SE Asia Hops Onto 5G-Sharing Bandwagon

The network-sharing bandwagon has rolled into southeast Asia, with Singapore and Malaysia unveiling plans for joint 5G buildouts.

In a widely expected move, Singapore telcos StarHub and M1 announced last week they will "cooperate and submit a joint bid for a 5G license."

Their terse statement offers no detail on how their partnership would work -- it could be anything from basestation sharing to a joint-invested network or full JV.

But it came as no surprise given that just two nationwide licenses are on offer, of which one is certain to go to market leader Singtel.

And while the announcement was made at an industry level, it is likely to have been driven by the major shareholders –- mostly state-controlled firms like ST Telemedia and Keppel -- and the government itself.

The regulator, IMDA, is allocating the licenses via a hybrid beauty contest/auction. It's extended the deadline for bids until February 17, with operators expected to go live with 5G in the third quarter. (See Singapore Sets Aggressive Standalone Target as It Launches 5G Race.)

Malaysia also anticipates a 5G launch in the third quarter through its newly proposed idea of a single consortium licensee comprising several operators.

This approach is intended to lower capex and prevents infrastructure duplication "at a time where improvements in 4G networks are continuing," it says. (See Malaysia Outlines 'Innovative' Approach to 5G Spectrum Allocation.)

Regulator MCMC says it will allocate 700MHz and 3.5GHz frequencies into the hands of a single entity "formed by multiple licensees." The spectrum will be assigned by a tender process.

But just 2x30 MHz of the 700MHz band and 100MHz of the 3.5GHz band will be assigned, with the remaining spectrum to be allocated later.

The other 5G frequencies, 26GHz and 28GHz, will be allocated variously via a tender or on a first-come, first-served basis.

The inspiration for this, besides the enormous bill, is likely China, which accelerated its 5G timetable with a network-sharing arrangement between China Unicom and China Telecom. (See China Spices Things Up With 2-Become-1 5G Plan.)

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Roughly put, each will build in different parts of the country, sharing their 200MHz of contiguous spectrum, but continue to operate separate businesses.

The losers in this, however, will be those operators excluded from the partnerships.

It is too early to know how what kind of arrangements the Malaysian players -- Celcom, Maxis, Digi, Telekom Malaysia, edotco and YTL -- may make, but the StarHub-M1 hookup isn't helpful to Singapore's newest entrant, TPG.

Australia-based TPG has yet to launch commercial service and instead is building its customer base with a free trial for up to 300,000 users. It has invested A$142 million ($96.2 million) in its network over the past two years, posting a A$2.7 million loss last year.

It is now at a clear disadvantage in the contest for a nationwide license, leaving it with one of the two localized 5G licenses.

Ironically, TPG is in court back in Australia over its would-be merger with Vodafone Hutchison Australia. This will no doubt reduce the hefty bill for 5G, but in the view of the regulator it's still anti-competitive. (See Australia's TPG Had No 5G Plan. Does Anyone?)

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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