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The fourth industrial revolution has arrived, bringing with it a digital cache of untapped potential ranging from artificial intelligence (AI) to virtual reality (VR). Companies, enterprises and institutions across multiple sectors are now gunning to become the first within their industries to adopt, implement and fully utilize these emerging technologies that come with such rapid global digitisation. In addition to AI and VR, the proliferation of new technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, blockchain and biometrics are just some of the emerging game changers that have taken the world, particularly Asia Pacific, by storm.

Out of all the new technologies that will undoubtedly change our lives, the fifth-generation network or 5G is the most crucial. 5G is essentially the lifeline that connects all emerging technologies, allowing them to work and perform their specific functions seamlessly. Without 5G, we cannot even begin to visualise let alone build a societal ecosystem that allows for the creation of smart cities, the development of telehealth or robotic surgery, machine-type communications and a myriad of other sustainable solutions that can help improve the quality of life for communities around the world.

As it stands, 5G will build upon the 4G/LTE networks and thus provide end-users with higher Internet speeds, higher reliability and a much quicker response to information dissemination. These features will inevitably become the bedrock of which future 5G services are able to carry out their individual operations in an efficient and timely manner. The current 4G/LTE networks, while still able to deliver high quality and advanced wireless network services, would not have the capacity to support instantaneous cloud services, communicate with drones and robots, or improve vehicle-to-everything (V2X) services. It is expected that there will be more than 40 billion connected devices by 2025, and 50 billion by 2030, all of which will require a connection with huge capacity. This is where the role of 5G comes into force.

As an evolutionary technology, 5G will be able to do all the things that 4G can do; and it will even do better. With that being said, there’s no rush to say goodbye to 4G just yet. It will coexist with 5G well into the 2030s and together they will form the backbone of future mobile networks. As an example, when a connection is established, the device will connect to both the 4G and 5G networks to provide control signalling and a faster data connection respectively. The eventual deployment of 5G worldwide would mean that users will very soon be able to experience 100 gigabits per second in terms of data speed, which is 1000 times faster than 4G.

When we look at the Asia Pacific region, the 5G frontrunners have already made it clear to the rest of the world that not only do they have the infrastructure to support this new network, but the pace at which it is growing is unprecedented, something we have not seen before with the previous generations of networks. These frontrunners are poised to become leaders in 5G adoption and deployment. As of January 2020, South Korea has already successfully rolled out 5G to 85 cities, with many owing its rapid victory to the country’s three carriers who worked closely to bring 5G into the public sphere; SK Telecom, LG Uplus, and KT Corp. The three operators were instrumental in launching the country’s first 5G networks in April 2019, which led to a handful of users scrambling to access the new superfast wireless technology. In its efforts to further establish itself as the global leader in 5G, South Korea announced plans to invest $26 billion to build its 5G ecosystem.

In Japan, NTT DOCOMO, the country’s largest wireless carrier, has been trialling 5G since 2010 and did an initial pre-commercial launch for the technology in September last year. The operator officially launched 5G services in March 2020, with expectations for 4.1 Gbps in June as the current maximum data rate is at 3.4 Gbps. Rakuten plans to rollout 5G this year and KDDI launched its network on March 26 this year.

One of the key players in the 5G race is without question China, where its 5G technology was rolled out in more than 50 cities at the beginning of the year. Prior to this, the country’s three major operators, China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom had launched 5G networks in late 2019. Based on an assessment conducted by the European Parliament, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) of China has promised a whopping $300 million for the growth of 5G and other future technologies.

In spite of its early success, China was faced with an insurmountable public relations crisis when US President Trump issued a trade ban barring US companies from partnering with Chinese tech companies, namely Huawei, as they had been accused of cyber espionage on behalf of the Chinese government. However, no solid proof has ever come to light since. Many industry experts criticised President Trump’s decision, stating that the trade ban seems to be part of a much broader issue.

In reality, Huawei is currently one of the strongest players in the 5G ecosystem. It may be that the US is imposing all these restrictions on Huawei as a way to stifle its expansion. Strangely enough, American whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that there was clear evidence that the US government had been engaged in hacking and spying activities in the cyberspace, as opposed to Huawei’s “cyber espionage”.

As for India, according to the minister of the Department of Telecommunications, it is set to launch 5G this year. “When the world will rollout 5G in 2020, I believe India will be at par with them,” said the minister, Manoj Sinha. In fact, according to Vodafone Idea Limited, one of the country’s largest operators, it already began testing 5G in 2017.

In Singapore, it completed its first outdoor pilot, involving Nokia and StarHub, in November 2018. The government has said that 5G will go live in the country this year. The Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) has said that they plan to allocate millimeter bands which will be “sufficient for at least two nationwide 5G networks.”

As we have witnessed, 5G has the power to bring about tremendous benefits and opportunities in ways we could only dream of until now. While the Asia Pacific region is recognised as a global player in the development and innovation of 5G technology, it is imperative that the region takes into consideration the plethora of challenges that come with the rapid deployment and commercialisation of 5G. Asian governments need to work together to ensure that a solid 5G ecosystem, complemented by shared collaborative principles, is established for the betterment of society in the future.

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