Eastern Economic Corridor

5G in Thailand’s Eastern Economic Corridor will be comprehensive. Source: Shutterstock

Thailand soars ahead with 5G rollout in Southeast Asia

  • With the pandemic interfering with 5G rollout plans in ASEAN, Thailand took the surprising lead with commercial 5G networks introduced before their neighbors
  • COVID-19 helped accelerate commercial 5G rollouts, kicking off with hospitals in major cities around Thailand
  • The top network operators are now introducing 5G in other commercial districts including shopping malls and the financial district

2020 was looking like the year 5G exploded across the Asia Pacific (APAC) region, and Southeast Asia in particular.

Following the successful rollouts of 5G networks and infrastructure in several trend-leading APAC countries – 2019 saw large-scale infrastructure introductions in China with 57 5G-connected cities, South Korea with 85 cities, Australia with 40-plus cities and townships, while Japan introduced commercial 5G this year – most expected Southeast Asian players like Malaysia and Singapore to be next, with numerous 5G pilot projects and trials taking off across the area, in a varied range of sectors including manufacturing, mobility, smart city projects, and more.

Analysts had been predicting that APAC will lead the way in 5G networks and applications, and with 1.14 billion subscribers would account for up to 65% of global 5G subscriptions by 2024. Those estimates were dramatically set back earlier this year when the coronavirus pandemic set in, starting with the Asia Pacific region.

The effects from the pandemic were wide-ranging, and affected pretty much every aspect of life (and business) in Southeast Asia, including most regional telecommunications operators deciding to delay 5G rollouts at scale for the time being.

Thailand doesn’t hold back

In a surprising turn of events, the top two network operators in Thailand have been ramping up deployment of their 5G networks because of the coronavirus, which will make it the first Southeast Asian country to have commercial 5G services. In February, Thailand’s major operators had just invested a combined US$3.2 billion in the country’s 5G spectrum auctions, and it was expected that 5G network rollouts would take some time to gather pace before being introduced nationwide.

However, the rapid spread of the pandemic has caused an about-face in demand, driven by the new requirements for ultra-fast connections to power remote healthcare devices.

Thai mobile operators Advanced Info Service (AIS) and True Corp. have been launching 5G networks starting with hospitals across Thailand, to lend some high-speed support for medical personnel who are fighting against COVID-19 infections.

AIS is Thailand’s largest telco with 42 million subscribers, and has launched 5G networks in 158 hospitals in Bangkok and other major cities around the country, with the primary purpose of aiding local medical institutes in launching telemedicine and robots that will assist in preventing direct contact between medical personnel and patients.

The robots run on faster 5G connections, and help to reduce the risk of contact infection, according to Dr. Sukrom Chi-Charoen, deputy medical director of Rajavithi Hospital in Bangkok. “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.

AIS LED advertising in Thai train station. AIS is the country’s biggest carrier. Source: Shutterstock

A nurse in the southern city of Phuket who looks after COVID-19 patients says the 5G-enabled robots in Vachira Phuket Hospital deliver food and medications to patients, while supplying smooth audiovisual communication without interruption.

True Corp. has over 30 million subscribers and its 5G is launched in major hospitals in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chonburi, Phuket, and Khon Kaen. Here 5G is similarly connecting delivery robots, remote carts, and quarantine telepresence equipment, in bids to reduce direct contact risks between doctors and patients. Mobility industry authority GSMA has recognized AIS as the first telco operator in Southeast Asia to have launched commercial 5G capabilities.

GSMA’s Head of Asia Pacific, Julian Gorman, had previously told Tech Wire Asia that GSMA does not expect any “real long-term impact to 5G rollouts, only short term delays” in the region.

“There will be a lot more investments being allocated, creating a resilience to networks and ensure a transformation of industries to become more resilient,” Gorman told us.

True Corp and AIS will be looking to prove this resiliency by next competing to introduce their 5G networks in other commercial areas, including the retail and financial districts of capital Bangkok.

In other surprising news, Vietnam might be the next most likely country in Southeast Asia to introduce commercial 5G, with the Ministry of Information Technology and Communication announcing plans to commercialize the service in June. This mirrors an earlier announcement by Vietnamese officials that 5G will be an integral part of Ho Chi Minh City’s planned smart city and hi-tech park development projects.