The Covid-19 pandemic is reshaping the lives of people across the globe and has made inclusive digital connectivity more important than ever. The digital divide is unfairly affecting many people’s access to online working, education, socialising, entertainment, opportunities and inclusion in their communities. As a region, we have the opportunity to leverage digital technologies to respond to these challenges and build the foundation for the economic recovery of tomorrow.
Asia Pacific has a population of 4.2 billion and is one of the most diverse regions in the world, home to economies that are leading the digital revolution with Internet usage exceeding 90 per cent, as well as under-developed countries where ICT use struggles to take hold and Internet usage sits below 15 per cent. Ironically, more than 96 per cent of the population is within reach of a 3G signal and over 94 per cent is within reach of an LTE signal.
According to estimates by the ITU, active mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants reached 76.6 per 100 inhabitants in 2020, exceeding the world average by 1.6 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. Yet, even with both mobile and fixed markets growing over the last four years, only 37 per cent of households in rural areas had access to the Internet compared to 70 per cent for those in urban areas.
More importantly, a recent study by the ITU measuring the impact of mobile broadband and digital transformation on the economy as a whole in Asia Pacific revealed that a ten per cent increase in mobile broadband penetration would result in a 0.5 per cent increase in GDP per capita respectively.
The increased demand for bandwidth, capacity, quality of service and overall quality of experience as a result of social distancing programs including working and studying from home in 2020 has increased the importance of harmonised IMT spectrum available globally.
To serve nations during economic recovery efforts, governments and regulators must accelerate the assignment of IMT spectrum. Research from Coleago Consulting on mid-band 5G spectrum needs in APAC typical country shows that careful consideration of 5G spectrum demand in the 2025-2030 time frame is crucial. According to the research, APAC regulators will need to make at least 1 GHz available for the development of 5G, including FWA.
C-band, sitting between the two Wi-Fi bands, has proven itself to be the perfect balance between coverage and capacity, however, technical obstacles due to satellite coexistence has caused delays in its release.
In addition, strengthening regional support for the use of licensed spectrum at 6GHz will help industries deploy ubiquitous 5G solutions rather than relying on a combination of fragmented mobile IMT and wireless IEEE technologies that plague many enterprises today. Removing these issues more quickly will help address the limited percentage of harmonised IMT spectrum licensed currently which sits between 40 to 60 per cent of the total harmonised IMT spectrum.
Rolling out large scale mobile services is expensive. Sufficient spectrum is the most critical factor to ensure operators have the ability to deploy effective broadband coverage, and the knowledge that more spectrum is available in future, will accelerate their long-term investments in digital infrastructure.
Regulators, operators and industry players should come together to recognise digital transformation, led by mobile connectivity, will benefit all involved.
4G continues to be developed, deployed and optimised and many countries in Asia Pacific have devised a strategy to leverage 4G infrastructure first and better understand best practices before moving to 5G. As such, continued investment is critical and operators and vendors should strive to strengthen 4G by focusing on experience-based network construction, meeting coverage obligations, and developing a low-price terminal ecosystem.
In addition to improved bandwidth and capacity, one major benefit of 5G is its proven ability to provide a cost-effective alternative for high-speed broadband connections at home. In addition to providing coverage where fixed networks are non-existent, 5G Fixed Wireless Access quickly matches the demand for increased bandwidth in the home.
This trend should not be considered solely as a stop-gap during the pandemic, and rather be considered a long-term legitimate alternative to fiber, providing low-latency, zero-touch services with fast deployment and flexible tariffs. FWA can easily be extended to campuses to provide immediate broadband coverage to industries including healthcare, education, shipping, manufacturing, mining and more.
Going forward, countries should consider FWA as a significant part of their digital evolution and a valid component of their national broadband strategy. It provides an affordable alternative to traditional fixed broadband and is a critical element to bridge the digital divide.
Covid-19 has made it clear that telecommunication services are now a fundamental utility for society. In June 2020, the Economic Experts Roundtable organised by ITU concluded that “countries with top connectivity infrastructure could mitigate up to half of the negative economic shock of the pandemic.”
Connectivity has become increasingly valuable and any delays in deploying new technologies and services that would improve it, will end in increased cost. As a result, many nations are accelerating the deployment of improved digital infrastructure and the assignment of globally harmonised IMT spectrum.
As a short-term regulatory initiative to help operators provide better network access and improved quality of service during the pandemic, some regulators have temporarily allowed more flexible IMT spectrum use including the use of vacant and unused spectrum. This initiative needs to be rolled up into a larger plan for continued use of these spectrum assets with industry consensus on low spectrum prices, deferred payment options, and innovative auction strategies that better align with overall digital goals.
Improving ICT infrastructure must be more than a goal for just consumers, operators and governments. It will fundamentally change the way we produce goods, order our meals, provide critical healthcare services, entertain ourselves and make our livelihoods.
Connectivity will play a key role as people and businesses want to harness the power of cloud and artificial intelligence in the palms of their hands and throughout an Internet of Things.
Spectrum, as the gatekeeper to our mobile connectedness, is even more critical and must be both affordable and abundant. Ample IMT spectrum, including C-Band and licensed 6GHz, will be a key enabler of the future competitiveness and innovation of Asia Pacific.
Mr. Dennis Xiao is the President of Carrier Business Group, Asia Pacific region of Huawei Technologies. In his current capacity, he is responsible for the overall carrier business and strategic management of the company in the Asia Pacific Region. Mr. Xiao has more than 20 years of experience in the telecommunications industry. Since joining Huawei in 1999, Mr. Xiao has served various managerial positions including the company’s Belarus Country General Manager and President of Southeast Asia Carrier Business Group.