With 3G gone, whither Malaysia's basic mobile network services?

  • Malaysia's Jendela roadmap calls for 3G network shutdown in favour of upgrades
  • Industry needs to proceed cautiously as 3G is still integral part of data services

With 3G gone, whither Malaysia's basic mobile network services?

THE Malaysian government's telecommunication infrastructure roadmap will be dictated by a new plan known as Jalinan Digital Negara (Jendela), which was launched by the prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin on August 29, 2020.

The national digital infrastructure programme is expected to be implemented under the 12th Malaysia Plan (2021–2025) and will lay the foundation for comprehensive and high-quality broadband coverage facilities as well as prepare the country for the transition towards 5G technology, the prime minister noted. 

"Jendela will be implemented through several phases. Phase 1 which runs from now involves an expansion of 4G mobile broadband coverage from 91.8% to 96.8% in populated areas. 

"Besides that, mobile broadband speed will also be increased from 25Mbps to 35Mbps, in the process enabling 7.5 million premises to have access to gigabyte speed fixed-line broadband coverage,” the prime minister had told local media.

Industry regulator, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), told Digital News Asia (DNA) in a statement that it had undertaken a “laboratory-based” approach to drawing up Jendela, which involved multiple government agencies and key service providers from July 17 to August 14.

With 3G gone, whither Malaysia's basic mobile network services?

The outcome of this session is a five-point action plan, namely:

  1. Optimising existing resources (spectrum and fibre);
  2. Increasing coverage at a faster pace;
  3. Increasing speeds over optimal use of spectrum;
  4. Increasing quality of service; and
  5. Improving infrastructure capacity at a faster pace.

Complete details of Jendela can be found here. The MCMC said although the lab has ended, follow up work is being actively pursued such as the detailing of the exact technical requirements and sites for the improvement of the infrastructure.

Jendela will have two major milestones. The first one, known as Phase One, will span 2020 to 2021, whilst Phase Two will begin from 2022. The MCMC noted that Phase One initiative will comprise six "quick-win" projects and two "mid-term" projects.

RELATED STORY: Malaysia's 5G spectrum conundrum: A blessing in disguise?

What is sunsetting?

While many of the project targets relate to upgrading and construction work, one key quick-win project has largely gone unnoticed – the “sunset of 3G” network and migration 3G spectrum for 4G technology use by December 2021. In effect, this means the turning off of 3G radio infrastructure so that its spectra could be refarmed for 4G use, which is to happen in approximately 15 months from now.

In DNA's Telco Deep Dive 2017, one of the major issues discussed was spectrum refarming – the vacating of dated wireless technology occupying a particular frequency band so that a new wireless technology can use that frequency band to improve telco services to consumers.

All major operators did refarm their respective spectra and reduce their usage of their 900MHz and 1800MHz bands to make way for LTE/ 4G services in those same bands. This enabled better coverage and indoor penetration compared to operating 4G in the higher 2,600MHz band. 

DNA also explained that at the time, operators embarking on spectrum refarming cannot completely clear out all 2G spectrum as there is still a large community of consumers using 2G for basic telephony services. As such, operators would need to keep the minimum of 2 X 5MHz for this use.

Similarly, the move to completely turn off 3G spectrum by December 2021 would represent a huge challenge for operators for a host of reasons because 3G technology is still being widely used in Malaysia.

3G shutdown worries

The move by MCMC to mandate the sunset of 3G infrastructure has caused some consternation amongst some industry insiders DNA spoke to anonymously due to the sensitive nature of the issue.

While several industry senior executives involved in technical and regulatory issues DNA spoke to were generally in agreement with what the government and MCMC have laid out so far in the Jendela plan, not all are happy with the 3G sunset plan.

"Covid-19 has really thrown the spanner in the works, and it has forced the telco industry to support unprecedented work from home / learn from home scenarios, which no operator in Malaysia has a playbook for," said one senior executive familiar with regulatory issues.

"It's probably for the best, since the business model and use cases for 5G is still somewhat unclear. So delaying 5G till later may be fortuitous," said another senior technical executive.

However, the worry isn't so much the delay of 5G but the shutting of 3G by end 2021, the technical executive added.

The technical executive explained, "Operators worldwide had been considering shutting off 3G and refarming the spectrum for 4G, so that is not the issue. "What's in contention is the timetable in which to do so, which was supposed to be in operators' control. The government mandating a 2021 deadline makes it extremely challenging for us, as many of us were considering only doing it by 2022/2023."

With 3G gone, whither Malaysia's basic mobile network services?

The VoLTE challenge

There are few key issues that must be addressed if the sunset of 3G networks were to happen. The first pertains to the use of voice over LTE (VoLTE) to replace circuit-switch fallback (CSFB).

