Two topics dominated developments in Asia's telecoms sector in 2019 -- 5G and Huawei.
In 5G, the large early rollouts by South Korea and China set the global pace.
Korea won bragging rights by deploying the first commercial scale 5G services in a coordinated debut by all three operators in early April. They racked up 2 million subs in the first four months and are expected to reach 5 million by the year's end.
The Korean 5G rollouts have been closely scrutinized by the industry. As well as encountering the usual early network performance issues, operators have also grappled with latency problems as devices shift from LTE to 5G. On the upside, operators were able to offer network-ready handsets from day one and the range of devices has continually expanded since.
Market leader SK Telecom recorded a small 5G boost to its bottom line, primarily because of the hike in data consumption. New services such as cloud gaming and AR are generating takeup, but are some way from creating meaningful revenues.
The 5G race escalated in June when China suddenly issued licences, six months ahead of schedule, most likely because of the rising tech tensions with the US.
As in Korea, China kicked off with a joint launch by all operators on November 1. With 90,000 5G base stations already deployed, the big three telcos were offering monthly prices as low as RMB 128 ($18.30) that offered better value than 4G.
Elsewhere around the region, Australia and New Zealand launched limited 5G and the Philippines’s Globe Telecom began a 5G-based home broadband service, but most countries are still at the licensing stage. Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan are all expected to launch by the middle of 2020.
Huawei began the year with its CFO Meng Wanzhou on bail in Vancouver on an extradition charge relating to US charges over alleged sanctions-busting transactions. Twelve months later, Meng remains on bail. But the intervening year has been a wild ride for the company her father founded.
The biggest blow fell in mid-May, when the US Department of Commerce added Huawei to its export entity list, banning US firms from supplying the Chinese vendor.
But with US companies finding ways around the ban, the Trump administration offering a series of reprieves, as well as Huawei's buildup of inventory, the Shenzhen-based firm has so far weathered the storm.
Its latest financial filing shows a 24% hike in topline revenue to RMB610.8 billion ($86.0 billion) and a small lift in profit margin for the first three quarters.
The vendor went on the legal counter-attack with two suits against the US government -- one over its ban from US government agencies and the other over its exclusion from the FCC subsidy scheme for rural carriers.
In September, CEO Ren Zhengfei surprised the world by offering to licence Huawei’s 5G technology to a US firm. So far no US vendor has accepted the offer.
Elsewhere in Asia in 2019:
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading