Is ASEAN falling behind in the mobile broadband race?

By Scott W Minehane

The countries in the region need to provide more spectrum, particularly in the 3.5 GHz band, for next generation digital services that ride on 5G networks.

While SEA nations recognise the importance of proper spectrum allocation, they are rapidly falling behind in mobile broadband competitiveness, writes Scott. Image: Canva.

It has been just over a year since Ministers from the ASEAN nations endorsed the importance of mobile spectrum as the lifeblood for digital development of the region at the Third ASEAN Digital Minister’s meeting in Boracay in the Philippines.

Despite the consensus on the importance of proper spectrum allocation to ensure digital development in the region, ASEAN countries as shown in the accompanying chart are rapidly falling behind in mobile broadband competitiveness mainly due to the lack of proper mobile spectrum assignments especially of the pioneer band for 5G, the 3.5 GHz (gigahertz) band.

Source:  Ookla, May 2024 with WPC analysis on spectrum bands that ought to be made available for 5G in the near term.

This competitiveness is being lost to markets in North Asia, the Middle East and India which have prioritised availing new mobile spectrum to provide high quality 4G and 5G wireless broadband to their citizens.

This is helping these regions and countries to build more competitive enterprises with high-speed wireless broadband supporting digitalisation, smart manufacturing, smart logistics, energy efficient service delivery and electronic commerce.

Detailed review of ASEAN markets on the mobile spectrum front

What do we see when we examine ASEAN countries approach to mobile spectrum and broadband more closely? 

Cambodia: While the government has recently made announcements confirming the “near future” launch of 5G services, the industry is awaiting the release of the 5G spectrum to mobile operators (especially the 3.5 GHz band) as well as amendments to their operating licences rules in order provide 5G services and the necessary fibre backhaul.

While the policy is being formulated, Cambodian consumers now have the lowest mobile broadband download speeds in ASEAN, below those being offered in Myanmar. 

Given the critical importance of mobile telecommunications in a “mobile first” country like Cambodia, both 5G mobile services and 5G FWA services (which is an excellent substitute for the country’s underdeveloped fixed line services) are needed as soon as possible.

This can facilitate the growth of Cambodia’s digital economy including e-commerce, smart manufacturing, thereby helping the country reach its forecast target of 6.6 percent GDP growth in 2024.

Indonesia: While the Kominfo, Indonesia’s Ministry for Communications and Information Technology, bought more time for itself with its strategy of refarming of mobile spectrum bands, which maximised the limited mobile spectrum it had by creating larger contiguous blocks of spectrum, this strategy has hit a dead end and is no longer sufficient to ensure growth.

The lack of key capacity and coverage in the IMT (International Mobile Telecommunications) spectrum in Indonesia is starkly reflected by the fact that Jakarta’s mobile broadband speeds rank only eighth on average across ASEAN.

Vietnam: In the rapidly industrialising country, the spectrum regulator, the Authority for Radio Frequency Management (ARFM), has finally made the 2.6 and 3.5 GHz bands available for 5G services (and soon one hopes the 700 MHz band as well). 

While this is commendable, Vietnam is playing catch up after more than a decade of not releasing any new spectrum for mobile services. 

It still has much more to do on the spectrum front including ensuring that all mobile operators have sufficient spectrum for a 5G and 6G future consistent with Government policy.

Thailand: The country is at risk of losing the 5G mobile broadband leadership it secured during the Covid-19 pandemic following the auctioning and assignment of the 700 MHz and 2.6 GHz bands in 2020. 

Very high spectrum prices charged by the NBTC (National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission) have materially diminished healthy mobile competition and, as a result, only two mobile operators of any size namely, AIS and Truemove-DTAC remain.

Importantly, 5G services already cover more than 92 percent of population with more than 20 million subscribers (nearly 30 percent penetration). 

Thai consumers who are heavy mobile data users would have much faster mobile services if the 3.5 GHz band was released at an affordable price to operators for 5G-Advanced use in the near term.

Philippines: The lack of mobile spectrum band restacking and the availability of more 3.5 GHz band spectrum in at least the key urban areas of Metro Manila, Davao and Cebu, has resulted in consumers being offered slow 5G service dependent mainly on dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). 

Both coverage and quality of service of 4G services is also far from exemplary. 

Malaysia: While the country’s wireless broadband speeds, as reported by Ookla, are fast, this is in part because 5G take-up by consumers has been slow given the lack of 5G competition and changes in Government policy. 

Limitations on utilising legacy mobile spectrum bands for 5G services are artificial and arbitrary and this should change soon.  Using only 700 MHz and 3.5 GHz bands (comprising 280 MHz in Malaysia) for 5G are insufficient for the nation’s 5G services.

Singapore: The country’s regulator, Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), needs to make more 3.5 GHz and 2.3GHz band available for 5G evolution to 5G-A in conjunction with its neighbours and also allow mobile operators to use the 700 MHz spectrum band which was auctioned many years ago. 

Doing so will improve mobile signal penetration in-buildings and the underground MRT network.

Laos: The country has commercially launched 5G services in January 2024. However, it needs to make more 3.5 GHz band available and the country should encourage its mobile operators to take universal service seriously with government funding – using the 700 MHz band to deploy widely to the unconnected across the country.


It is important to acknowledge that the 3.5 GHz band was not the first spectrum choice of ASEAN nations for 5G services given the heavy use of the C-band (the 3.5 GHz mobile band lies within it) for satellite services across the region.

However, the 3.5 GHz band provides the large contiguous blocks of mobile spectrum needed to provide compelling 5G services needed by operators and demanded by consumers.

High quality, affordable ubiquitous broadband is critical for development and the ASEAN region must not fall behind in the use of the 3.5 GHz band for next generation 5G mobile services.

The author is the principal of Windsor Place Consulting, an independent consultancy practice. Minehane has advised governments, leading corporates and international organisations including International Telecommunications Union (ITU), World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), ASEAN Secretariat, Asian Pacific Telecommunity (APT), APEC Business Advisory Council, USAID, and the GSMA. This article is produced in partnership with Windsor Place Consulting.