BANGKOK -- The novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted Thailand's major telecom operators to rev up deployment of fifth-generation technologies, making it the first country in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to have commercial 5G services.
AIS on May 11 revealed that the company had set aside up to $1.2 billion for investment in 5G network expansion, aiming to cover around 13% of the total Thai population by the end of this year.
Analysts had expected previously that Thailand's mobile operators would need more time before investing in the new generation network since they spent billions of dollars in 2015 on 4G licenses -- the rights to use spectrum designated for the previous generation of services. Demand for ultra-fast networks was also expected to remain thin, making a rapid deployment of 5G very unlikely.
However, the spread of coronavirus infections has quickly reversed these earlier predictions, generating a range of new telecom service needs.
"The coronavirus pandemic has pushed demand for telemedicine and robots [that operate in hospitals] and finally accelerated the commercial 5G [launches]," said an analyst at Asia Plus Securities.
GSMA, a telecom industry body that produces highly-recognized MWC (formerly known as the Mobile World Congress) events in cities including Barcelona and Shanghai, certified AIS as the first mobile operator in ASEAN to have launched commercial 5G services.
AIS, Thailand's largest operator with 42 million subscribers and which is backed by Singapore Telecommunications, has launched 5G networks in 158 hospitals in Bangkok and major cities across Southeast Asia's second largest economy. The 5G network is helping hospitals launch telemedicine services and robots that help prevent direct contact between doctors and patients.
"This is a crisis [in which] everyone in Thailand should lend a hand to help others get through it. AIS is playing its role as a digital infrastructure provider of a platform for everyone to use 5G to fight against COVID-19," said Somchai Lertsutiwong, AIS's chief executive officer.
The robots, which are operated via 5G, are helping cutting the risk of infection among medical personnel, Dr. Sukrom Chi-Charoen, deputy medical director of Rajavithi Hospital in Bangkok, explained.
"These robots are very useful, particularly at a time when we are short of self-protection sets. Even though we lack surgical masks and personal protective equipment suits, we can do our jobs as [the robots allow us to minimize] direct contact with patients," said Dr. Sukrom.
A nurse who looks after COVID-19 patients in the Vachira Phuket Hospital in the southern beach city of Phuket said the robot helped deliver food and medicines to patients as well as provide smooth interactive communications.
"It makes me work safely and happily and it also helps reduce stress among patients as they are enjoying talking to doctors via these new gadgets," the nurse said.
True Corp., the listed telecom arm of the country's biggest conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group which has 30 million users, has launched its 5G network in major hospitals in Bangkok and other major cities Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, Chonburi and Phuket. Here quarantine delivery robots, remote carts and a quarantine telepresence are all reducing risks caused by direct contact between medical personnel and patients.
Apart from hospitals, the two companies are competing to launch their 5G networks in department stores, Bangkok's financial districts and tourist attractions. Both AIS and True are also racing to offer high-speed home internet services for the many Thais who need to work from home during the lockdown.
Other ASEAN countries are still in the pilot launch phases for 5G services, while some are still awaiting auctions to allocate the necessary licenses. The next most likely country in the region to have commercial 5G within this year is Vietnam, with the Ministry of Information Technology and Communication saying the country planned to commercialize the service in June.
Vietnam's three major telecom operators, Viettel, MobiFone, and Vietnam and Telecommunications Group (Vinaphone), all of which are state-owned, successfully completed trials in major cities by April. They said they were ready for commercial launch, however, none of them have yet announced any specific timeline to start commercial services.
Singapore is expected to start commercial 5G from January 2021, with two 5G licenses being issued to companies including Singapore Telecommunications. The country aims to have 5G covering at least half of the city-state by end-2022.
Meanwhile, in the biggest economy in the bloc, Indonesia, there appears to be no development of the next generation service, with no clear roadmap on spectrum allocation and commercial deployment.
Additional reporting by Kentaro Iwamoto in Singapore and Shotaro Tani in Jakarta.