Southeast Asia's critical comms sector in focus

With this year’s CCW taking place in Kuala Lumpur, it would be odd if we didn’t turn our focus to Southeast Asia. Sam Fenwick takes a look at the current trends in the region, particularly in Malaysia

Southeast Asia has a well-earned reputation as a region on the rise. While FocusEconomics is expecting growth to “ease slightly this year” due to “lingering trade tensions and moderating growth in China”, the region is still projected to see growth that puts that in Europe and North America to shame (the business intelligence company’s panellists predict growth of 5.1 per cent, 3.6 per cent and 6.6 per cent in 2019 for Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, respectively).

According to a piece written for the IMF by Manu Bhaskaran, CEO of Singapore-based Centennial Asia Advisors, a number of “globally competitive clusters of activity have emerged across the region”, such as on Thailand’s eastern seaboard, now a major petrochemical and automobile manufacturing hub, with the Thai government working to expand the Eastern Economic Corridor. Meanwhile, Malaysia has “the Penang-Kulim corridor and the southern region of Iskandar, which are also globally competitive manufacturing and logistics clusters”.

Bhaskaran adds that governments in Southeast Asia are working hard to cut regulation and tackle corruption, citing Indonesia and Malaysia’s efforts in particular.

He notes that the region does have some challenges, such as a major demographic transition in the form of slowing population growth, while “ageing trends will become more pronounced”. In addition, a report by the Asian Development Bank describes Southeast Asia as being on the front line of climate change and warns that it could cause economic losses of $230bn (or 6.7 per cent of GDP) each year by 2100, while also noting the region’s vulnerability to rising sea levels.

Recent developments
Over in Thailand, Motorola Solutions announced last August that it is deploying a nationwide (up to 95 per cent of the country) TETRA network on behalf of CAT Telecom, operator of Thailand’s telecommunications infrastructure, which will serve more than 200,000 users including government departments, oil and gas companies, transportation operators and other critical organisations. At the time of the announcement, the network was due to be completed at the end of 2019.

Terence Ledger, Sepura’s sales and marketing director (prior to his current role, Ledger was the company’s head of Asia Pacific and for eight years was based in Malaysia), says he is seeing “some of the spending that should have been happening, so refresh of networks etc, being [delayed]”, which is being driven for example by the change of government in Malaysia, and he adds that “there is a heavy focus on cost in that particular part of the region”. He says in Indonesia, “a lot of planned procurements for public safety have been pushed off and there’s just not the money or the budget going around at the moment”.

Olivier Koczan, head of Secure Land Communications at Airbus, adds that Airbus is currently expanding a public safety network in Indonesia. In the Philippines, Airbus delivered a TETRA system to Hanjin Shipyard and has recently re-entered the market and will deliver one to the Solaire Casino resort in Manilla. It is also expanding networks in Thailand and Malaysia. In the case of the latter, the network in question belongs to SMC, an Airbus value-added reseller based in Kuala Lumpur which is also a TETRA (Airbus) operator and service provider, serving transport, utility and industry; SMC is looking to expand its service, using Airbus’s hybrid solution.

Turning to the transport sector, Ledger says: “Singapore is still building MRT lines, there’s probably two more lines that are going to be put out to tender. Bangkok is still building and we’re seeing the regional networks in secondary cities now starting to have new transport networks, particularly in Indonesia and to a certain extent in Malaysia. There is also talk of constructing further metro lines in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. So, [the transport] sector is the strongest for critical comms [in the region] and for high-end digital solutions with people fairly bullish, although it’s a fairly competitive marketplace.”

Airbus’s Koczan says it supplied a TETRA system to Bangkok MEA (Metropolitan Energy Authority) in Thailand, which is used for the MEA’s daily tasks and management of its work fleets. The MEA is planning to upgrade the system with Airbus’s latest TETRA solution so that it can use data-based applications to improve energy efficiency. Airbus’s hybrid solution will be part of this upgrade.

Ledger adds Sepura is “also seeing quite a bit of activity in the oil and gas sector right through Thailand and down into Malaysia, and to a lesser extent along the coast of Vietnam. There are quite good opportunities as people are upgrading the analogue networks on their oil platforms and oil facilities to digital. In Malaysia, there’s the Rapid project, which is a huge area that’s being built to rival other ports nearby (ie, Singapore) for petrochemical shipments and storage, producing a huge demand for critical communications.

“The new Penang LRT, a transport project on an island in Northern Malaysia, has [also] been proposed by the Malaysia government. Also in Malaysia, the East Coast rail link will now go ahead. So, even though there’s been a bit of a stall with the new government coming in, probably in the next 12-18 months some projects will start to be awarded again to telecoms providers for mission-critical infrastructure and devices”.

