Jumping Back onto the 5G Bandwagon
02 February 2021
Self-driving cars, robot doctors controlled remotely conducting surgeries and celebrity holograms will no longer be scenes from futuristic sci-fi movies. With the implementation of 5G, we will see life imitating art with endless opportunities for this transition into a more connected and automated world. Asimov would be proud.
5G has consistently dominated headlines since the beginning of 2019, promising faster speeds, lower latency and better connectivity for mobile internet. The expectation that 5G will revolutionise the world as we know it is high, especially where the internet is playing an increasingly larger role. According to the 2019 Industry Performance Report by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (“MCMC”), the mobile broadband subscription in Malaysia increased from 39.45 million in 2018 to about 43.48 million in 2019.
WHAT IS 5G?
So, what is 5G? The term 5G merely denotes the fifth generation of mobile network with the ‘G’ in 5G being an abbreviation for ‘generation’. There is no universal definition for 5G but it is perhaps more precise to explain 5G as a combination of several key technologies with the objective to achieve the result of faster speed, lower latency and ability to connect more devices at the same time. The interest surrounding 5G stems from its potential for use in Internet of Things (“IoT”), smart vehicles, smart cities and enabling control of remote devices.
The standards for 5G are being developed by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), known as the IMT-2020 standard. The 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) industry standard group is also developing a standard for a new air interface known as the 5G NR (New Radio).
Key Technologies of 5G
The foundation of mobile network technology is radio frequencies. However, the spectrum of radio frequency by itself is finite and cannot be expanded despite the increasing usage of the same frequency spectrum. Thus, the solution to this problem as part of 5G implementation is to use millimetre waves, sometimes defined to lie above 24 gigahertz (traditional mobile frequencies are below 6 gigahertz), in addition to lower frequencies.
Millimetre waves have never been used for mobile services due to its short-range frequency and inability to travel through obstacles easily. This is where a new technology known as small cells comes into play. Using these small cells as part of the Radio Access Network will allow the millimetre waves to travel more effectively. A popular idea is to install these small cells on existing lamp posts which will allow the small cells to be effectively distributed in clusters. However, the lower frequencies will still be crucial as they allow a broader coverage due to its longer wavelength, which will be necessary for massive IoT usage. As such, the implementation of 5G will likely require a combined usage of the low, mid and high frequency bandwidths.
The other key feature of 5G implementation is the ‘massive’ multiple input, multiple output (“MIMO”) antennas which will allow more users to simultaneously connect to the network. When massive MIMO is combined with beamforming technology, this will allow the antennas to focus the signal to the particular user or device which will ultimately increase efficiency and reduce wastage of the signal.
5G IMPLEMENTATION EFFORTS IN MALAYSIA
The implementation of 5G is in line with Malaysia’s National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan (NFCP) 2019-2023 which was formulated to, among others, improve broadband quality and internet access for all Malaysians. In November 2018, MCMC established a national 5G Task Force comprising both public and private sector members with the objective of studying and recommending the strategies for 5G deployment in Malaysia. The Task Force is made up of four main working groups focusing on different areas, namely: (i) business case; (ii) infrastructure; (iii) spectrum management and allocation; and (iv) regulatory. The Task Force submitted its final report dated December 2019 to the Government via a handover ceremony on 20 January 2020.
In January 2020, MCMC launched the 5G demonstration projects across six states (Kedah, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Perak, Selangor and Terengganu) in Malaysia. In collaboration with private corporations, the use cases that will be tested during the six months include smart traffic lights, smart parking, smart agriculture and augmented reality (AR) for education. According to MCMC’s Chairman, the 5G utilisation test cases in Langkawi in Kedah in the agriculture, digital healthcare, education, smart city, smart transportation and tourism sectors have been impressive with around 37 cases of utilisation in just two months of implementation. By July 2020, the Minister of Communications and Multimedia, Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, said that a total of 71 5G Demonstration Projects had been successfully carried out, which would help the Government’s preparation to implement the 5G technology commercially in future.
Spectrum is the heart and core of any 5G rollout. Hence, one of the first crucial steps in the implementation of 5G is the determination of the frequency spectrum. In July 2019, MCMC initiated a public inquiry on the allocation of spectrum bands for mobile broadband service in Malaysia for the 700MHz, 2300Mhz and 2600MHz bands. Subsequently, a Final Report on Allocation of Spectrum Bands for Mobile Broadband Service in Malaysia (“Final Report”) was issued on 31 December 2019.
In the Final Report, MCMC identified the 700MHz band, 3.4GHz to 3.6 GHz (“3.5 GHz band”) and 24.9GHz to 28.1GHz (“26/28 GHz band”) for the initial deployment of 5G in Malaysia. The Final Report also describes the award mechanism for the allocation of the spectrum bands, which may be summarised as follows:
- For the 700MHz and 3.5GHz bands, MCMC is considering the allocation to a single entity comprising a consortium formed by multiple licensees instead of an individual licensee to encourage collaboration between operators and for cost-efficiency. Thus, the 700MHz and 3.5GHz bands will be assigned by way of an Apparatus Assignment (“AA”) in one package through a tender process. MCMC will start off with 2x30MHz of the 700MHz band and 100MHZ of the 3.5GHz band for the first stage.;
- For the 24.9GHz to 26.5GHZ bands, this will be assigned by way of AA through a tender process to licensees;
- For the first stage of the frequencies within the 700MHz and 3.5GHz bands and frequencies within the 24.9GHz to 26.5GHZ bands, it was estimated that the tender process will commence in Quarter 1 of 2020.However, no tender process was conducted in Q1 of 2020, and instead in May 2020, the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia unexpectedly issued an Official Ministerial Directive to award the 703 MHz to 743 MHz and 758 MHz to 798 MHz to five companies (“the Directive”). This took the industry by surprise since the Final Report had indicated that the allocation of spectrum would be conducted via a tender process. The Directive was subsequently reversed in June 2020.
