Q&A: How 5G is shaping up in PH, according to PLDT’s Joachim Horn

Gelo Gonzales
5G adoption will be driven first by the enterprise as 5G phones are expected to be too expensive in the early stages

PATH TO 5G. PLDT chief technology advisor Joachim Horn addresses the crowd at the launch of the country’s first 5G City in Clark, Pampanga. All photos by Gelo Gonzales/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – PLDT’s wireless subsidiary Smart made steps towards the Philippines’ 5G future as it rolls out the next-generation wireless technology in Clark, Pampanga, with the first 5G station to be fired up before the end of the year. (READ: PLDT, Smart launch first 5G city in Clark, Pampanga)

Within the next 12 months, 13 existing LTE sites will be upgraded to 5G while 12 new ones will be built, bringing the total to 25 5G sites covering the economic zone. The implementation will make Clark one of the first to experience 5G not just in the country but in the wider Asian region as well. 

Why Clark? The company’s chief technology advisor Joachim Horn cites the area’s innovation mindset and the presence of so many industry verticals as key reasons. “You have the international airport. You have the freeport here. You have the SEA 2019 [sport venues]. There are a lot of residential areas. There will be new transport ways being created. So if you think about use cases, they probably have all the use cases you can think of. The density of use cases and the innovation mindset, together, makes Clark a good opportunity for all of us,” Horn said. 

Essentially, Clark is striving to define what a smart city can be, utilizing technologies to manage traffic, pave the way eventually for self-driving vehicles, boost efficiency in the manufacturing sector, logistics, and warehousing, and make smart home solutions viable. These can be enabled by 5G, which represents a big bandwidth boost akin to building wider highways. (READ: Optimizing the Philippines for 5G with fiber infrastructure)

To explain further, we caught up with Horn who explains why there’s a push for 5G now, why it will be adopted by enterprises first before the end user, and where the Philippines stands relative to the rest of the world.

NETWORK EVOLUTION. Joachim Horn illustrates the evolution to 5G at the PLDT event in Clark announcing its 5G network in the region


Here’s our Q&A with PLDT’s chief tech advisor.

Why are countries racing for 5G?

I think, first and foremost, it’s a race for more speed. If you see what’s happening in 4G at the moment, traffic is exploding. We used to grow 100% per year, but now we’re growing at 150% or even faster, so the capacity gets used up so much faster. So we are now looking for technologies which have much bigger capacities at the same level of investment. And 5G is promising to bring that in addition to the 4G or LTE capacity we have already in place. We will not replace [4G]; we will add on to it. 

Now this is not a short-term thing. Don’t expect next year to be a big roll-out for 5G. It makes no sense because the equipment will not be 100% ready. In particular, the devices, the smartphones will not be available, or if they are available, they will be very expensive still. (READ: Expect 5G smartphone prototype in early 2019 – Huawei executive

Now for us as operators, in order to really benefit from 5G, we need many users using it. The device ecosystem is kind of a chicken-and-egg issue. You need to have the network, but you need to have the devices as well – so what comes first?  

Now, the difference of 5G compared to any technology before is that 5G is particularly suited for enterprise customers. Why? Because we can customize. An enterprise user may see different capabilities tailor-made to their needs – let’s say a real-time need or there’s a mining company that needs more coverage. So while consumers can use the same capabilities, 5G will enable us to work with enterprises in completely different ways than we used to work before. 

'CONSUMER BENEFITS'. A slide shows the potential speed improvement that 5G brings

That’s the reason why we do this here [in Clark]. We’re trying something new, and we need to partner with those who understand the user much better than us. That’s the Clark Development Corporation (CDC) for example. 

How do you think the Philippines is faring in terms of adopting 5G relative to the rest of the world?  

Certainly, we’re in the top 20%. I think there are not many countries who plan to launch anytime soon. If there are launches, they are very limited. We are among those countries that have declared that we are trialing this technology very early. Actually, we are not trialing it. We are putting it to use. We have asked Ericsson, is this mature enough? And they said yes. So let’s do it. So we put it to use. We’ll get feedback, and that feedback will help us to influence our business case for 5G in a much more efficient way. 

So when it comes to a rollout, which will probably start a year from now or so on a larger scale – or maybe two years even – then we know much better what the customer is expecting from us. 

Mainly, it’s going to be enterprise first? 

Yes. But it’s not exclusive. We can also work with consumers. But I think there is not too much benefit over LTE currently, given the device price [of upcoming 5G devices] are just too expensive. (READ: Apple’s 5G iPhone expected in 2020 – report)

But for the enterprise, there may be more attractive applications. And Clark is just a fantastic location to do that because of their innovation approach, and are very receptive. It’s just a great area – everything is growing, everything is innovative. The CDC plan is very captivating. And it’s exactly the environment we need to apply the technology in. This is a very ambitious technology, and I’m very optimistic about it. 

What opportunities does Clark present? 

There are so many industry verticals here. You have the international airport. You have the freeport here. You have the SEA 2019 [sport venues]. There are a lot of residential areas. There will be new transport ways being created. So if you think about use cases, they probably have all the use cases you can think of. The density of use cases and the innovation mindset, together, makes Clark a good opportunity for all of us. 

USE CASES. Clark is a viable region to trial 5G because of the availability of many potential use cases in the area

Are you going to use the learnings here when you implement the technology to the  rest of the country?  

[Clark] will be kind of a reference case on how to do it. And I think it will be a reference case beyond the Philippines. 

Is the 5G scenario similar to the early days of 4G? 

To some extent they are similar because at the beginning, the maturity of the technology is still at a low level, so you have to live with some teething issues. It took many years until the devices are there where they are today. 

Today, you can get a P3000-LTE phone. But for P5,000, you get a decent device; P6,000, you get a very good device. That wasn’t possible even a year ago. But now I think LTE has become the platform for mobile internet. Whoever uses LTE doesn’t want to go back to 3G anymore. That’s the reason why we focus on pushing LTE all over the country. 

PLDT and CDC executives and officers 'fire up' the 5G network in Clark

5G is going to go through similar teething issues. But the complexity becomes a little bigger because of the flexibility of the technology for enterprise customers. So that is new. That’s a big innovation step. So we will need to find out if that works as expected and if the standardization has made the job right. But the good news is we’re not alone. There’s a strong partner like Ericsson, and so many other operators doing the same thing. For example, Docomo, who’s one of our investors, is also trialing the same technology, so we can benefit from this knowledge as well. 

It will take a little bit. Don’t expect a massive rollout a year from now. But 2020, as we’ve always said, I think that’s the time. – Rappler.com

Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.