SmarTone CEO: HK needs to catch up in mobile tech leadership

Anna Yip, Executive Director and CEO of SmarTone

Anna Yip, Executive Director and CEO of SmarToneAlthough Hong Kong is still highly commended for its excellent mobile network quality and coverage, it is plainly lagging behind in terms of 5G readiness. To maintain its mobile tech leadership, SmarTone CEO Anna Yip said the Hong Kong Government should formulate a 5G spectrum release roadmap soonest.

While leading tech economies such as the UK, the US, Singapore and mainland China have either developed a roadmap for 5G development or are already selling 5G spectrum to mobile operators, Hong Kong has yet to set out a timeframe as to when 5G spectrum will be made available.

In Hong Kong, the spectrum market is shared among four mobile operators: HKT, Hutchison, China Mobile HK and SmarTone.

HKT, with about 35% spectrum market share, has been pressing the Hong Kong Government hard to release more spectrum for 5G services delivery. In May, HKT Group Managing Director Alex Arena slammed the Government for its slow progress in the release of spectrum, saying that Hong Kong is facing "a severe spectrum deficit" and "is seriously lagging behind the other developed markets in policy making."

As SmarTone CEO Anna Yip (pictured) just celebrated her one-year work anniversary in June, what does she expect from the Office of the Communications Authority's (OFCA) much anticipated spectrum reassignment? 

Hurry up with spectrum release

In OFCA's consultation paper released in March 2017, the telecoms regulator suggested a hybrid approach to reassign the spectrum to mobile operators for 5G services: by renewal and by public auction.

The spectrum to be released are: 1) 700-MHz, currently taken up by TV broadcasters; and 2) 3.5-GHz, currently taken up by satellite companies that provide satellite phone services.

Currently owning one-fifth of the spectrum, SmarTone CEO Yip said: "We hope that the TV broadcasters can migrate from analog to digital TV as soon as possible to free up the 700-MHz spectrum."

"As for the 3.5-GHz spectrum, it is being used by satellite companies in a fragmented manner. It is for the greater good that the Government reassigns this spectrum so that any unused spectrum can be sold to mobile operators."

Yip did not speculate when exactly OFCA will release the 5G spectrum, but said it was generally expected the release would occur sometime in 2020.

"We hope that the Government can speed up with the spectrum release," she said. She added that the Governments in South Korea, Japan, mainland China, UK and the US have already speeded up the availability of 5G spectrum.

"Spectrum is a major investment for the telco industry," Yip said. "It is important that we are advised how much spectrum is available out there, and when will they be made available for purchase. Only then can we properly plan ahead regarding what spectrum to buy and how much to buy (or renew)."

Hybrid approach for spectrum assignment

In the March 2017 consultation report, the Government suggested to renew the subscription of 900-MHz and 1,800-MHz spectrum in a hybrid approach: 40% of the 200-MHz spectrum available for reassignment is allocated to the existing operators, with the remaining 60% to be assigned through auction.

"The network spectrum is a very important resource for us mobile operators. We are very supportive of the Government's suggestion of renewing the 900-MHz and 1,800-MHz spectrums," Yip said.

As regards the assignment of the remaining 60% spectrum, Yip urged the Government to adopt appropriate measures to prevent any single player from dominating the entire available spectrum simply because it has the most capital. "To this end, the Government can impose an absolute cap on all players, such that one can only purchase only up to 40% of the total amount of 900/1,800-MHz spectrum up for re-assignment."

"Further, we suggest that the Government does not set too high a reserve price for the auction of the remaining 60% spectrum. To do so will impede fair and just competition."

Yip suggested the above recommended approaches would incur the least disruption to the existing mobile industry and the mobile services.

SmarTone advertises its 4.5G network coverage in all MTR stationsSmarTone's brand building strategy

"We won't lay idle as we wait for the release of the 5G spectrum," said Yip. "Since 2016, we have been upgrading and refining our network to make it 4.5G."

Last month, SmarTone staged a marketing campaign to promote its 4.5G network in MTR train stations. It announced the launch of its 2100-MHz LTE network that covers the entire MTR network for faster, stabler and smoother mobile browsing.

"The availability of SmarTone 4.5G network in Hong Kong MTR is our core brand campaign," Yip said. "Our network performance has always been commended. With 4.5G, we are confident in delivering the best user experience even in super crowded environments like MTR train compartments."

SmarTone's 4.5G network includes these latest features: carrier aggregation and massive MIMO.

"Concerning carrier aggregation, we now have 3CC and 4CC to consolidate all frequency bands for to improve the user experience," Yip added. Carrier aggregation is the consolidation of frequency bands together to broaden one's existing spectrum. The more the spectrum is aggregated, the better the user experience.

In addition, SmarTone is also planning for the deployment of 4x4 Massive MIMO to further improve the user experience and network capacity. "In the future, we will further develop it to a higher level/order MIMO," she said.

Mobile tech innovation hub

Earlier in January, SmarTone and Ericsson conducted Hong Kong's first demonstration of 5G technologies using millimeter wave spectrum.

By the end of this year, the duo will launch a mobile tech innovation hub to showcase SmarTone's 5G applications, as well as their partners'. "With this hub, we hope to drive 5G application through cross-industry cooperation, such as with the construction industry, car manufacturing industry, and the healthcare industry."

Yip suggested some potential applications of 5G network:
1) For property management, instead of visiting hundreds of washrooms a day to identify any sanitary problem, a property management company can use sensors to identify the areas that needed to be clean. The data will then be transmitted back to the control center, where the managers can dispatch cleaning staff to clean the specified spots;

2) As regards driverless cars, suppose a driverless car is speeding at 100Mph in a congested road. It can create a very dangerous situation if the driverless car stops suddenly, as the other cars cannot distinguish whether the cars stop on their own, or being stopped. With 5G, the latency of data transmission can identify any split second difference in car speeds. "If a driverless car stops suddenly, it can react fast by machine to machine communication between cars," Yip said.

Hong Kong's mobile technology leadership

"About 10 years ago, a lot of mobile operators in mainland China, such as China Mobile and China Unicom, used to visit us [SmarTone] from time to time and ask about our new developments. In turn we would advise them on how to enhance their services," said Ivan Leung, head of engineering at SmarTone Mobile Communication. "In the recent years, these visits became less frequent, which I suppose was because they have been developing rapidly themselves," he said.

"Having said that, our mobile coverage and the quality of our mobile network performance are not bad. In fact, we have always been leading in the forefront in these areas. For example, one can hardly find mobile coverage for its underground transport system that is better than Hong Kong's."

Given the slower pace of mobile services and 5G network development, are Hong Kong mobile operators lagging much behind their counterparts in the region?

"I don't think Hong Kong is lagging too far behind, though it is definitely not in a leading position," said Yip. She added that mainland China, Japan, South Korea and the US are now competing for 5G leadership, and Singapore is not lagging much behind. "We are not on par with them," she said.

"Having said that, we should not look down too much on ourselves," Yip added. "In fact, Hong Kong has really good mobile network coverage, especially indoors and below ground level (if we compare ourselves to other countries like England)."

"In terms of advance technology features, Hong Kong is following closely. But I doubt if we can still hold the leading position in the future, if we do not prepare ourselves well for the 5G network provision. As such, our Government needs to be more forward-looking, in terms of 5G spectrum release."