Steven Hao, deputy general manager at Hytera’s overseas sales central department, says the commercial channel market is more price-sensitive than the public security market in the region, with small businesses mainly still using analogue radios – though more stringent and standardised spectrum planning and management is promoting the adoption of low-end digital radios. In addition, “large-scale vertical industries, such as airports, rail transit and energy, are gradually migrating to digital technology”. He adds that Hytera’s multi-mode terminal PD760 and complete broadband-narrowband convergent communication system, which were released two years ago, are being used in the security departments of several countries in Southeast Asia.

“Customers in this region may be characterised as being price-sensitive, but when you investigate that further you really see that it’s about getting value from their solutions,” says Prabhakar Rajagopal, vice-president and managing director, software and solutions at Motorola Solutions Asia Pacific. “We find that our customers understand the differences of having their technology perform over the full lifecycle and to protect their long-term investments including legacy technologies.”

This sentiment is echoed by Sepura’s Ledger: “People want to buy really good quality products and are prepared to pay a little bit extra for them, but you still need to be sharp on price.”

Looking to the future
Given the amount of focus elsewhere in the world on the transition to mission-critical broadband, it would be odd not to look at the extent to which it is being pursued in the region. Ledger notes that there is some variation between countries – “if you look at the Philippines, they’ve just gone digital with a DMR solution for the police, so they’re still a long way off [from] moving to LTE. Singapore upgraded their Tetrapol network to TETRA and are now looking at a government-sponsored LTE broadband overlay for Singapore itself, but not necessarily integrated.”

“The next big market move we are noticing is toward mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) to offer services on cellular networks,” says Motorola’s Rajagopal. “This is particularly relevant for markets including Singapore, Malaysia, Korea and Japan where services including broadband push-to-talk are being offered on cellular networks.

“We are also actively developing advanced, next-generation technologies to support disaster management. For example, in Indonesia last month we joined a 700MHz frequency trial for disaster relief communications with The Ministry of Communication and Information (Kemkominfo).”

Let the data flow
To what extent are narrowband data applications being used? “With the exception of Singapore, [they’re] probably not being used that much, [TETRA’s data capabilities are] being under-utilised,” says Ledger. “Voice is still king for most of those users. A lot of [them] even in the public safety world don’t like to be tracked by GPS. A lot of these countries are developing, there’s a little bit of mistrust [around] tracking people closely.”

Ledger says one of the biggest barriers to data-based applications is the difficulties involved in sharing information between governmental departments and their separate (and siloed) databases. For example, until recently Malaysia had one department for public transport and one for private transport, which would cause problems when attempting to look up information on their independent databases. “Apart from Singapore, which has a very high level of ICT, the other countries are still coming from a lower level and in about three or four years’ time when they start to invest heavily in databasing and better systems that work between different departments, you’ll then see a stronger push for the use of broadband technologies.”

Mohd Zarif Hashim, chief executive officer of Sapura Research (which is part of Sapura Group) – the network operator of Malaysia’s nationwide TETRA network – the Government Integrated Radio Network (see box) – GIRN – highlights the fact that this problem is not unique to Malaysia, given similar issues in Europe and the US. He says: “Malaysia has its own data privacy act so we need to be mindful of certain things that you can do and certain things that you cannot do. It’s a journey… it will get there, we will need to do education, [build] public awareness and be clear about the standard operating procedures that will be put in place to safeguard privacy and the security of the data; for me it is a change management journey that all countries need to handle.”

Zarif adds that Sapura introduced the use of narrowband data when it first launched the GIRN 10 years ago, but the emphasis on it “is becoming less and less significant” due to the high bandwidth that LTE networks offer.

Dedicated, MVNO or unified?
While we are on the subject of broadband, Zarif says Sapura has spent more than two years looking at and analysing the various different technologies and business models around the use and implementation of mission-critical broadband, and it is now considering 5G as the technology of choice. He explains that there are two main reasons for this: the desire to use the latest technology, and the issue of spectrum. “We will have more influence in how 5G spectrum will be allocated,” he says, before noting the problems involved when trying to influence the use of spectrum in bands that are already in use.

There are three business models currently being considered. The first is a dedicated 5G network for public safety users that would run in parallel with the GIRN; the second is one in which Sapura becomes an MVNO and enables its mission-critical users to roam between all the country’s commercial 5G networks; while the third option is a combined and unified network for both commercial and public safety users that would be built in partnership with all of Malaysia’s mobile network operators.

Zarif explains that in all three options, the GIRN will remain in place, as he expects TETRA to stay relevant over the next 10 years, given Sapura’s belief that 5G will not be able in the immediate future to replace many of TETRA’s features, such as nearly instantaneous call set-up time – “it will take years to prove the technology [on a] 5G network”.

