HANOI/BANGKOK -- Southeast Asian nations are scrambling to introduce 5G networks, determined not to fall behind developed nations as the technology is critical to innovations such as autonomous driving and digital medical services.
Thailand and Vietnam plan to start 5G services as early as 2020, trailing rich nations by only a year or two. In contrast, they launched 4G services five years after their Western counterparts.
The steep costs of 5G infrastructure weigh on telecommunications companies, which are still struggling with heavy spending on 4G technology. This factor may figure in their decisions on whether to exclude cheaper offerings from Chinese company Huawei Technologies, as urged by the U.S.
In Thailand, the government is also considering ways to encourage companies still saddled with 4G investments to bid for portions of the 5G spectrum when they come up for auction. One incentive being considered is low-interest financing.
Thailand has become Southeast Asia's leading manufacturer, but it remains stuck on the cusp of becoming an advanced economy. To spur growth, the government's Thailand 4.0 initiative aims to promote high-tech industries using 5G infrastructure. With speeds up to 100 times faster than 4G, the technology will be important to the success of this strategy.
"We want to create industries that can play a crucial role in the immediate future," said Pichet Durongkaveroj, the minister of digital economy and society.
In Chonburi Province, just southeast of Bangkok, the Thai government has set up a 5G test facility inside its Eastern Economic Corridor, hoping to propel innovations in fields such as self-driving cars and remotely controlled robots. Participants include the country's top telecommunications provider, Advanced Info Service, and runner-up True Corp., in addition to foreign players like Huawei and Sweden's Ericsson.
Singapore, which is a regional leader in 5G, said in July that its Singapore Telecommunications had teamed up with Ericsson to test 5G networks. Singtel is also working with Garuda Robotics on drones for security and package delivery. It is also conducting tests for cloud gaming that lets users stream games.
The government plans to use 5G, which offers seamless data transmission, to install about 100,000 smart streetlights equipped with sensors and surveillance cameras. It is also expected to harness the technology for communications involved in automated driving.
But the financial burden of 5G investment is just as daunting in Singapore. This has prompted conglomerate Keppel Corp. and Singapore Press Holdings to jointly acquire the island's third-largest wireless carrier, M1.
In Myanmar, where 4G service was fully launched only in 2017, the government aims to shift toward 5G by assigning mobile providers portions of the new spectrum early in the next decade. Health care consultancy Golden Zaneka is exploring telemedicine for rural areas to close the gulf in service with large cities.
There is a battle for dominance in information infrastructure as U.S. President Donald Trump cracks down on Chinese competitors, including Huawei. Chinese base stations are considered 20% to 30% cheaper than those from Western rivals like Ericsson and Nokia, and many Southeast Asian companies use Chinese products for their 4G networks. No countries in the region have said they would ban Chinese devices either.
While most Southeast Asian countries are expected to maintain that course, Vietnam is in a somewhat different position. The Viettel Military Industry and Telecoms Group plans to begin its 5G pilot network this year and aims to develop its own base stations.
"We have previously relied on imports, but now we want to develop homegrown 5G technology," said Nguyen Manh Hung, minister of information and communications.
Although China is Vietnam's largest trading partner, Hanoi also maintains a cooperative relationship with Washington, which is trying to ban Chinese telecommunications products, on the security front. The dilemma has generated interest in which side the country will choose in building its 5G network.
Globally, the telecom industry has targeted 2020 for standardizing 5G and making it commercially available. In Europe, a framework laid out by the European Commission aims for large-scale commercial introduction by the end of 2020.
The U.S. rolled out 5G commercially in certain cities last year. South Korea completed a spectrum auction in June and is launching commercial services this month. Japan is planning a precommercial launch for this year.
Some Southeast Asian countries are expected to lag behind. A report by Moody's Investors Service said that "details and timelines [of 5G] are unclear" for countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, which remain focused on 4G.
Mayuko Tani in Singapore, Yuichi Nitta in Yangon and Akane Okutsu in Tokyo contributed to this report.