Mobile network operators are investing heavily to expand and upgrade their 4G networks in Cambodia while looking ahead to future 5G technologies. Although 4G, which debuted in Cambodia just three years ago, is already blindingly fast compared to earlier mobile generations, demand for high-speed data is continually growing and new applications are already testing the limits. The next mobile generation is expected to offer larger bandwidths and lower latency, improving existing services while making possible exciting new ones.
“5G is expected to support significantly faster mobile broadband speeds needed to support the increasingly extensive mobile data usage,” said Thomas Hundt, chief executive officer of mobile telecommunications operator Smart Axiata. “From virtual reality and autonomous cars, to industrial Internet and smart cities, 5G will enable a richer, smarter and more convenient living and environment.”
At the moment, no universal standard for 5G exists, though a draft document published by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in February offers tantalising clues as to what it will look like. Among the specifications expected to be approved in November is the requirement that the total download capacity for a single 5G cell must exceed 20 Gbps – about 20 times the peak data rate of current 4G LTE cells.
The incoming standard is expected to support up to 1 million connected devices per square kilometre. That might sound like overkill, even in a densely populated Southeast Asian city, but mobile networks are increasingly focused on connecting objects rather than handsets. The Internet of Things (IoT) will require mass connectivity as cars, buildings, home appliances, office supplies and wearable technologies connect and communicate online.
Another big feature of 5G is lower latency, or response time. By reducing the latency to 1 millisecond – unperceivable to a human but about 40 times faster than 4G – the new standard will support time-critical operations such as remote surgery and autonomous vehicles.
Some of the world’s largest mobile operators have already begun experimenting with 5G networks. And although Cambodia is unlikely to see a full 5G wireless network in operation before 2020, the first live trials could begin as early as next year.
Im Vutha, spokesman of the Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia (TRC), said the government was supporting operators that wish to build 5G infrastructure and has authorised telecom firm Star Digital, which previously operated a mobile telecom network as Emaxx, to carry out testing of a 5G network in the capital.
“We have provided approval to Star Digital to test a 5G network,” he said. “They have not started yet, they just began working on it this year, but the trial will be in Phnom Penh.”
Star Digital could not be reached for comment, but a company believed to be affiliated, Metro Telecom, recently announced on its website that it had partnered with Huawei to build a licensed 5G network in Cambodia, with the first live trials to begin in urban centres by 2018.
Metro Telecom declined to comment on its 5G licensing claims or network plans, and information on the company’s website was removed yesterday following queries.
The Kingdom’s three largest mobile network operators – Metfone, Smart and Cellcard – are aggressively expanding their 4G networks and have indicated plans to invest in 5G infrastructure.
Smart, which has sunk more than $275 million into building a 4G network since its launch in early 2014, recently began rolling out 4.5G, a faster and most efficient upgrade to 4G network architecture.
Hundt said the investment is not just about delivering improved service for data-intensive applications such as iFlix and Jaikon, it is about laying the groundwork for the projected commercial launch of 5G by 2020.
“Our 4.5G technology that will soon be nationwide will act as a bridge for us to move to 5G once standards are in place,” he said. “We have commenced studies on 5G key technologies with our partner Huawei to ensure preparedness, in particular exploring Massive MIMO, one of the underlying key technologies.”
Cellcard did not respond to inquiries about its 5G network plans or development partners. However, the company’s CEO said last October that Cellcard was pouring $200 million into expanding and upgrading its 4G network this year.
“Cellcard will continue to lead and innovate and will be at the forefront of pre-5G technology for which we are already preparing,” the company announced in May. “We will continuously upgrade our capacity, bandwidth and speed to adapt to the consumer demand and requirements.”
Metfone, which was late to the game with 4G, has kept its 5G ambitions under tight wraps. However, its Vietnamese parent company clearly has designs on the next generation of mobile technology. In April, Viettel signed an agreement with Canada-based wireless internet solutions provider Nuran Wireless to develop 5G technologies, including a prototype Massive MIMO base station.
The search for spectrum
As mobile network operators gear up to deploy 5G, regulators will be hard pressed to find sufficient spectral bandwidth to support the new standard. Earlier mobile generations only required a small slice of spectrum, with 1G voice services using less than 30 kilohertz of bandwidth per frequency channel. By 4G this had grown nearly 700-fold to 20 megahertz, pressing regulators to find unallocated space.
The incoming 5G standard is massive by comparison, requiring carriers to have at least 100 megahertz of free spectrum and possibly up to 1 gigahertz.
“More spectrum bandwidth will be needed to meet the full range of potential capabilities of 5G,” said Hundt, adding that discussions were currently focused on bandwidth in the 700 MHz and 3.3 to 5 GHz range, as well as frequencies above 6 GHz.
That could overlap the existing spectrum allocations of satellite TV broadcasters. While frequencies suitable for mobile telecommunications are in high demand, officials at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPTC) have said Cambodia still has sufficient free spectrum bandwidth for several 5G networks.
MPTC, however, hopes to avoid the troubles it faced in 2010 when it emerged that the ministry had erroneously double-booked the frequency allocations of nearly a dozen telecom firms set to operate WiMax wireless internet in the 2.5 to 2.7 GHz range.