Singapore’s IMDA wants proper standalone 5G, not upgrades

standalone 5G IMDA
Image credit: Teeradej Photograph /

ITEM: Remember that 5G public consultation paper that the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) released last week? One nifty detail that was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it footnote in the press release is that it calls on operators to concentrate on standalone 5G deployments rather than simply upgrade their existing 4G networks to 5G.

To recap quickly: the consultation paper contains IMDA’s vision of establishing Singapore as “a global 5G front-runner for innovation in secure and resilient 5G applications and services” that maximizes the benefits of 5G for consumers and enterprises alike, ensures that 5G networks are designed to be trusted and resilient, and keeps the telecoms sector competitive and innovative.

It also contains IMDA’s spectrum allocation plan, which includes freeing up spectrum in the 3.4-3.6 GHz band for 5G by 2021 with different conditions for outdoor and indoor use, and providing mmWave spectrum between 24.3 GHz and 29.5 GHz for localized hotspots.

But the IMDA also prefers that the new spectrum to be used for standalone (SA) 5G deployments, as opposed to non-standalone (NSA) 5G, which is the current 3GPP standard being deployed. NSA enables 4G operators to leverage their existing networks to deploy 5G, but the IMDA paper says that’s not good enough for its grand 5G vision because “[s]uch deployments are limited to higher speeds and will not support the full suite of 5G capabilities.”

The IMDA also isn’t interested in 5G being used as a wireless broadband solution such as the service launched by Verizon late last year because Singapore’s fixed broadband infrastructure already delivers gigabit-level fiber services to over 90% of homes:

For Singapore, 5G’s value lies in helping the industry and enterprises to exploit market opportunities and to develop innovative applications and services in a wide range of sectors including manufacturing, transport, media and healthcare.

The IMDA proposes to require spectrum winners to deploy SA 5G networks with more than 50% coverage within 24 months after they receive 3.5 GHz spectrum. They must also start using mmWave spectrum within 12 months after they receive the rights to it.

There’s a couple of interesting takeaways here, the first being the timeline. Clearly the IMDA is in no hurry to roll out 5G if it’s willing to wait until at least early 2020 for the 3GPP to officially harmonize the SA standard (which was frozen in June 2018), and won’t issue the first tranche of 5G spectrum until 2021.

Granted, one reason IMDA is waiting until then to allocate the 3.5-GHz band for 5G is that it needs time to coordinate with Malaysia and Indonesia to clear off satellite companies using the band for extended C-band video delivery services in the Southeast Asian region.

Even so, that’s refreshing to see in a world where the US, China and even South Korea are desperately trying to convince the world they launched 5G before anyone else.

The other interesting bit is the IMDA’s apparent view that NSA 5G is a stopgap that isn’t worth taking the time to deploy – why settle for half measures when you can wait a couple of years for the whole tamale?

The cost of standalone 5G

That said, SA 5G does present some challenges to telcos, starting with a potentially higher capex budget because it will require telcos to deploy a new core infrastructure to support it, according to Fitch Ratings, reports Singapore Business Review.

Quah Mei Lee, associate director at Frost & Sullivan, agrees that capex is a challenge, but told Disruptive.Asia a potentially bigger challenge with SA 5G “would come from developing sufficient applications optimized for 5G upon commercial launch to effectively deliver an end to end customer experience with the proposed new, innovative, differentiated offerings.”

One possible bright spot, according to an article in the Straits-Times, is that standalone 5G could facilitate greater vendor competition because it would give telcos an opportunity to break the pattern of sticking with whoever supplied the previous G:

Any “lock-in” to existing 4G vendors for a cheap and quick migration to 5G – an advantage that China’s Huawei Technologies has over rivals around the world – will not influence telcos’ decisions on 5G.

That viewpoint arguably underestimates the ability of vendors to convince telcos to stick with them even on separate projects – and Huawei, Nokia, Ericsson and ZTE are angling for as much vendor lock-in as possible with end-to-end 5G sales pitches.

On the other hand, the rise of open RAN technologies in the next few years is expected to make the 5G vendor landscape more competitive regardless of which version of 5G operators want to deploy – and that could help bring down the price of a standalone 5G deployment, or at least take some of the capex sting out of it.

It’s also worth noting that the IMDA has something to say on the subject in its media fact sheet [PDF] accompanying the consultation paper:

Given that the 5G networks will be supporting mission critical and essential services, Singapore encourages vendor diversity in our telecommunication systems to mitigate risks from dependency on any one vendor.

It’s not clear whether that is addressing the vendor lock-in issue specifically, or is the IMDA’s diplomatic way of saying that it doesn’t plan to ban Huawei from Singapore’s 5G market but doesn’t necessarily want telcos deploying an all-Huawei 5G network either. In any case, the IMDA does seem to see 5G as a multi-vendor play.

The public consultation closes on 19 June 2019.

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