- For the 26.5GHz to 28.1GHz bands, this will be assigned by way of AA on a first-come first-served basis, and will be open to any party (including non-licensees). Parties that have successfully been assigned frequencies within the 24.9GHz to 26.5GHZ bands will not be eligible to apply for frequencies within these bands. MCMC will issue a notice on the commencement date for the submission of the AA application.
- Frequencies within the 2300Mhz and 2600MHz bands will be maintained per existing allocations, pending maturity of these bands for 5G which is expected to be by year 2021, at the earliest.
Since the reversal of the Directive in June 2020, there has been no further updates on the status of the allocation of the spectrum bands. In August 2020, it was announced that the initial plan to introduce 5G in 2020 will be deferred to end 2022 or 2023 as the Government introduced the new Jalinan Digital Negara (“JENDELA”) plan to improve existing 4G networks and coverage as well as a 3G sunset in preparation for the implementation of 5G. The JENDELA plan is a result of the COVID-19 pandemic which revealed several areas requiring improvement in Malaysia’s digital infrastructure following an increase in internet traffic by 30% to 70%. Complaints on internet speed and coverage also increased by 40% to 70% and internet speed reduced by 30% to 40%.
THE INEVITABILITY OF REGULATORY DEVELOPMENT
It is axiomatic that the law must keep up with technological development to ensure sufficient and appropriate regulatory oversight. 5G is the key to major changes to various industries so the question of regulation will not be confined only to the telecommunications industry. Discussions surrounding regulation of 5G should be two-fold, the first being the control and regulation surrounding the implementation of 5G itself, and the second, the control and regulation surrounding the application and use of 5G. Some potential areas of concern to Malaysia are discussed below.
As part of the implementation of 5G, it is expected that new infrastructures will be required to be built. These new infrastructures include installation of small cells on existing property such as lamp posts and billboards. This will require coordination and cooperation between the local state and territory governments and mobile service providers. In the United Kingdom, there are already cases of disputes over how much rent councils and landlords are allowed to charged mobile operators who want access to lamp posts for the purposes of implementing 5G network. This is despite the United Kingdom introducing a new Electronic Communications Code in 2017 designed to facilitate the installation and maintenance of electronic communication networks. It has been reported that these legal actions against the local authorities and landlords may result in a two-year delay in the implementation of the 5G network. To date, no such guidelines or codes have been announced by the Malaysian Government to assist in the installation of new 5G infrastructure, but it is highly likely that such assistance will be required for the smooth implementation of 5G.
Security of 5G
Cybersecurity concerns are very real in today’s climate. This is especially more so for 5G which is intended to be applied and used in things like IoT, self-driving cars, powering smart cities and artificial intelligence. A risk assessment report recently published by the European Member States provides some insight into the potential security risks faced by 5G. Among others, there are concerns that since a 5G network is highly dependent on software, there is an increased exposure and thus more potential entry points for cyberattacks. The fact that 5G will also be dependent on more physical infrastructure like small cells which will be mounted in plain public view must also be considered. In Malaysia, there are plans to establish a National Centre for Security Evaluation in Advance Technology of Cyber Network to evaluate the security of 5G including its systems, infrastructure, hardware and applications.
Data Protection in the 5G Environment
Data protection experts have also pointed out that consumers may lose privacy and control of their data in a 5G environment. One of the key examples is location data. With today’s technology, mobile providers are only able to pinpoint the location of your mobile to the nearest cell phone tower and thus place you in the vicinity of the tower. However, in a 5G environment, due to the use of the clustered small cells, it would be much easier for mobile providers to pinpoint the almost exact location of your mobile. This type of location data is extremely rich data that could be used (or misused) in many ways. There will be a need for Malaysian regulators to examine whether present data protection laws, including the Personal Data Protection Act 2010, will be sufficient once 5G is implemented.
Applications using 5G
Regulators will also be keeping an eye out on the potential applications of 5G to enable the relevant regulations or guidelines to be developed on a timely basis. For example, smart vehicles are expected to take off once 5G is implemented since the fast speed and low latency of 5G are crucial to the success of smart vehicles. The presence of smart vehicles on the roads will potentially require amendment to existing traffic laws and other regulations, ensuring that the question of liability in cases of accidents are addressed.
Although there is still much to be considered technically and legally in implementing 5G in Malaysia, 5G has a bright future despite the setback in its implementation. The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing movement restrictions has expedited digital adoption in the country and created an ecosystem that is increasingly prepared to embrace a new era of connectivity. This is likely to accelerate the rate of adoption of 5G when it is launched.
As 5G will revolutionise numerous industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, transport and even education, it is imperative that Malaysia jumps back onto the 5G bandwagon as soon as possible to avoid being left behind in the new economy. As 5G develops, laws and regulations will inevitably be amended or enacted to ensure sufficient oversight. Therefore, anyone seeking to be a part of the 5G ecosystem (whether as part of the implementation of 5G or through the application of 5G) must remain on their toes and ensure compliance with the laws and regulations which are expected to change over the next few years.
This article was written by Natalie Lim (Partner) and Lam Rui Rong (Associate) of our Technology, Media and Telecommunications Practice.