5G has emerged as the new focus area for telecom operators and governments across Southeast Asia (SEA). While ministries and regulatory bodies are actively trying to make available the requisite spectrum for 5G services, operators are also making efforts to make their networks future ready and have been testing the technology. Some markets continue to be ahead of others in the game.

A look at the current status of 5G development across SEA…


Singapore has seen rapid advancement on the 5G front. The city state’s incumbent operators have already set the ball rolling. Recently, in October 2020, Singtel announced the deployment of its 5G standalone (SA) trial network, which utilises the 3500 MHz spectrum. A month prior to this, M1 had announced the switching on of its 5G non-stand-alone (NSA) network for existing and new users. Likewise, StarHub is also carrying out its NSA 5G trial, which is expected to conclude in February 2021, using the 2100 MHz spectrum.

These recent trials have taken place on the back of the latest spectrum awards announced by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) in June 2020. Earlier this year, IMDA had assigned 100 MHz of 3.5 GHz spectrum along with 800 MHz of mmWave spectrum, each to Singteland the consortium formed by StarHub and M1. Apart from these three players, TPG Telecom was awarded the remaining 26 GHz/28 GHz spectrum in the mmWave band to roll out 5G networks on a localised basis.


Thailand has been regarded by many as the first mover in the SEA region for the 5G licence auction. In February 2020, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) concluded its 5G multiband spectrum auction, raising around $ 3.2 billion from the sale of 48 concessions for spectrum in the 700 MHz, 2600 MHz and 26 GHz bands. Various operators participated in the auction. This included Advanced Info Service (AIS), which won secured 23 out of the 49 licences up for auction. AIS was followed by True Corporation and its subsidiary True Move H Universal Communication (TUC) which secured 17 licences. TOT held four licences, followed by Total Access Communication (DTAC) and CAT winning two licences each.

According to the NBTC, adopting 5G in 2020 could contribute 177 billion baht to the economy. This could potentially increase to 332 billion baht in 2021 and 476 billion baht in 2022, if 5G launches are carried out as planned. Further, industry analysts point out that given the immense opportunity presented by the technology, operators are carefully and diligently outlining their business strategy so as to be able to extract maximum value from the commercialisation of the technology once an opportunity surfaces and 5G-linked use cases reach a substantial maturity level.


The Vietnam government is planning to allocate the requisite spectrum for 5G to telecom operators. The key telecom players have already started mobilising resources to launch their 5G service by the end of 2020. Further, there is a lot of talk going on around the indigenous development of 5G chipsets in the country.

As far as spectrum allocation is concerned, the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC) of Vietnam is reportedly planning to allocate the 700 MHz and 1800 MHz band for 5G deployment. In addition, the MIC is also thinking of auctioning the 24.25 GHz to 27.5 GHz frequency bands for 5G use in 2021. Earlier, the MIC had put the 2.6 GHz band, which is currently being used to provide 4G services, for auction; it will eventually be used to launch 5G services in the future. More recently, in August 2020, the MIC announced the official frequency planning, which has been regarded by many as a great leap in Vietnam’s 5G development road map.

Various telecom operators such as Viettel, FPT and Vingroup are working towards developing domestically produced 5G chipsets, which can be deployed across their networks. In fact, earlier, in July 2020, Viettel launched its domestically manufactured 5G base tranceiver stations (BTSs) and announced that it was going to pilot its commercial 5G coverage by deploying these BTSs across the network. The telco has said that by June 2021 it will deploy 5G microcells across its entire network.

While Viettel has made considerable progress in the 5G domain, other telecom operators are not far behind. For instance, MobiFone, which had received its 5G services deployment licence in April 2019, has been actively carrying out 5G trials across Hanoi, Da Nang, Hai Phong and Ho Chi Minh City in collaboration with various global vendors. Further, in March 2020, MobiFone announced that following the success of its 5G trials across various cities, the operator will now sooninitiate nationwide 5G coverage. In fact, MobiFone’s 5G test licence recently got extended to May 2021, following which the operator has now begun the second phase of its 5G network trials that will focus on the modernisation of the operator’s existing infrastructure and the introduction of pilot services across its telecom circles. Going forward, MobiFone is planning to commercialise its 5G service once its official licence arrives, which is expected to be granted in early 2021.

