How’s life in the Hong Kong Science Park? I know that for several years, you have heeded the call of the government to develop smart city related technology and solutions, to help realize Hong Kong’s vision to become a smart city. We have talked a lot about the problems you and other young companies in Hong Kong face — lack of talents, the government’s rigid procurement policies, outdated laws and backward open data policies.
Before I can tell you when the Chief Executive will be able to fulfill her Policy Address promises to tackle these problems, I am sorry to inform you that you may soon face yet another obstacle.
For many years, Hong Kong has taken pride in our telecommunications infrastructure, especially our mobile services. Hong Kong was among the first in the world to provide 3G and 4G services. But, as other countries and regions are eagerly preparing for their 5G service launch, Hong Kong is in danger of falling behind, and even when services will become available, for the first few years, we may not be able to attain universal coverage of 5G.
As you well know, 5G services are not just about higher speed of access and downloads. It is a key enabler for many and indeed most of the targets that our government’s innovation and technology policies is trying to reach — smart transport through connected cars and road surveillance, smart healthcare through telemedicine, smart manufacturing, and Internet of things through smart sensors placed all around town, just to name a few.
What are our competitors doing? Well, South Korea showcased its 5G services in the Winter Olympics earlier this year, and the United States has set a target for first commercial launch within this year. Others like Japan, Australia, Canada and our own China Mainland are aiming at commercial service launch by 2020.
But, did you know that even as recently as last year, when I questioned the Office of the Communications Authority (OFCA) in the Legislative Council, OFCA told me that they would not determine on the final spectrum allocation — that is, which frequency bands would be used to provide our 5G services, and hence be set aside for auction — until 2020, because the International Telecommunications Union would only by then formally finalize the spectrum selection. Our government officials even claimed that no equipment vendor will provide equipment until that time.
We in the industry know of course that is not true. After we pressured the government with the telecommunications industry, our telecom regulator actually quietly and slightly expedited their timetable, only launching a consultation in May on the use of the 3.5GHz band for 5G. Around that time, the United Kingdom is already preparing for their auction of this band, which was completed two months ago in April. So, for Hong Kong, any auction for this spectrum will not happen until late 2019, with spectrum assignment date being fixed for April 2020. That set us behind the UK and South Korea for almost two years.
Yet, OFCA maintained that Hong Kong is still “at the forefront” of 5G service launch in the world. To make that claim, they mix up the facts on two fronts. First, spectrum allocation in 2020 does not mean service launch in 2020. It is easy to understand that any company winning an auction would need at least one to two years to build and test their network. It is just the same as the fact that after you win a land auction, you still need time to build your building before the flats can be sold. And that is exactly why other countries are auctioning their spectrum this year — 2018 — in order for services to be reliably launched in 2020 or earlier.
The other misleading point raised by our regulator is over the differences between the so-called lower frequency spectrum of the 3.5GHz band, versus the higher frequency spectrum of 26 and 28GHz bands. The government plans to make up for the delay in the 3.5GHz auction by saying that the 26 and 28 GHz bands will be in abundance and can be made available for auction by as earlier as early next year, and then we will have no problem in 5G spectrum supply.
Well, we engineers do at least understand some secondary school physics, and we know that not all frequency bands are equal in their physical characteristics. For instance, the higher the frequency, like for the 26 and 28 GHz band, the range of distance that can be covered will be shorter, down to around 100 meters, and the penetration power will be much lower than the lower frequency band like the 3.5GHz band. That means, if only the 26 and 28 GHz bands are available at first, our telecom companies will have to take a lot more time to build hundreds of times of more base stations around Hong Kong, at ultra close range, and yet those 5G signals may not be able to penetrate concrete walls of our buildings, rendering our initial 5G services to be an outdoor faster Wi-Fi kind of service only! You may not even use it indoor!
That’s why the industry insists that lower frequency bands must also be available for full and effective 5G services, and only gradually transitioning to higher frequency bands. That is what the regulators in the rest of the world seem to agree and are acting on, except Hong Kong.
Well, we knew from years ago that because the 3.5GHz band had been currently occupied and used by satellite operators, and we told the regulator that they must plan our spectrum usage in advance with foresight. Well, instead, they were only finalizing the consultation last month in May. So much for foresight and being in the forefront. Our competitors and even the Mainland had issued directives to vacate these spectrums previously used for other purposes long ago but we are only doing it now. Why the delay? I have no idea.
The worst part of it is that because these satellite stations are currently in Taipo and Stanley, to avoid interference, two huge restricted zones without 3.5GHz 5G services at initial launch will exist in Tai Po, Ma On Shan, and parts of Fanling, Shatin, Sai Kung, as well as Stanley on Hong Kong Island, much like a “5G Twilight Zone.” The government has confirmed to me that these regions cover over at least 740,000 residents, and many more technology developers and engineers like you, John, working in the Science Park or the Chinese University of Hong Kong. So much for those 5G technology labs being planned in our flagship technology region, where our government has invested billions of dollars to conduct leading edge R&D. Just no 5G.
At an industry forum earlier this month, major telecom players unanimously urged the government to speed up the assignment of the 3.5GHz band, and explore technical measures to reduce the size of the 5G restricted zone, to avoid this 5G planning fiasco from getting worse.
Unfortunately, our government officials still stick to its “line-to-take” attitude, denying any problems in spite of scientific facts and clear regulatory comparison with other jurisdictions. We engineers just want to help them, help ourselves and help Hong Kong solve the problem. This is a matter of ultimate public interest. But, what can we do when we face a bureaucracy that wouldn’t listen?
The industry and technology community must continue to state the facts and urge the regulator to speed up the process of bringing the 3.5 GHz to the 5G market. The regulator must stop denying and sit down with the telecom industry and other government departments in good faith to find a solution to deal with the interference issue, including moving these satellite stations eventually but quickly to lesser populated areas. That is the only way for Hong Kong to catch up.