He says another challenge for Sapura and Malaysia’s critical communications community as a whole is seizing the opportunities created by the country’s push towards Industry 4.0 and not lose out to IT and ICT players. Sapura is part of the workgroups working to define smart city technologies, and is providing user agencies with command and control capabilities (including big data and artificial intelligence), and these build upon the TETRA dispatcher that it initially supplied to them.

Earning its keep
Zarif says during the 10 years in which the GIRN has been operational, there have been many incidents that have put its resilience and capacity to the test, and notes that such circumstances are when the public and the government get most value from the network. These have ranged from an incursion by armed militants into the state of Sabah (on the island of Borneo) in 2013, to major flooding some five years ago, when almost half of the east coast of the peninsula was flooded – “despite that, our network was still up and running for many weeks while public telcos were down” – to a major landslide that affected an area where part of the GIRN’s network infrastructure was located, preventing Sapura from accessing it. “We could not physically get to the base stations, but the network survived for more than a week. I was thrilled to see that the network survived in all these major incidents and events,” Zarif says. He attributes this success to the design of the network – “[When we designed the GIRN] we took great care to [ensure that it] is robust and resilient and it has the redundancies to survive in this kind of situation.” In addition, Sapura has trained its staff so they can provide field support to the user agencies.

One challenge that Sapura has is that the rapid rotation of staff within the user agencies – “sometimes as short as six months and on average about every two years”, says Zarif – means it is a struggle to continually upgrade agencies’ competency and knowledge of mission-critical communications. Zarif adds that Sapura initially underestimated the scale of this issue and addresses it through using a three-tiered approach to user accreditation – novice, intermediate and advanced. This allows the operator to monitor the competencies of every user agency using its network.

“After doing that for about 10 years, we are now ready to hand over certain field responsibilities to the user agencies,” says Zarif, giving the deployment of mobile base stations as an example.

Another area of focus for Sapura is reducing its environmental impact – thanks to the falling price of solar panels, it has been able to move away from generator units. “We are powering up some of the sites with solar energy, and to me that’s not only about cost saving but it’s also the right thing to do; [it will give us] a better carbon footprint,” Zarif adds.

Moving away from public safety, Zarif explains that when it comes to future metro projects, Sapura is pushing for the cost of providing the required GIRN/TETRA coverage to be part of the total project cost; so rather than being a separate cost that might appear prohibitive, in reality it is an insignificant fraction of the total outlay.

He adds that in Malaysia, TETRA is the preferred means of communication for metro operators, and Sapura deploys two systems – one that provides GIRN coverage to allow first-responders to communicate if there is an incident in a tunnel or subway, and the other being a parallel network for the operators. In addition, Sapura has been given the task of rolling out fibre and a secure public Wi-Fi network across the whole metro system, in addition to data analytics for enhanced surveillance. It also provides mission-critical communication to on- and offshore oil and gas facilities.

With economic and population growth, together with security concerns driving demand for critical communications and the high number of natural disasters that affect the region, Southeast Asia is clearly a key market for our industry – a position that will likely only become more entrenched as organisations in the region start to embrace mission-critical LTE along with broadband-based applications, and the need for disaster response and recovery increases as the climate crisis unfolds.

How the GIRN came to be
The Government Integrated Radio Network (GIRN), which is operated by Sapura Research, uses some 600 TETRA base stations to serve more than 40,000 public protection and disaster relief (PPDR) users in 16 agencies throughout Malaysia. The initial network roll-out was completed in 2008, using equipment from Hytera Mobilfunk, and the network was later expanded using technology from Teltronic.

Sapura’s Mohd Zarif Hashim says the story of the GIRN began when the national regulator, MCMC, required two-way radio users to migrate from analogue to digital systems. “At that time there were seven government agencies requesting separate individual budgets from our central government [for their own separate radio networks] – there [were] a lot of redundancies in terms of capital, resource allocation.” Sapura then proposed that it build a single unified network that would support all the users, giving each of them their own virtual private network separation. It took two years to persuade the government and the user agencies, but this model was adopted.

The next challenge was the need to roll out the network in the shortest possible time, due to some national security matters. Zarif adds that this was done in two years rather than the three to four that would normally be required for a network of the GIRN’s size, and this speed of deployment was achieved due to an iterative process of planning and implementation. In addition to operating the GIRN, Sapura was given the task of maintaining its technology for 20 years and minimising the risk of obsolescence, which is addressed through a programme of frequent – “almost every year” – small refreshes, rather than one-off changes, and the network has already been updated from circuit switching to IP.