5G is coming into view all across Southeast Asia – except for the regional giant Indonesia.
The archipelago state has 273 million people, 345 million mobile subs and higher GDP per capita than the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Yet it's not even at the 5G starting line.
By comparison, the Philippines will get underway in Q3, Cambodia operators have already begun trials and Vietnam telcos just struck a network-sharing partnership. Even tiny Laos is making preparations.
For Indonesia, spectrum is likely the biggest constraint.
"Spectrum management in Indonesia is a mess. It always has been," said Ross O'Brien, ICT practice leader at Hong Kong-based Intercedent Asia. "The communications minister has said there isn't enough available spectrum for 5G, and various bands need to be cleaned up before that happens."
Communication and Information Technology Minister Johnny G. Plate says the country has just 737MHz of spectrum available for mobile – only about a third of what is required.
"We need at least 2042MHz of spectrum frequency by 2024. That means we're still short by around 1310MHz to future proof it," he told Jakarta Globe early this month.
There's no shortage of advice for how to go about this.
MTN Consulting says the ministry needs to start clearing the 3.3-3.4GHz band for 5G and begin auctioning off "suitable millimeter wave band(s), perhaps starting with 28GHz."
In a 2018 report, the GSMA recommended Indonesia release the 700MHz analog TV spectrum, noting operators are mostly using 1800MHz for 4G.
Allocating 700MHz "quickly and in sufficient quantity" would support the government's efforts to expand coverage across the complex geography and help narrow the digital divide, it argued.
The other serious problem is over-supply. Indonesia has three big operators, Telkomsel, XL Axiata and Indosat Ooredoo, with about 280 million subs between them, followed by a clutch of smaller players, most notably CP Hutchison and Smartfren.
The view that the market is ripe for consolidation is widely held, leading to frequent speculation. Last year CK Hutchison was reported to be considering a merger with XL. A month ago XL was said to be weighing a tilt at Smartfren.
"The market has been grumbling for consolidation for a while, but it doesn't seem likely and some of the newer entrants have proven quite robust competitors," says O'Brien.
Then there's the sheer physical challenge of Indonesia – 6,000 inhabited islands strung across 1.9 million sq km, making backhaul a nightmare – at least until now.
The government last year fulfilled a longstanding ambition by completing the last leg of the Palapa Ring – a $1.5 billion fiber ring across the country, comprising 35,000km of subsea cable and 21,000km in terrestrial fiber.
That changes the backhaul equation. Yet ironically it may also make 4G worthwhile.
"There is still a strong belief that more value can be squeezed out of 4G investments," said O'Brien. "It is a pretty common theme across developing Southeast Asia."
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading