As Southeast Asian economies suffer from the impact of COVID-19, technological solutions are in demand. The standstill is killing some enterprises and causing extreme hardship for others. From multinationals to startups and SMEs, everyone is feeling the effect of movement restrictions, consumer frugality and supply issues. 

Working from home, online learning, and the constant demand for entertainment has led to massive, unprecedented pressure on the internet infrastructure and a higher demand for stable and fast WiFi. Enter 5G. The new kid on the block has caused quite the stir with some viewing it as a saviour and others as a big risk. But what impact will it have on the industry globally and locally? What’s happening with 5G in Southeast Asian startups? 

We take a look at the emerging trends in the region to see how 5G and COVID-19 are moulding the future. 

5G in Southeast Asia

For many years, our devices have been running on a 4G or fourth-generation network, but for the past few years, many telecommunication service providers have been making strides towards the next level – 5G. This fifth iteration of the internet promises higher download and upload speeds, increased capacity, less lag and more stability, but it has had a controversial start to life. Conspiracy theories and scientific concerns have many questioning the safety of the technology. 

Additionally, some countries have concerns about allowing Chinese firm Huawei to provide this technology due to different geoeconomic and geostrategic factors. To lock out Huawei, Vietnam is developing its domestic 5G technology with Viettel Group, while on the other hand, Malaysia’s Maxis Bhd is collaborating with Huawei to speed up the implementation of 5G. Singapore has welcomed Huawei to open an AI lab to test 5G applications. 

Irrespective of these varying opinions and different strategies, one thing is clear– 5G is already here. Cambodia and the Philippines were the first Southeast Asian countries to dip their toes into the tech, with Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand not far behind, while Singapore expects to have service on most of the Island by 2022

With startups in the region fighting for economic survival, now might be the time for them to embrace the benefits of 5G.

person holding black phone

The impact of 5G on business

The startup industry requires reliable telecommunications infrastructures to survive the pandemic. COVID-19 is forcing a restructuring of work methods to allow staff to work from home. Therefore, all communications and meetings are happening remotely, with Zoom meetings, WhatsApp groups and management software like Slack and Asana, becoming the new normal. 

These tools rely on the internet, and if it is unstable, slow or overwhelmed, it can cost valuable time and money at an already precarious juncture in our economic history. Logistical nightmares, delays in manufacturing, and a drop in consumer spending are not entirely avoidable. Still, with access to 5G networks, companies can somewhat mitigate economic disasters. 

Emerging trends in Southeast Asia

Before the gears of commerce grounded to a halt, there was great excitement about how 5G would revolutionise business in the developing ASEAN countries. With estimated speeds anywhere between 20 and 1,000 times faster than its predecessor, anticipation about the endless possibilities for the development of the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence and advancements in robotics had startups dreaming big. 

The virus may have slowed many businesses down, but the rollout of 5G is continuing apace, despite some supply issues. Countries realise that the post-pandemic future requires infinitely more reliable online services. 

The following areas are some that are growing, amidst this pandemic, thanks to 5G:

Data gathering

Gathering data and analysing patterns allows companies manoeuvre into better positions for sales. Gleaning and collating this information is time-consuming, but 5G speeds up this process. Issues like laggy load times that discourage customers from filling in their details, and slow data capture, will be a thing of the past. 

Automation 

Automation allows staff redeployment and increases efficiency by speeding up business processes and eliminating mundane tasks. 5G is spawning connectivity between objects enabling faster, more thorough automation. Enhancements in the functionality of AI Autobots on websites support the completion of tasks to a higher level of consumer satisfaction. 

Healthtech

The expanded usage of health apps, diagnostic technology and online medical services during the pandemic, demonstrates that this sector is necessary, particularly in Southeast Asia. Increased internet access through mobile phones, even in remote communities, allows the dissemination of critical healthcare information and provision of services more effectively. With 5G enhancing speed, reach and reliability of communications in what may sometimes be a matter of life and death, it could fundamentally impact the wellbeing of millions. 

Edtech

Before COVID-19, edtech was a growing industry focussing on supplementing classroom learning or offering an alternative for those requiring remote education. Schools and college shutdowns changed this, allowing edtech startups to come into their own. Watching a two-hour lecture or interacting with 30 classmates online requires massive bandwidth and patience with outages and lag. With 5G, edtech has the potential to radically change the face of education, making it much more accessible to all. 

As the world reawakens from its virus-induced slumber, many new ideas and businesses will be born. Industry 4.0 will have a further impetus, and governments will be seeking ways to rejuvenate their recession-hit economies. 5G will be a part of this brave new world, but maybe, despite the fears, it will change the world positively. 

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