Progressing with 5GWe cannot overlook the emerging next generation technology.
The bandwidth speed and the network capacity of wireless cellular technology have increased with each successive generation. The 4G technology that most of us nowadays use can cater up to 100 Mbps of data depending on the available spectrum, while its previous avatar, 3G, only promises a maximum speed of 14 Mbps. Lately, 5G has emerged as the fastest next-generation technology. There is a new revolution in the data business after the introduction of 5G, enabling a new network to connect virtually everyone, including machines, objects and devices. The supply chain of 5G technology is expected to positively impact the global economy. However, the importance of 5G is overlooked in Nepal.
Wireless service providers in Nepal offer 2G, 3G and 4G services. As per the Nepal Telecommunications Authority, 4G user penetration is 55 percent, while 3G has 22 percent as of mid-April 2023, out of the total wireless telephony penetration of 123 percent. Despite claims of widespread coverage throughout Nepal, some areas still lack telecom services. In Kathmandu Valley and other major cities, 4G service is inadequate to meet public demand. In terms of data service, a significant area is still out of coverage owing to insufficient cable or fibre connectivity.
Nepal continues to rely on 4G even as countries globally have already rolled out 5G network. 5G wireless technology is meant to deliver higher multi-Gbps peak data speeds and ultra-low latency, i.e. processing a huge volume of data with an extremely low tolerance for delay, more reliability, massive network capacity, increased availability and a more uniform user experience to more users. With these features, 5G will expand the mobile ecosystem into new realms impacting every industry, safer transportation, remote healthcare, precision agriculture and digitised logistics and bringing many other solutions into reality.
During the first quarter of 2023, total 5G subscriptions reached 1.1 billion, and this figure is estimated to reach 1.5 billion by the end of 2023. Service providers worldwide continue to deploy 5G with about 240 commercial networks so far, of which 35 have deployed or launched 5G Standalone (SA). Likewise, it is expected that by the end of 2028, the 5G subscriptions will reach 4.6 billion, and it will become the dominant mobile access technology by subscriptions that year. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU)—a United Nations specialised agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs)—has specified IMT-2020 standard for 5G requirements of 20 Gb/s for downlink peak data rate and 10Gb/s for uplink peak data rate. Likewise, the user experience is expected to reach 100 Mb/s for downlink data rate and 50 Mb/s for uplink data rate.
The 6G research journey is already underway and is expected to become available early in the 2030s, although it is too early yet to define a detailed roadmap. Research into new technology areas is ongoing with the evolution of 5G. Learnings from live 5G networks and interactions with the user ecosystems will continuously feed into the research, standardisation and development of 6G. While 6G will build on the strengths of 5G, it is expected to provide entirely new technology solutions.
The quality of 4G for voice and broadband is currently declining as reflected on the latest report on mobile service quality of the Nepal Telecommunication Authority. The “drive tests”, which assessed the voice and data service of the mobile operators, failed to meet the prescribed parameters set by the regulator. This is perhaps due to the lack of necessary infrastructures like towers, optical fibre, power and bandwidth, among others.
It has been six years since the introduction of 4G, yet the network still lacks full coverage and better quality when the next generation 5G network has already been rolled out in most countries as a new and advanced technology. 5G looks like a distant dream as Nepal Telecom had initially planned to kick off 5G trials in mid-July 2021. Having finally been granted a testing permit with 60MHz of frequencies in the 2600MHz band, the trail is still in peril. Ncell has yet to get permission to conduct a 5G trial due to legal and procedural constraints regarding frequency allotment. Even if the frequency is allotted to the operators, it may take more than a year to commercially lunch the service. Additionally, the lack of a national strategic implementation plan from the government or operators is a crucial barrier to 5G rollout. The focus on expanding wireless networks, mainly in urban areas, has left most remote areas uncovered, widening the digital divide.
Operators should pay immediate attention to providing seamless coverage and better quality of service through faster expansion of 4G network. This should be done without any contention to help bridge the digital divide. The regulator should facilitate infrastructure sharing, including fibre connectivity throughout the country, as the infrastructure sharing guideline issued by the NTA has not worked effectively so far. This would help operators reduce costs by sharing the infrastructure, and the ultimate benefit could be passed on to the customers. The government should immediately release programmes that are part of the Digital Nepal Framework, such as the wider Optical Fiber Backbone Network Expansion Project and the Mid Hill Highway project to connect all district headquarters supported under the Rural Telecommunications Development Fund.
Meanwhile, there is no overlooking 5G, as neighbouring India and China are already progressing with it. Circa 2030 is a reasonable time frame to expect the very first 6G networks to appear; it will take a couple of years for it to be available for countries like ours. We can’t hang on with 4G LTE technology network to that extent. Thus, we should not lag behind the advanced wireless technology as new and additional services from 5G are tremendously inevitable.