Explainer: IMDA’s proposed framework for ultra-fast 5G networks in Singapore [TODAY Online]

5G networks are touted as the next big leap forward in mobile and wireless communications.

TODAY Online

Technology

The Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) is seeking public and industry feedback on its proposals on rolling out a looming communications revolution: Fifth generation (5G) networks.

It is the IMDA’s second consultation on 5G networks, hailed by many as a quantum jump in the speed, reliability and the scope of uses for the Internet and wireless communications. The regulator said that it wants Singapore to be “a global 5G front-runner for innovation in secure and resilient 5G applications and services”.

The proposed 5G framework is set out in a consultation paper published by the authority on Tuesday (May 7), building on responses that were received during the first public consultation in 2017.

The latest public consultation is open now and will close on June 19.

TODAY looks at the key proposals and their implications.

WHAT IS 5G AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?

5G networks are touted as the next big leap forward in mobile and wireless communications, with mobile broadband speeds of up to 20 gigabits a second (Gbps) — a staggering 20-fold increase over the existing 4G network’s theoretical peak speed.

When fully operational, 5G networks will enable new technologies such as autonomous vehicles and cloud gaming to become a reality. They could open up the so-called Internet of Things, where many devices are connected — robots, cars, fridges — almost any device you can list. These ultra-fast networks are also seen as a vital cog in the push to develop “smart cities”.

Countries all over the world are racing to build 5G networks, to exploit the vast opportunities they are expected to deliver. These networks are very expensive to build but Singapore is aiming for standalone, brand new 5G networks — unlike some countries which aim to piggy-back 5G networks on the older, slower 4G networks.

5G NETWORKS FROM 2020, OPEN ONLY TO TELCOS ALREADY HERE

To facilitate sustainable competition, the authority is proposing to enable the deployment of at least two nationwide 5G networks, at the outset, from next year (2020).

The IMDA proposes to assign 5G spectrum through a “call for proposal” regulatory process, that will be open only to mobile networking operators (MNOs) already in Singapore. The four MNOs here now are: Singtel, StarHub, M1 and TPG. Proposals submitted by existing telcos will be evaluated on criteria such as their financial capabilities and quality of network design.

Mr Sachin Mittal, head of telecom, media and technology research at DBS Bank, said: “Already, 5G spectrum is not enough for 5G rollout by each MNO and inviting new players would lead to lack of enough spectrum.”  

Assistant Professor Mansur Khamitov, of Nanyang Business School’s marketing division, said that opening the market up only to existing MNOs has its advantages and disadvantages.

On the one hand, existing operators are likely to have built up a certain level of experience, credibility and local expertise, he said. “In addition to understanding the local market, they are the ones who are likely to have sufficient resources and capabilities in the first place.”

On the other hand, allowing other reputable new MNOs to bid for the 5G market entrance would have likely increased the level of competitiveness and hence driven cost reductions and possibly better service quality, he added.

CONTROVERSIAL CHINESE GIANT HUAWEI 

Chinese communications giant Huawei has sparked controversy around the globe in recent times over the 5G rollout. Both the United States and Australia have so far blocked Huawei from selling equipment for 5G networks in their countries on national security grounds.

However, Britain and Germany, for example, say they have managed any such risks, and have allowed Huawei equipment in.

The US has also campaigned for other countries to block Huawei, given concerns that the Chinese government could use the equipment for spying.

In response to queries about Huawei’s eligibility as a vendor of 5G network technology, the IMDA said: “Singapore encourages vendor diversity in our telecommunication systems to mitigate risks from dependency on any one vendor.”

The authority added: “In addition, operators should ensure that the performance and reliability of equipment purchased from vendors meets their commercial operational needs and regulatory requirements, including those pertaining to quality of service, resilience and security.”

In its latest consultation paper, IMDA said Huawei was among 26 organisations which made submissions in its 2017 consultation process.

Analysts told TODAY that at this juncture, the proposed framework from IMDA does not seem to indicate concerns such as those expressed by the US over Huawei.

Associate Professor Biplab Sikdar, of the department of electrical and computer engineering at the National University of Singapore, said that he does not think that concerns over spying influenced the IMDA’s decision to limit eligible telcos to existing ones in Singapore.

“The release by IMDA does not limit which vendors the MNOs can buy their equipment from,” Assoc Prof Sikdar said.

“None of the local MNOs manufacture their own hardware or equipment, and they will still rely on vendors such as Huawei or Ericsson for the 5G equipment,” he added. “This is significant because it shows that we are not taking sides and we are open to all.”

In its statement, the IMDA said it “welcomes partnerships among MNOs to build and deploy 5G networks so as to more effectively use the scarce spectrum resources and expedite the deployment of the networks”.

Mr Mittal said that the framework seeks a pragmatic solution to the rollout of an expensive 5G network by limiting the number of eligible players (telcos), and has nothing to do with Huawei.

“Specifying the number of partners for 5G rollout would be too many details at this preliminary point,” he added.

SHARING OF NETWORKS BETWEEN TELCOS

At the same time, the IMDA will be encouraging network-sharing with other telcos or mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). In its latest consultation paper, IMDA notes the recent arrival here of MVNOs such as Circles.Life, MyRepublic and Zero.

The telcos that are awarded the 5G spectrum will be required to provide wholesale services to other telcos or mobile virtual network operators, making it possible for other operators to lease the network and offer 5G services.

Mr Mittal said that the four telcos in Singapore could share two 5G networks to reduce their 5G capital expenditure, in order to justify their business case.

“5G is a very expensive network to build, two to three times more expensive than 4G for similar coverage, and most of the revenue opportunity is limited to the enterprise space currently.”

However, Mr Mittal cautioned that network-sharing is not easy and could complicate the whole 5G investment.

“Another challenge is that smaller telcos would not be able to differentiate themselves on network quality if they share the same 5G network,” he added.

'STANDALONE' INFRASTRUCTURE 

To achieve the full benefits of 5G technology, the IMDA is proposing to base 5G networks in Singapore on "standalone" network specifications and architecture.

This differs from 5G deployments in many other countries, which are based on "non-standalone" specifications and piggyback on existing 4G networks. These deployments “are limited to higher speeds and will not support the full suite of 5G capabilities’’, IMDA said.

While both types of networks can achieve faster speeds, 5G networks built on standalone infrastructure are better as they are able to support one million devices per square kilometre, a 1,000-fold increase over the capacity of 4G networks.

Also, 5G networks built on standalone infrastructure will be able to provide ultra-reliable low latency communications — that is, with very low levels of delay.

This is required to enable use cases such as autonomous cars which require extremely low latency, Mr Mittal said.

"Standalone" infrastructure also means that existing coverage will not be disrupted, and it is also designed to be more efficient and cost-effective, Assoc Prof Sikdar said.

“However, such networks are going to be more expensive in terms of capital expenditure because you have to deploy a new network core, and changing the network core is a complex and difficult process.”

Source: TODAY Online


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