5G is not just for wealthy nations. Southeast Asian rivals Cambodia and Vietnam are both pursuing aggressive 5G plans, with Cambodia set to steal a march on its neighbor by launching the first service.
Smart Axiata, Cambodia's biggest operator, has completed 5G trials and is awaiting government approval to roll out a network and offer service.
Smart Axiata CEO Thomas Hundt said 5G services could start "very soon," Khmer Times reported last week.
Following an agreement between the government and the Chinese vendor signed in April, the operator has been running a trial with Huawei gear for several months. Cambodia's other two operators, Metfone and Cellcard, are also running trials using Huawei.
Hundt says Smart Axiata needs government allocation of spectrum and a licence before it can go ahead. Rival Cellcard will also start 5G trials by the end of the year, according to the Telecommunications Regulator of Cambodia.
Hundt has said the operator "could start in a couple of weeks." But with just a short trial completed, he cautions that initial coverage would be for urban hot spots only.
In other words, this 5G service looks like a glorified field trial. But it could be enough to win the title of first in Asean.
With Singapore already advanced in its licensing process, it would need to start service in the first quarter of 2020 to claim first in the region, Hundt said.
Vietnam is following a different path. In contrast with Huawei's central role in Cambodia, Vietnam will do away with Huawei altogether.
It hasn't announced a ban, but Vietnamese operators, like those in Japan, are not engaging with Huawei and have been conducting trials with Nokia and Ericsson.
"We are not going to work with Huawei right now," Le Dang Dung, the CEO of Vietnam's biggest telco Viettel, told Bloomberg in August. "There were reports that it's not safe to use Huawei… So we choose Nokia and Ericsson from Europe."
Viettel does not use Huawei equipment in its 4G network, although Metfone, its Cambodia subsidiary, has no problem rolling out 5G with Huawei.
Viettel is running a trial with Nokia kit across ten sites in Ho Chi Minh City, and is also testing Ericsson equipment.
Vinaphone, the number two operator, is also working with Nokia, while the third player, MobiFone, is considering Samsung, Nikkei Asian Review reports.
Somewhat mysteriously, Viettel also says it will make its own 5G equipment. It says it has already invested "millions of dollars to develop 5G chips and is working on developing devices with 5G chips."
It has not elaborated on what chips it is producing or where they will be deployed.
Its 5G timetable is also unclear. Viettel has said that it might start next year or in 2021.
Information and Communication Minister Nguyen Manh Hung has said Vietnam should trial 5G this year and aim for nationwide coverage by 2020.
Kai Sahala, head of 5G APAC and Japan sales for Nokia, said he expected the government to issue spectrum next year.
He says Vietnam "is one of the more advanced markets," with plans to deploy in 20 or so major cities.
He said the country is pushing for 5G to help upgrade its manufacturing and to accelerate innovation.
"It has a clear strategy towards 5G, and the ministry has been driving the evolution towards digital transformation."
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading