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Telcos play the role of digital enablers as the world accelerates digital transformation. As societies in the Asia-Pacific region progress their digital ambitions, more is required from telcos to advance the integration of digital technologies and services. Telecom Review Asia connects with Julian Gorman, head of Asia Pacific, GSMA, to learn about the challenges countries face and how telcos can help overcome them and grow alongside the economies they support.

Digital transformation is a leading focus for most countries. What are some of the biggest challenges that telcos in Asia Pacific face in driving digital transformation, and how can they address these challenges?

To address the challenges facing digital transformation across Asia Pacific, we must strive for greater collaboration between telcos, industry and government. In particular, we urge governments to help transition ICT from being a vertically regulated consumer service to being an enabler of the digital economy. This will require investment and government curation to encourage companies to compete for said investment, with innovation dollars used to create digital assets that will help build more inclusive and sustainable digital nations.

For many countries across the region, a whole-of-government approach (WGA) is the best way to accelerate progress by bringing together multiple stakeholders and diverse resources to provide a common solution to issues. Our Digital Societies report for Asia Pacific shows that the speed by which countries will progress on the path to fully-fledged digital societies will depend on the level of collaboration across government, the private sector and other non-state institutions to accelerate progress.

Some of the biggest challenges to delivering digital transformation include network infrastructure deployment delays, conflicting funding objectives between government departments, outdated regulations, workforce skills, threats that undermine trust in mobile networks and sometimes poor implementation and delivery of projects. Using a WGA approach to these challenges, we can see opportunities emerge, driven by solutions that include:

  • A clear top-down strategy
  • Cross-ministry coordination
  • Improved economics of infrastructure deployment
  • Regulatory review and sandboxes
  • Upskilling initiatives
  • Targeted R&D
  • Collaboration between the public and private sectors
  • Strong and deliberate efforts that bolster trust in mobile networks

The GSMA is helping to address many of these challenges and convene the key stakeholders across the region through initiatives such as the APAC Digital Transformation Acceleration Forum (DXAF).

Countries in the region are developing 5G at different paces, with some even embarking on 6G. How can countries adopt positive policymaking and spectrum management to fully unleash the benefits of 5G and future 6G?

To build truly digital nations and fully unleash the benefits of 5G, policymakers need to start making positive decisions that will help drive spectrum availability in prime 5G bands.

Part of this will be ensuring necessary spectrum resources are available at the right time, at the right price and under the right conditions. If they can do this, then they are sure to expedite network deployments, increase coverage, and boost the quality and affordability of services. Furthermore, countries across the region should be taking effective steps to:

  1. Establish forward-looking regulation that supports the financial sustainability of the industry and provides non-discriminatory conditions.
  2. Adopt policies that enable the building and deployment of infrastructure to ensure that future networks are accessible to all.
  3. Create and maintain a safe and trustworthy online environment to protect users from threats.
  4. Ensure that available spectrum serves the future demand for connectivity.

It is important that countries that want to be leaders in 5G support 6 GHz as an IMT band at WRC 23. The 6 GHz range is the primary mid-band spectrum to meet the needs for 5G expansion, and its timely availability will drive cost-efficient network deployment, help lower the broadband usage gap and support digital inclusion.

How do you see the role of telcos evolving in the future, and what should they focus on to leverage new technologies and successfully monetize?

By the end of March 2023, 56 operators in 19 markets across Asia Pacific had launched commercial 5G services, including 19 operators in nine countries that also offer 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) services. 5G has become mainstream in pioneer markets, notably South Korea, where 5G now accounts for around two in five mobile connections. Momentum has been boosted by a number of factors, including economic recovery from the pandemic, rising 5G handset sales, network coverage expansions and overall marketing efforts.

And 5G will continue to reign supreme across APAC. It’s expected that, before the end of 2025, mobile operators across the region will invest an incredible US$227 billion in 5G deployments. These new networks will enable exciting new services for consumers, while also helping to transform industry and manufacturing, and drive economic growth.

As the region looks to bounce back from the pandemic, connectivity will be crucial to rebuilding Asia-Pacific’s economies and making them more resilient to future shocks. Digital transformation of telcos and their networks will enable a new era of innovation over the network and the potential for telcos to participate actively in joint ventures to solve enterprise and consumer challenges. Collaboration will be key, especially when relative to host market industry strengths — for example, in the field of healthcare in Thailand or mining in Australia.

How can telcos in the region better position themselves to stay ahead of the curve in an increasingly competitive and fast-moving industry?

While the consumer market has been the focus of early 5G deployments, the enterprise segment is the largest incremental opportunity in the 5G era, which is why so many digital transformation projects are already underway across different industries.

Telcos need to keep delivering products which will support ongoing innovation and ensure it continues to develop. For instance, 5G Advance will be commercially available in the next couple of years. It will bring substantial improvements in mMIMO, uplink coverage, dynamic spectrum sharing, and integrated access backhaul, all of which point to exciting use cases and new business opportunities in the enterprise; new features will include below-centimeter accuracy for location, amongst others.

But governments also need to support initiatives which drive 5G network coverage intensity and which make private networks easily accessible. It will also be on country leaders to enable regulatory frameworks for MNOs to roll out the networks to deliver 5G to residents.

On the enterprise side, collaboration will be key to competitive success. We’re already seeing great use cases across vertical markets in areas as varied as drones, smart manufacturing, broadcast, transportation and fintech, to name but a few. You can see many great case studies on the GSMA 5G Transformation Hub that illustrate just how the technology is positively impacting industry and society around the world.

In addition, we’re seeing great momentum behind the GSMA Open Gateway initiative, which is making a framework of common APIs available to operators, cloud providers and developers to deliver richer services to mobile users and enterprises. For instance, as the world moves towards areas such as 5G standalone, it presents the opportunity to have APIs and new business models in areas like Quality on Demand and lower latency network slicing. The potential for value creation in this area is significant and should be a real focus for the industry.

Julian will be speaking at ATxSG’s ATxEnterprise Headliners Stage on June 8, 2023. More information about this session can be found here

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