19 January 2019
Hong Kong needs 5G to boost its network capacity as more users are using their smartphones for work and entertainment. Photo: AFP
Hong Kong needs 5G to boost its network capacity as more users are using their smartphones for work and entertainment. Photo: AFP

Is Hong Kong lagging behind in 5G development?

Hong Kong has always been among the earliest to adopt the latest mobile technology in view of its sophisticated, if saturated, market. Mobile users in the city demand the fastest and highest quality of service, embracing state-of-the-art devices and technologies – from 2G and 2.5G to 3G and 4G.

But with the advent of the 5G era, Hong Kong appears lagging behind. While China and South Korea are gearing up for the commercial launch of 5G services by next year, our government won’t issue licenses for the rollout of the new technology until next year.

In fact, one of the key telecommunications infrastructure equipment makers said the first 5G products could be coming out late this year, ahead of original 2019 schedule.

Durga Prasad Malladi, senior vice president of chipmaker Qualcomm, said some of the company’s more aggressive OEM partners are looking to launch their first 5G smartphones before the end of this year. Key carriers should also be ready to provide 5G connectivity this year.

Carriers are in the process of finalizing the speeds at which they will support early 5G devices. “They all like the fact that they can go anywhere from 1 to 4.5 Gbps, depending upon which band they are operating in,” Malladi noted. But generally, they are looking at starting at either 2 Gbps or 4 Gbps (i.e., two to four times the peak speeds of very recent 4G/LTE networks).

Qualcomm had earlier said that LTE would serve as a fallback when 5G is not available, offering around 1 Gbps if a carrier’s network supports that speed.

As one of the world’s most densely populated cities in terms of mobile communications, Hong Kong needs 5G to boost its network capacity as more users are using their smartphones for work and entertainment. Mobile operators also want the new spectrum to accommodate more users and to deploy new technologies.

So why does Hong Kong’s telecoms regulator appear reluctant to support the rollout of 5G services? The Office of the Communications Authority dismisses the view that the city is lagging behind other markets in 5G development.

But the truth is, other markets have already issued 5G-related spectrums in 3.5 GHz bands for high-speed data transmissions. For example, Britain sold spectrums in 3.4 GHz bands last month for a combined 1.35 billion pounds (US$1.83 billion).

China is preparing to deploy a 5G network on 3.5 GHz bands. China Mobile, the nation’s largest mobile operator, is planning to build a 5G network with over 10,000 base stations by 2020, and will start 5G trials in five cities this year.

Unfortunately, Hong Kong needs time to vacate its 3.5 GHz bands, which are now being used for satellite broadcasting, while some districts could not offer 5G services because they want to accommodate the satellite service.

Indeed, so many technical issues have to be ironed out before the government can start issuing 5G licenses next year. But the fact remains that Hong Kong has been wasting a lot of time over the past few years by not doing anything to prepare for the arrival of 5G.

The 3.5 GHz spectrum band, which will be used to provide 5G mobile services, should have been made vacant for mobile use much earlier than the current schedule in order to facilitate the 5G launch.

While other jurisdictions have been issuing 5G licenses in an expeditious manner, our government is still awaiting the release of the finalized version of 5G international standards, which will be announced by the middle of this year.

The authority’s deputy director-general Chaucer Leung admits that when exactly the public will gain full access to 5G services depends on several factors such as the operators’ infrastructure and the availability of mobile devices that support the network.

But Leung rejects the criticism that Hong Kong is lagging behind other places, such as the United Kingdom, that have already auctioned off relevant network bands. These markets will still take a couple of years to make 5G services available to the public as they, like Hong Kong, have yet to relocate existing users of the bands.

The Communications Authority said it plans to assign high-frequency bands such as 26 GHz and 28 GHz to operators in April next year, and more than 10 operators have indicated that they want to use them.

In other words, Hong Kong will be one of the first places in the world to launch 5G – if the operators have all their systems ready.

However, the deployment of the new network on such high-frequency bands could be a challenge for operators as they need to install more base stations for the network. Its high-frequency status means there will be a shorter range of transmissions.

Hutchison Telecom’s 3 Hong Kong made a successful application for an indoor 5G test permit in the 3.5GHz band in August last year, after which a number of tests were completed before the end of 2017.

The company will continue carrying out indoor and outdoor 5G trials in the 26 GHz and 28 GHz bands starting from the third quarter of this year. It is determined to launch a 5G service as soon as possible, after 5G spectrum specifications and standards have been finalized.

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EJ Insight writer

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