Central Asia Looking to Introduce 5G Technology in Major Cities
The transition to remote work and the rise of contactless business operations as necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has made clear the integral role of technological change and innovation for handling the significant increase in new users and internet-enabled devices. These technologies will also be critical for speeding up the post-pandemic economic recovery and creating news ways to support businesses, including through faster, more efficient, and secure payment transactions.
One of the most recent technological developments that countries have been competing to introduce are 5G telecommunications networks. In contrast to 4G, 5G could be 100 times faster, characterized by low latency and around 20-30 times more traffic capacity. Once implemented, 5G can provide a wide range of new opportunities, especially in the healthcare infrastructure through virtual diagnosis, remote patient monitoring, and data management. China, for example, has already been able to test 5G-based drones and driverless vans that disinfect the streets, deliver masks and hot meals, and conduct thermal inspections. Wallace Hsu, an analyst at the Market Intelligence & Consulting Institute notes, “the COVID-19 crisis has turned out surprisingly to be a big opportunity for China to quickly test a lot of 5G applications, which no one knew how to use effectively last year before the pandemic”. This has been particularly the case for school and medical institutions, where 5G networks allowed for a smooth transition to online learning and enabled remote medical consultations in more than 100 hospitals.
Considering the abundance of benefits 5G offers, countries in Central Asia have been interested in testing and implementing it. Kazakhtelecom, Kazakhstan’s largest telecommunications company, in partnership with the Ministry of Digital Development, Innovations, and Aerospace Industry designed a 5G roadmap to facilitate the development of the new technology. After Kazakhtelecom and Nokia reached an agreement on joint testing of 5G in the country, the two companies demonstrated the product during the 2019 Astana Economic Forum (AEF). Following the successful exhibition of the network, Askar Zhumagaliev, Minister of Digital Development, Innovations, and Aerospace Industry, announced that Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent, Kazakhstan’s three largest cities, will be the first cities in the country to introduce 5G by 2022. Airports, train stations, and shopping malls will be prioritized. According to Evgeniy Nastradin, CEO of Russian-based Beeline, which also operates in Kazakhstan, 5G “could develop industrial solutions, optimize costs, and automate the production process,” thus bringing increased efficiency and productivity to the work of public and private entities. Installing 5G networks will also bridge the digital divide ensuring internet access to around 97 percent of the population.
Similarly, Uzbekistan is also eager to introduce 5G in the country. During his visit to China, Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev suggested that Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, consider plans to launch 5G networks in Uzbekistan through one of the three national operators, UMS, Uzmobile, or Ucell. Following talks between Huawei and the UMS operator, the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding for a $150 million loan to modernize the technological equipment, the expansion of 3G and 4G networks, and a gradual introduction of new 5G applications. The initiative will stimulate the advancement of communication technologies, promote digitalization, and provide medical and educational institutions with access to internet connectivity. In particular, mountainous areas will benefit from enhanced telecom connectivity.
Tajikistan has also joined its Central Asian neighbors in its efforts to test 5G networks with the Tajik operator Tcell launching its first 5G stations in Dushanbe. According to Ozodkhon Davlatshoev, the CEO of Tcell, the company will set up free test centers where the consumers could try out the 5G-based devices. He further noted that the initial 5G-based appliances will be expensive and “the full commercialization of the product will take at least three to five years”. While 5G is all new to the country, Tcell’s investment in fibre infrastructure will likely promote its gradual implementation that will engender long-term economic benefits.
While it will take time to fully deploy 5G networks, it is a positive sign that Central Asian countries are already taking steps to attract necessary investment in the research and testing of this new technology. As the case with the 5G-based drones and vans in China illustrates, operationalization of 5G can significantly assist medical and educational infrastructure during the current health crisis and in the aftermath of the pandemic. Cooperation between local and international tech companies, as demonstrated in the examples from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, is also crucial for speeding up the process of digitalization across industries, including in agriculture, energy, and finance. Successful implementation of 5G networks in the region will also increase connectivity, help businesses in a post-pandemic recovery, and create new venues for further technological change and innovation.