HKT warns govt: no 5G means no smart city for you

Hong Kong IoT HKT
Image credit: TZIDO SUN / Shutterstock.com

HKT blasts the govt’s spectrum policy (again), claiming it will not only delay 5G until 2022, but also undermines its smart city aspirations.

In the past few months, Hong Kong’s independent Communications Authority authorized temporary spectrum licenses for 5G tests, announced plans to auction 3.5-GHz spectrum next year for 5G usage in 2020, approved parts of the unlicensed 5-GHz band for LTE usage, and generally patted itself on the back for steering Hong Kong on the path to 5G.

On Monday, incumbent HKT issued its latest official response (paraphrased here): bollocks.

Which is to be expected. HKT has been publicly hammering the CA for well over a year on its spectrum policies – namely, that the CA isn’t releasing nearly enough spectrum as the industry needs, it charges too much money when it does release any, and it’s dragging its feet on 5G spectrum in particular to the point that Hong Kong is going to be a 5G laggard.

HKT took its rhetorical war on the CA up a notch Monday with a new public paper claiming that the CA’s spectrum policy will not only delay commercial 5G rollouts by a couple of years, but also undermines its aspirations to be a “smart city”.

According to the latest paper, the CA’s claim that its spectrum policy will keep Hong Kong on track to launch 5G services by 2020 is “completely misleading”:

Making spectrum available by 2020 does not allow the launch of 5G services by 2020. As the CA is very well aware, it can take around two years for spectrum assignees to prepare the rollout of the network using newly acquired spectrum…On the CA’s schedule, territory wide coverage will not be available until 2022.

(Note: the paper doesn’t mention whether the fact that cellcos can currently test 5G gear under temporary licenses from the CA would help offset that two-year delay.)

The paper also argues that the CA and the Hong Kong government doesn’t understand the connection between 5G and its own smart-city aspirations:

Particularly disturbing is that the Government does not seem to understand what is at stake here and, while making Hong Kong a ‘Smart City’ is stated as a policy objective, there seems to be no recognition that no city will be a smart city unless 5G is introduced early and widely …

If the Government truly wants 5G adoption and if it wants Hong Kong to become a Smart City then it really ought to care about the state of the telecoms sector. Telecommunications is the bedrock infrastructure that currently supports Hong Kong’s pillar industries (in particular financial services) and without telecoms infrastructure there will be no sustainable Smart City applications.

To back up this point, HKT cites a new McKinsey Global Institute report, which says that a smart city works best when underpinned by a solid technology base “which includes a critical mass of smartphones and sensors connected by high-speed communication networks”.

That said, the McKinsey report doesn’t specify that the high-speed network has to be 5G. In fact, there are hundreds of smart city initiatives already underway despite the lack of installed 5G technology. And many operators tout the ability of their LTE networks – upgraded to LTE-A and NB-IoT, and fortified with massive MIMO, carrier aggregation and so on – to deliver IoT services like smart-city apps.

Most smart-city services rely on low-bandwidth sensors, big data analytics and clever software platforms. If the GSMA is anything to go by, NB-IoT can handle today’s smart city apps better than any other network technology on the planet (although to be fair, the GSMA also considers NB-IoT to be a key element of any decent 5G strategy). Still, it seems a stretch to argue that 5G is a prerequisite for any smart city plan.

That said, HKT’s argument is that the 580 MHz of spectrum that cellcos have on hand is not enough to support such services as data usage continues to ramp up, and that the 5-GHz spectrum that the CA added to the pool last week isn’t enough (not least because it’s shared).

In any case, HKT is convinced that Hong Kong’s smart-city ambitions are doomed without 5G being rolled out soon. If nothing else, the paper says, it’s completely out of step with the government’s own strategy to contribute to China’s Greater Bay Area strategy, which involves turning Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan, Zhongshan, Dongguan, Huizhou, Jiangmen and Zhaoqing into an integrated economic, business and tech innovation hub.

Because China is ahead of the 5G development curve (to the point that it’s frightened the US), most of the Greater Bay Area cities will be a lot further along with 5G than Hong Kong by 2020 – which means Hong Kong will be the “poor cousin” of the bunch, technologically speaking.

You can read the paper in its entirety here [PDF]. Meanwhile, here is HKT’s list of demands to the CA to save Hong Kong from global technological embarrassment:

  • Consolidate the release of the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz, 3.5GHz and 26GHz – 28 GHz spectrum. Provide mobile operators with a menu which will enable them to select, in one process, the spectrum that they wish to acquire;
  • Develop specific plans to make the 700 MHz spectrum available for mobile use, even if this has to be conditional and subject to the situation in Mainland China;
  • Facilitate access to Government owned sites for the installation of cell sites by simplifying the process required to obtain consent;
  • Provide a clear, simple and enforceable statutory right of access for mobile operators to enter buildings, shopping malls, MTR and road tunnels etc to install and maintain the equipment necessary to realize the potential of 5G;
  • Change the way in which it charges for spectrum. Move to a charging model based on a fixed percentage of 5G revenue; and
  • Introduce spectrum trading, fully technology neutral licences and perpetual assignments or, at least, an expectation of renewal.
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