In addition to Viettel and MobiFone, the state-owned Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications Group (VNPT) has also been vigorously pursuing its 5G ambitions. Earlier, in April 2020, VNPT carried out successful 5G trials in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Given the rapid progress that Vietnam is making across various fronts in the 5G domain, various analysts have predicted that it might emerge as one of the first countries in the world to successfully roll out 5G services for commercial use.


Malaysia has been the hotbed of key 5G debates in the past couple of months as far as spectrum allocation is concerned. It seems to have started in January 2020, when the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) stated in a report that it expected to issue both 700 MHz and 3.5 GHz spectrum via an open tender to a single-entity consortium comprising multiple licensees. However, later in May 2020, Malaysia’s Ministry of Communications and Multimedia directed the MCMC to allocate the 700 MHz spectrum to five selected operators – Altel Communications, Celcom Axiata, Digi, Maxis, and Telekom Malaysia.

Following these developments, the government decided to drop the 5G spectrum allocation plan for some time.

This development  coincided with the launch of the Jendela Plan in the country in August 2020, which focuses on expanding existing 4G coverage and increasing mobile broadband speed. Consequently, the deployment of 5G technology in Malaysia has got shifted to early 2023.

The Jendela Plan is expected to remain operational from 2021 to 2025. The plan has three main goals – expansion of 4G mobile broadband coverage from 91.8 per cent to 96.9 per cent in populated areas; increase in fixed broadband speeds from 25 Mbps to 35 Mbps; and enablement of 7.5 million premises with gigabit fixed broadband access.

Under the first phase of the new plan, the government will focus on prioritising the upgradation of broadband and 4G and the shutting down of 3G by the end of 2021. Following this, under the second phase, which is expected to start in 2022, the country will begin to transition to 5G.

Agreeing with the government’s move, various industry analysts have also echoed that right now is probably not the right time to commercialise the technology in Malaysia given the limited availability of 5G-enabled devices. Analysts are of the view that sometime during the second half of 2021 would probably be a more fitting time for Malaysia to launch 5G.


Compared to its counterparts in the SEA region, Indonesia lags in the 5G race. 5G roll-outs in Indonesia are still under way, while various other countries in the region have already initiated launch procedures. As per the Oxford Business Group, 5G is expected to debut in Indonesia only by 2022.

Unavailability of appropriate spectrum is a key reason for the delayed roll-out. As per industry and government estimates, there is a requirement of at least 2,042 MHz of spectrum frequency by 2024 if 5G is to become a reality in the country. In contrast, at present, Indonesia has only 737 MHz of spectrum available for mobile, around one-third of what is required. Thus, the government will have to soon make available around 1,310 MHz of spectrum in order to make networks 5G ready.

As per MTN Consulting, the ministry should vacate the 3.3-3.4 GHz band for 5G. Likewise, the GSMA is of the view that the Indonesian government should release 700 MHz spectrum and make it available to telcos for 5G. As per the research firm, allocating 700 MHz to telcos would support the government’s efforts to expand coverage across the country and help narrow the digital divide. Further, according to the Oxford Business Group, the government should provide spectrum between 80 MHz and 100 MHz continuously for each operator in the main band, and about 1 GHz for each operator in the millimetre wave band.

While the spectrum band to be made available for 5G is yet to be decided, the Ministry of Communication and IT is believed to be in favour of vacating the 3.5 GHz middle band that is currently reserved for satellites.

Future outlook

The SEA region is bubbling with the 5G opportunity. According to a recent study carried out by Kearney, 5G can potentially boost consumer revenue and enterprise revenue across the region by 6 to 9 per cent and 18-22 per cent before 2025. This is because operators are expected to invest over $10 billion on infrastructure during this period.

While overall the region will continue to push ahead with its 5G ambitions, there will be leaders and laggards in the game. And the policy environment of the country will be the deciding factor here. In order to make 5G a reality, governments and policymakers need to adopt a more investment- and innovation-friendly approach within their territories.