Ecosystm research shows that enterprises in Southeast Asia are increasingly considering telecom operators as go-to-market partners (Figure 1). Enterprises are demanding more than just devices and connectivity and with the fervent digital transformation (DX) efforts underway, services such as managed services, business application services, cybersecurity and network services are in demand. Technology vendors have an opportunity to partner with the right telecom operator in each market to enhance their IT market offerings, ahead of the 5G rollouts.
The broad 5G ecosystem inculcates cross-sector innovation and greater collaboration leading to new business models and exciting new opportunities. Singtel is the leading operator in the region and has the enterprise segment contributing approximately 65% to its revenue in its domestic market. In the World Communications Award 2019, Singtel won both “Best Enterprise Service” and “The Broadband Pioneer” awards. This places Singtel in a fine position to capitalise on the 5G enterprise services.
5G Needed Now More Than Ever
The pandemic has seen a rise in network traffic, onboarding of the digital customer and rapid DX of businesses which has whetted the appetite for faster broadband speeds and new services. Southeast Asia countries stand to profit from the trade war between the US and China and 5G features of low latency and higher security can boost adoption of IoT, Smart Manufacturing and broader Industry 4.0 goals to drive the economy.
Fixed Wireless in Southeast Asia is expected to be very popular considering the low penetration of fibre to the home (with the exception of Singapore) and will provide enterprises with a viable secondary connection to the internet. Popular applications – including video streaming and gaming – which are speed, latency and volume hungry will also be a target market for operators. Mobile operators that do not have a fixed broadband offering can enter this space and provide a serious “wireless fibre” alternative to homes and businesses.
Governments and telecom regulators ought to make spectrum available to the major telecom operators as soon as possible in order to ensure that the cutting edge 5G communications services are made available to consumers and businesses. Many experts believe 5G can raise the competitiveness of a nation.
US-China Trade War Threatens to Change Equipment Supplier Landscape
Despite severe pressures caused by the US-China trade war, Huawei posted an impressive 13.1% YoY growth in 1H 2020 registering revenue of USD 64.88 billion. Both Huawei and ZTE generate approximately 60% of their business from their domestic markets which is critical with the current unfavourable global sentiments. Huawei has diversified its business and built its consumer devices business which should withstand the disruptions caused by the political challenges.
Ericsson and Nokia stand to benefit from Huawei’s current global position and this was evident with the wins for the 5G contracts by Singtel and JVCo (Singtel and M1). The JVCo announced it selected Nokia to build the Radio Access Network (RAN) for the 5G standalone (SA) mmWave network infrastructure in the 3.5GHz radio frequency band. Singtel selected Ericsson to provide for the RAN on the same mmWave network.
However, while there is an opportunity for NEC and Samsung to join the party, Huawei is expected to do well in most other countries in Southeast Asia.
The Indonesia market is the largest in the region and is expected to hit USD 133 billion from USD 40 billion in 2025. Indonesia’s lack of a world-class telecom infrastructure coupled with their slowness in 5G adoption has not impeded the country’s attractiveness for global technology investors who see the 270 million population as an immense opportunity. US tech giants, Facebook, Google, and PayPal have invested in Indonesia to reap the benefits from the growing digital economy powered by unicorns such as Gojek, Bukalapak, Tokopedia. In June 2020, Google Cloud launched in Jakarta, only the second in the region after Singapore with the four big unicorns being anchor customers.
In 2025, Google predicts Thailand to be the second-largest internet economy worth USD 50 billion. The internet economy for Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines are estimated to be over USD 27 billion each. Shopee and Lazada are the top eCommerce apps in the region and have seen an increase in sales due to the disruption in the Retail industry. In-store shopping contributes to more than 50% of Retail in Singapore and Malaysia – this provides a tremendous opportunity for eCommerce players.
While movement restrictions are gradually being lifted, some things may never return where they were before COVID-19. Public debts have risen with numerous aids and handouts impacting economic growth forecast and rising unemployment is impacting customer spending power. On the plus side, DX of businesses and sharp onboarding of customers have redefined interactions, and sectors such as Education, are going online which will boost the digital economy. While the challenges are evident, exciting times are ahead for the technology and telecom sector in Southeast Asia.
Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Shamir Amanullah says, “The transformational nature of 5G, unlike its predecessors, is expected to boost adoption of IoT, smart manufacturing and broader Industry 4.0 initiatives to drive the economy. NBTC expects 5G technology to contribute over US$ 15 billion to the GDP in 2022. Key sectors expected to adopt are Healthcare, Manufacturing, Education and Agriculture.”
We are already seeing initial applications of 5G. “AIS and True have been launching 5G networks in hospitals across Thailand to support medical personnel in their fight against COVID-19. Telemedicine and robots using 5G are being used to prevent contact between affected patients and medical personnel. AIS has launched 5G networks in 158 hospitals in Bangkok and other major cities.”
Amanullah adds, “The changing landscape of remote working caused by COVID-19 has increased network traffic, especially a spike in the video, further amplifying the need for 5G infrastructure. The onboarding of many new digital users and increased adoption of digital solutions by businesses has whet the appetite for more speed, latency and more innovative services. 5G first-mover advantage is key especially for the major operators who can achieve significant scale in their new service offerings.”
The Thailand 5G Landscape
The major telecom providers bid for multiple licenses across different bands. While AIS and True bid for and won more licenses, other telecom providers such as DTAC are aiming more for a niche presence. They only bid for the high band 26 GHz auction, winning two out of the possible 26 licenses for 100 MHz blocks.
Amanullah discusses the benefits of different 5G bands. “The 700 MHz band covers large geographic areas while also being able to penetrate walls easily making it a highly valuable spectrum asset. The 2600 MHz band is attractive as most smartphones already have this radio.”
“The 26 GHz band provides for high-frequency spectrum, also known as mmWave spectrum. This band offers high-speed data and capacity but with a limited range. Applications expected to be used in the mmWave include virtual and augmented reality and remote health services. While DTAC has a smaller spectrum holding compared to AIS and True, they plan to complement with their coverage band to offer 5G services. The company is also believed to be keen in the 3500 MHz mid-range band when it becomes available. This band is currently occupied by satellite operator Thaicom.”
The partnership will enable both small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and large enterprises to leverage cloud-native networking capabilities to boost performance while increasing security when connecting to a cloud environment. SmartConnect service will replace traditional set-ups involving hardware, VPN devices by providing a new virtual network for organisations. This is expected to empower business users to access cloud-based data quicker – with eight to ten folds speed – than a conventional network in a highly secured environment at a fraction of a cost.
Amanullah says, “The Network-as-a-Service (NaaS) features in 5G – where a customised network service based on bandwidth speed or latency, specific to a variety of 5G use cases – brings an exciting new business and potentially lucrative opportunities. Network slicing allows for many virtual networks on a single physical network and NaaS theoretically allows for a customer to request for a tailored network service required. NaaS delivers virtual network services on a subscription basis which has the potential to be an exciting game-changer.”
DTAC is clearly gearing up for the changes in the industry. The SmartConnect service can become a true differentiator for them. It also gives an opportunity to DTAC to leverage NetFoundry’s integration with Azure, AWS and GCP to enhance cloud connectivity services and provide value to their enterprise users.
As the telecom industry transforms, it will see more such partnerships between telecom providers and technology vendors.
According to Speedtest, global mobile and broadband speeds have suffered as a result of the increase in traffic with speeds dropping in March 2020 for mobile to 30.47 Mbps (from 31.62 Mbps in February) and fixed broadband to 74.64 Mbps (from 75.41 Mbps in February). In Southeast Asia, only Singapore and Vietnam averaged mobile speeds of 54.37 Mbps and 33.97 Mbps respectively, exceeding the global average speeds. As for fixed broadband, Singapore ranked highest globally achieving 197.26 Mbps while Thailand and Malaysia clocked 149.95 Mbps and 79.86 Mbps respectively, trumping the global average speeds.
Southeast Asian carriers increase network efficiency and quality
Singapore. The country’s ICT regulator, Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), reported an increase in internet usage and its intentions to support telecom carriers in boosting network capacity to ensure essential services run smoothly. Priority will be given to high traffic and residential areas where a larger proportion of the population are working from home. The Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) reported that Singapore has at least 30 percent buffer in network capacity even during peak periods. Major TV operators Mediacorp, Singtel and Starhub have made more content available for free during this period. This may further impact network speeds as customers are consuming more content over wifi (on mobile apps) or over the fibre networks.
