early next year.
China will start developing 5G technology next year, and Chinese technology companies will be tasked with testing the wireless systems.
Mr Somkid said Thailand's digital technology has made great strides over the past three years, while the Thai government has invested in infrastructure for broadband internet on a nationwide basis, with submarine communications cables as part of the investment scheme.
However, a new installation of submarine cables linked with Hong Kong is experiencing a delay.
"The Digital Economy and Society Ministry should accelerate the development of the Hong Kong submarine communications cable project in order to solidify Thailand's role as a new [digital] gateway," Mr Somkid said.
He said the government has also invested in infrastructure for the internet of things, big data and artificial intelligence, all of which will help drive the Thai economy forward and support startup development.
The deputy PM said the current trade value of e-commerce has reached US$80 billion (2.55 trillion baht), with growing expectations that e-commerce will take a huge leap forward once advanced digital infrastructure is in place.
Mr Somkid said 121 million Thais own mobile phones, of whom 40 million have internet access, according to NBTC figures.
"The Thai economy is likely to grow more than 5% once digital technology takes shape, especially in the form of startups and small and medium-sized enterprises," he said.
Mr Somkid said the next government must continue developing both physical and digital infrastructure over the next five years to support the country's economic reform process.
Digital development will propel economic growth because digital access reduces income disparity and promotes stronger rural development, he said, citing how China has successfully used technology to improve the standard of living in rural areas.
Thailand is in the process of using technology to upgrade education and public health, he said.
R&D expenditure is expected to reach 1% of the country's GDP by next year, up from 0.78% logged in 2016, with the private sector's contribution expected to account for 70% of total expenditure, according to Mr Somkid.
GDP growth, meanwhile, is forecast to expand more than 4% this year, with several international organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), making upward revisions to economic growth projections.
The World Bank in April raised Thailand's 2018 growth forecast to 4.1% from 3.6% predicted in August last year, while the OECD lauded the country for making impressive economic and social progress over the past several decades.
Catching the train
"Thailand will not miss the 5G train, as technology will play an essential role in improving the domestic economy, implementing Thailand 4.0 and uplifting quality of life," said NBTC secretary-general Takorn Tantasith.
The NBTC is pushing to develop the telecom infrastructure necessary to fully adopt 5G by 2020.
Developing the country's infrastructure will include implementing the NBTC's spectrum allocation roadmap for a variety of spectrum ranges.
The NBTC, in collaboration with local telecom operators and global vendors, has worked to create 5G awareness in enterprises, corporations and the general public through several public forums.
The commission began a 5G public forum campaign last year and plans to hold such forums until 2020, when 5G will be launched commercially.
Mr Takorn said the NBTC set up a panel to oversee the transition to 5G last year. The panel serves as one of the NBTC's main points of contact with telecom operators.
"Next month's forum will be in collaboration with global players like Ericsson and Huawei," Mr Takorn said.
He said the NBTC expects some 5G use cases to be implemented by telecom operators and other companies by Thailand in late 2020.
"We do not want to see Thailand move into the 5G ecosystem too late, which is why we are facilitating all related infrastructure, including spectrum allocation," Mr Takorn said.
He said Mr Somkid called him on Tuesday to ask whether the NBTC had prepared procedures for the arrival of 5G in 2020.
"I strongly believe each mobile operator should hold at least a combined 200MHz of bandwidth [upload and download] on the spectrum to ensure sufficient capacity to provide 5G services, especially to support the Internet of Things (IoT)," Mr Takorn said.
The NBTC plans to allocate a total of 380MHz of downlink and uplink slots through four spectrum ranges by 2020.
The 380MHz bandwidth of four spectrum ranges includes 180MHz of bandwidth on the 2600MHz spectrum and 90MHz of bandwidth on the 1800MHz spectrum by August 2018, as well as an additional 90MHz of bandwidth on the 700MHz spectrum by 2020.
A combined 420MHz of downlink and uplink bandwidth from a variety of spectra are being used by telecom service providers. However, the active spectra does not have enough bandwidth to provide 5G services.
Enhancing mobile broadband capacity will be the first 5G use case in country, to be followed by evolved IoT use cases.
Nadine Allen, president and country manager of Ericsson Thailand, said Thai telecom operators can add up to $2.6 billion in revenue (or 22% of their total) to their forecast in 2026, once 5G is in place. 5G will enable the development of an IoT ecosystem, as well as the transformation of critical industries such as manufacturing, energy and utilities.
Ericsson encourages telecom operators to be first-movers in the 5G ecosystem, allowing them to gain several competitive advantages such as offloading existing 4G network, moving data-heavy users to 5G, capturing lucrative new use cases and strengthening their brand.
"IoT and 5G are fundamental to realising the Digital Thailand vision," Mrs Allen said.
Michael MacDonald, chief technology officer of Huawei's Southeast Asia office, said 4G can support today's total mobile data consumption.
But if Thailand moves to transform manufacturing through IoT, it will need new 5G frequency bands, he said.
Somchai Lertsutiwong, chief executive of mobile leader AIS, said AIS invested a combined 120 billion during 2015-17 to expand network capacity and serve data usage demand.
AIS, however, set aside just 25 billion baht for network capacity expansion in 2018 because the existing network coverage is enough to serve customers. AIS is closely monitoring the development of 5G technology and use cases.
Mr Somchai said it is too early to elaborate how much budget the company will allocate for network expansion in 2019 or 2020. The decline in investment in 2018 does not mean the company will invest less in coming years, especially as the 5G ecosystem comes into line.
Once 5G is in place, the company will have to spend heavily to serve consumers and retain its competitive position.