For many years now, a voice call is switched-back to 3G networks for that call to be connected whenever a user makes a call in a 4G coverage area. This process is known as CSFB. With the introduction of 4G, a new kind of process called VoLTE  is used to carry voice calls, where voice calls are made into 'packets' and transmitted as data just as how data traverses through the Internet. 

While 4G technology supports VoLTE,  not all operators have implemented this. Amongst those that have, not all of it is consistently deployed through the entire mobile network. The reason?

VoLTE is not only dependent on network parameters but also handset requirements. Additionally, ongoing calls originating on VoLTE will also need to be handed over to 3G when mobile users move out of 4G coverage. This is why legacy 3G networks are being maintained in most countries, as VoLTE coverage and capabilities have not yet reached the same functionality matching that of 3G. 

According to the GSM Association (GSMA), a global body representing over 700 operators worldwide, the implementation of VoLTE can be associated with many technical challenges as essentially, VoLTE is a data service.

In its report called Legacy mobile network rationalisation: Experiences of 2G and 3G migrations in Asia-Pacific, the GSMA noted that in contrast to typical best effort Internet data traffic that can be reduced if the link is of low quality, VoLTE requires a guaranteed data rate.

"The network responds to these situations by allocating more capacity resources to the VoLTE call, which may cause the overall quality of the network to degrade."

Furthermore, the GSMA noted that VoLTE may require substantial investment in the core network and many functionalities in the core have to undergo extensive optimisation and trials before service launch. 

"Given the declining voice revenues and the associated challenges and investments, many operators do not see the benefit of an early VoLTE deployment."

The M2M challenge

With 3G gone, whither Malaysia's basic mobile network services?

Another challenging issue facing operators is the widely-adopted machine-to-machine (M2M) legacy connections that are in existence, said the technical executive. 

M2M devices are embedded communication devices that service sectors such as truck fleet management, smart metering, credit card payment terminals, medical emergency or intruder alarm monitoring, to name a few. These devices communicate with other devices, databases and servers, often using the older 3G mobile network.

"There are literally thousands of those kinds of devices out there and the obvious solution is to replace them to support 4G," argued the technical executive. "The question is who is going to bear the cost of migration and is doing this by end-2021 holistically achievable?

"Also, coordinating such a massive effort would take tremendous human resources and pinpoint scheduling. Doing this by December 2021 is trying, to say the least."

Besides M2M connections, other factors that the GSMA said may come into play include contiguous 4G coverage and smartphone penetration/ affordability.

The Association added that while smartphone affordability may not be a major concern in high-income Asia Pacific markets such as Singapore and Australia, it still does affect some customer segments.

"Many budget smartphones still offered in the market today only support 3G or 4G data without VoLTE," it said. "These are either purchased for affordability reasons or by subscribers seeking less functionality, such as elderly people." 

Lessons learnt from other markets

With 3G gone, whither Malaysia's basic mobile network services?

In the same report, the GSMA said decisions to sunset older technology such as 3G are invariably driven by operators, with differing degrees of involvement by regulatory authorities and that consumer protection is typically the paramount concern of regulators.

The Association noted that a smooth migration process depends on careful planning of a transitional period, obtaining regulatory approval where necessary, and above all ensuring effective customer engagement. 

Potential brand damage could also happen if the operator leaves particular segments of society without coverage, increases costs to consumers or disconnects large numbers of M2M connections for business customers, it added.

Based on the experience of the case study markets best practice approaches encompass several key characteristics, the GSMA recommends:

  • A transitional period of around three years, with preparations commencing earlier than formal public announcements;
  • Coverage of any new technology that matches what was previously offered;
  • A reasonable formal notice period, given specific market circumstances and potential obligations;
  • A well-designed campaign involving direct targeting of affected customers, possibly assisted by the regulator; 
  • Upgrade incentives for customers, including comparably priced plans, and handset recycling initiatives as part of any 3G switch-off ; and 
  • A quality of service that is maintained during and after the transition.

The GSMA also warned that if the transition is not handled well, operators' risks include customer churn, particularly when operators do not switch-off their networks at the same pace. There is also the possibility of reduced coverage, particularly if the new technology operates in a frequency band that does not provide adequate indoor coverage.

Confusion over such matters have caused even the most advanced of network operators and its consumers therein to be disgruntled, as was the case with AT&T when it did so.

Whatever the case, the MCMC will need to work alongside all operators and those directly involved with the sunsetting of 3G networks.

"Successful network switch-off projects typically involve a collaboration between operators and regulators to achieve the optimal outcome in terms of modernising old networks and ensuring improved quality of service for consumers," the GSMA concluded.

 

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