Thailand. Part of the country’s public assistance measures during the pandemic, include offering about 30 million mobile subscribers 10GB free data. The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) will also upgrade the speeds of fixed broadband to at least 100 Mbps which is expected to benefit 1.2 million household subscribers. Leading operator Advanced Info Service (AIS) recently announced that it has deployed 5G networks at hospitals to boost network capacity and speeds, and is deploying robots for telemedicine to empower the healthcare system to fight COVID-19.
Malaysia.Maxis and Telekom Malaysia (TM) reported a surge in traffic since the movement control order (MCO) was implemented by the Government on the 18th March 2020. The MCO is expected to run at least until 28th April 2020. TM cited a 30 percent increase in usage attributed to the increase in traffic for streaming, online games and teleconferencing. Leading operators Maxis, Digi, Celcom and U Mobile have offered 1GB free data during the MCO period as part of the Government’s stimulus package. Maxis, TM, Digi and Celcom have also committed significant manpower to ensure that the networks are operating efficiently and to ensure customer support. Leading TV operator Astro has made all movie, news and cartoon networks available to all its customers until the 28th April 2020.
Social distancing fillip for video conferencing
The rise of social distancing has made us all seek new ways to connect, mainly through video chat. Video conferencing traffic is on the rise as it is the next best thing to face-to-face meetings. Microsoft Teams and Zoom have been big benefactors. The American Economic Institute (AEI) notes that Zoom hit some 200 million users daily from a daily average 10 million. Microsoft Teams added some 12 million registrations to a total of 44 million.
Many predict that the home working trend will continue in the recovery stage and beyond, due to improvements in the telecommunications infrastructure and impending rollout of 5G. It is also predicted that the commercial property sector is likely to suffer due to this trend. This period also highlights the critical importance of cybersecurity with increasing occurrences of hacking and fraud. Zoom is being forced to reinforce their privacy and security measures, as an example.
COVID-19 has changed the way we web
On the social front, many are also using video conferencing to communicate with friends and family. Operators relaxing and offering additional data has undoubtedly contributed to the increase in this usage too. Now that many are homebound, network traffic in residential areas are higher than ever. In the past, peak hours of traffic at homes were at night – this has changed with adults and children homebound. Adults are using video conferencing and more voice calls; while children are using elearning, playing games or streaming videos. The European Commission had asked Netflix and other streaming platforms to reduce streaming quality to standard definition (SD). Netflix has assured that it has the capability to manage levels of streaming quality in accordance with the networks quality requirement of individual countries.
Online gaming and video streaming have emerged as winners and have seen an increase in consumption in these times as they provide for entertainment for millions stuck at home. There is tremendous opportunity for both telecom operators and content providers to increase their number of services in this area. Netflix, YouTube, Microsoft Xbox and PlayStation are among the winners in this sector. YouTube provides for a primary news source and commentary on the epidemic for many. Netflix’s stocks are near an all-time high at present.
eCommerce boost for essentials goods and services
The eCommerce sector should see a major improvement in Southeast Asia as physical channels to market have reduced. Emerging economies such as Malaysia and Thailand should see an improvement in services and embrace eCommerce like their mature counterparts. Statista reports that the average Malaysian eCommerce shopper spent just US$159 and Thailand just US$100 on online consumer goods purchases in 2018, considerably lower than the global average of US$634. There is huge opportunity to provide for basic necessities such as online grocery, food and delivery of goods. As a consequence, contactless payment and the transport and logistics sector will be forced to adapt their business operations to ride this wave successfully. As eCommerce transactions diversify and increase in emerging markets, it will give telecom providers an opportunity to keep engaging with platform players.
Telecom carriers are likely to suffer financial losses due to the scale of the disruption COVID-19 has brought about. However, there are some positives takeaways from this period. The increase of network traffic and the changing patterns have driven carriers to better understand network traffic management. The sharp consumer and business onboarding as far as applications and digital services are concerned, has given the digital economy and 5G use cases a shot in the arm. This is likely to spur innovation in services including communications, eCommerce, payments, logistics and healthcare among others.