SmarTone arrives fashionably late to Hong Kong’s 5G party

smartone 5G
CEO Anna Yip launches SmarTone's 5G service at an online press event in Hong Kong (26 March 2020). Image credit: SmarTone

Hong Kong mobile operator SmarTone officially launched commercial 5G services on Tuesday, making it the last of the city’s operators to launch next-gen services. But SmarTone executives said they were less concerned with being first and more concerned with making sure their network could enable them to differentiate on the user experience.

HKT, 3 Hong Kong and China Mobile Hong Kong launched their respective 5G services on April 1 this year, offering varying degrees of coverage. (CMHK claims the most at 90% of Hong Kong.)

SmarTone CTO Stephen Chau said its 5G network covers 70% of the HK population now, including major highways and indoor venues such as popular shopping malls and office buildings (but not Hong Kong’s MTR subway train system, which is still being negotiated). The operator is aiming for 80% coverage by the end of the year and 100% (or as near as) by mid-2021.

With Ericsson as the main equipment supplier, Chau says the 5G network is using Ericsson’s dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology that allows SmarTone to not only use 5G-specific bands at 28 GHz and 3.5 GHz, but also refarm existing lower bands for simultaneous 4G and 5G use.

“The challenge with refarming spectrum for both 4G and 5G is that if we use 4G spectrum to provide 5G resources to the user, it impacts other 4G users because it reduces the 4G resources available to them,” Chau explained. “Dynamic spectrum sharing solves this problem, so when a 5G customer needs 5G resources, the network will detect the request within one millisecond, and the resources will be allocated to this client with no impact to the other clients.”

DSS-powered refarming also enables denser and more consistent 5G connectivity with fewer 4G handoffs, which results not only in more stable connections, but also longer battery life for devices, Chau added.

“If your coverage is very patchy, you’ll see frequent handovers between 4G and 5G, which uses a lot of battery power because the device is seeking 5G resources constantly, so your mobile phone may experience overheating problems,” he said.

For now, DSS-enabled base stations are limited in the amount of resources they can allocate to 5G, Chau noted. “Right now we can allocate up to at least 50% of resources for 5G users, and depending on how traffic grows, we can adjust the split over time based  on the proportion of 4G and 5G users.”

SmarTone’s 5G network – based on the NSA (non-standalone) version of the 3GPP 5G standard – theoretically offers downlink speeds of 1.5 Gbps, but Chau said average speeds are more likely to be around 130 Mbps, which he said can still support the new 5G apps the operator is touting along with its 5G data packages.

Enterprise play

Speaking of 5G-specific apps, SmarTone is offering similar things to its competitors, like 4K videos, VR helmets and online gaming. The operator is also capitalizing on the current videoconferencing trend by offering packages geared for home use, e-learning and mobile office, with free unlimited video calls for Zoom and Microsoft Teams that don’t count against the user’s data cap.

One other potential differentiator for SmarTone is its enterprise strategy. HKT, 3 HK and CMHK have all stated enterprise ambitions for 5G, but their services so far have been focused primarily on consumers.

By contrast, SmarTone has long had its eye on the enterprise possibilities of 5G. For the last few years it’s been operating its 5G Innovation Centre, a sandbox where enterprises and entrepreneurs can play around with 5G and develop their own apps. A recent showcase of potential enterprise apps at the center included site-inspection drones, connected ambulances and robot baristas.

The operator’s existing SmartWorks IoT service for construction sites now has 5G capabilities that will take it to the next level, said SmarTone CEO Anna Yip.

“5G gives us the opportunity to push into the next era of applications,” she said. For example, new 5G -powered apps for SmartWorks include building information modelling (BIM) to view 3D models with rich digital content and computer aided design (CAD) to monitor and manage real-time site operations.

Yip also said she’s not worried about being the last to the Hong Kong 5G party, as 5G is still a new technology that’s only been available in the city for less than two months.

“A lot of clients still don’t have even a rough idea of what 5G is,” she said, adding that SmarTone will be launching a series of roadshows in shopping malls next month showcasing 5G apps and educating consumers.

Yip also said that launching later gave the operator time to observe the initial market response to 5G, develop service packages and make sure the network could deliver a user experience that was up to customer expectations.

“We have done a lot of trials to guarantee the best experience ,and at the same time, we have followed up on market feedback,” Yip said. “The user experience is the most important part, and once we believed we can provide a good experience to the clients, we launched the service.”

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