For the longest time, it was a common observation to say that while the Philippines ranked high in surveys for number of internet users and overall usage, the country lagged in terms of connectivity speed compared to its peers. However, as digital enablement and transformation have been the top priorities since the start of remote work, even that seemingly deep-rooted truth is about to change. Telco companies have made a point to offer improved network services, beginning with the deployment of 5G technology.
It was not until 23 March 2021 that the Department of Public Works and Highways granted telcos the ability to build cell towers along right-of-way limits, and yet significant progress has already been made. As of late 2021, 5G was available for a collective estimate of 6,000 locations and 1.5 million users between the two major telco competitors. Further, a recent report by Opensignal even showed that the Philippines had the greatest improvement in download speed, with 5G averaging 140.6 Mbps and being 9.8 times faster than 4G.
Everything seems to be coming up roses for the Philippines in terms of 5G coverage and speed, but what exactly does that mean for industries?
4G vs. 5G vs. Wi-Fi
To start, a disclaimer might be in order: faster and more reliable network connection enables greater opportunities for digital transformation, but 5G itself is not a requirement to start digitalization initiatives within an enterprise.
Some type of wide-area network such as 5G is generally a necessity for businesses alongside Wi-Fi because of the former’s ability to connect to the internet no matter the distance, but one can argue even 4G can enable aspects of Industry 4.0, such as artificial intelligence and Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities. So, for the moment, it is only when enterprises wish to scale these capabilities that the low latency and high bandwidth (that is, what allows 5G networks to download more data at a faster rate for more devices) of 5G becomes a necessity.
For the most part, the value of 5G is centered more on its potential to transform digital interactions and create unique use cases as the technology develops. As such, it is no surprise a McKinsey survey found that as late as 2019 Chief Technology Officers from various telcos cited business case and the uncertain return on investment as the biggest challenges facing 5G deployment strategies. Instead, the same survey reported that gaining network leadership and improving their telco’s capacity and quality of service were the primary motivations for rolling out 5G technology.
Benefits and Opportunities of 5G
However vague the future and future business case of 5G seems to be, there are still clear benefits to its adoption. For one thing, Kearney identified 5G as a strong enabler, and in some cases even a prerequisite, for technologies such as collaborative gaming, ultra-high definition media on the go, automated driving, 3D calls, consumer holograms, and more. Thus, start-ups and businesses in related industries have the space to create new and value-added products and services that leverage 5G.
As discovered by Qualcomm’s 2021 study, such value-added services can have the additional perk of generating more sustainable processes too. By using 5G to enable smart technology, such as optimized resource management and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that distribute pesticides across smart farms, the study found it could reduce approximately 6% of annual greenhouse gas emissions as well as reduce excess and waste for water, fuel, and pesticides. Not only that, but further development of smart technology in industries such as transportation, infrastructure, etc. could potentially create 300,000 new green jobs in the United States by 2030.
Lastly, although 4G can accommodate Industry 4.0 capabilities, 5G is expected to be the true accelerator for digitalization and the key to implementing features like IoT, advanced robotics and remote machine control, and augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR) to enterprises, with the manufacturing and energy sectors taking the lead in its adoption. According to studies, this general increase in connectivity and technological capabilities could then lead to an additional revenue potential of $140 billion to $150 billion for the manufacturing, services, and agricultural sectors of Southeast Asian nations by 2025.
Applications so far
On the topic of real-world applications, there have been projects leveraging 5G that could significantly impact local industries once the technology becomes available and affordable. In the Philippines, the hope is always that travel restrictions would have eased before 5G enters the mainstream. But in the meantime, “remote tourism” and the concept of providing AR/VR and panoramic experiences of touristic locations, such as what is currently being done in China, could act as an alternative or supplement to actual travel, and studies are underway to discover its business potential.
In healthcare and on the topic of Internet of Skills, or the process of delivering knowledge and expertise digitally and in real-time, 5G is being leveraged in the development of a communication system that could seamlessly integrate various devices and in so doing allow remote diagnosis and palpation via haptic technology. As a response to the Department of Agriculture’s tech transformation agenda, interested young Filipino farmers can also look at studies on smart irrigation systems and Smart Decision Support Systems (SDSS) for the monitoring and analysis of daily tasks, in addition to UAV use.
The actual speed and amounts of data that can be transferred through a 5G network are inconsequential to discussing its importance. What matters more in 5G, and what makes news of its successful rollout in the Philippines so exciting, is the vision of a brighter future that it could lead to if telcos, members of different industries, and private individuals can all work together to maximize its potential.
As published in The Manila Times, dated 23 February 2022