dtac’s 5G journey to deliver high-speed internet for all

dtac pioneered industry use cases on 26GHz 5G, developing solutions for smart farming, logistics, energy management and many more. Since it acquired a license for the 700 MHz band on 24 December 2020, dtac has also been ramping up the rollout of its low-band network to bring high-speed internet to customers across Thailand. As the mobile operator continues to expand its network to boost its customers’ mobile experience and introduces 5G services in major cities, we spoke to the people behind the scenes to learn more about dtac’s strategy to deliver high-speed internet for all and the commercial launch of dtac 5G..

The Coverage Layer

“Low-band spectrum covers a wide area. It is perfect to bring additional coverage to rural and indoor areas. Taking into account the benefits of 700 MHz, dtac decided to use this spectrum to expand its 4G services across the country and develop 5G services in high-traffic areas,” Dr. Ukrit Salyapongs, Head of Commercial Strategy, Planning and Insights, dtac, said.

dtac also designs its 5G network expansion strategy based on predictive analytics, which look into customers’ behaviors and past trends including smartphone replacement cycle, user demographics, and usage location. The mobile operator forecasts that in Thailand more than 6 million existing smartphones in the market will be replaced by 5G-compatible devices within a year.

“In the 5G game, dtac prioritizes customers’ usage needs and their devices. Customer-data analyses show that most 5G-compatible devices are used in urban areas where purchasing power is high. So, in February, we introduced our 5G service to Bangkok and five major provinces, namely Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, Nakhon Ratchasima, Surat Thani and Phuket,” he explained. “And we just expanded it to another three provinces, Chonburi, Rayong, and Ubon Ratchathani.”

Good for All

The first phase of 5G development takes place in the form of 5G NSA (non-standalone), where the 5G service is delivered in conjunction with the existing 4G network. dtac has mainly chosen to install 5G transmitters at base stations whose coverage area has had a high concentration of 5G-compatible devices. After base stations are identified, dtac will work to determine proper parameters for signal stability.

In developing a working model for targeted 5G coverage areas, the planning process requires a close collaboration between dtac and manufacturers of 5G-signal transmitters to ensure comprehensive coverage and the delivery of continuous services in targeted areas. In addition, dtac works closely with smartphone manufacturers to ensure that their mobile devices can function smoothly on dtac network.

“On top of our network plan, we have implemented a strategy to prioritize customers’ signal connections. The strategy is critical to guarantee the best experience possible for customers as today people are on different devices, which may or may not be 5G compatible. We conduct tests with both signal transmitters and smartphone manufacturers. These tests are conducted in laboratories before being done in real environments to determine the most appropriate parameters for uninterrupted connectivity. Once the test results are satisfactory, the services can be switched on.,” Samak Simpa, Head of Network Services at dtac, said.

To deliver the best experience to its customers, dtac has deployed Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) together with 700 MHz to enable customers to access either 5G or 4G depending on their device. This ensures that dtac’s network upgrades benefit all users equally, no matter which technology they are using.

Where it All Started

“In January 2021, dtac chose Klongthom as its first 5G pilot area because it comes with several technical challenges. Not only its usage demand is high, but the area represents Bangkok’s typical characteristics, including high-rise buildings and traffic jams. It is a perfect area for testing our mobility strategy to pilot our 5G service launch,” Mr. Samak explained.

Technical teams found that the parameters obtained from the drive tests did not function well in the real environment because the actual service areas were much larger. There were also difficulties in fine-tuning the 5G network and smartphone devices to be compatible. The team learned a lot from the pilot and found ideal settings for a smooth-running 5G network.

“5G development is like running a marathon. We are just in the early stages so there is some trial and error. But dtac is confident that our firm commitment to constantly investing in and developing 5G service will deliver the best experience to customers,” Mr. Samak said.

Sustainable Network

At the end of Q221, approximately 9,100 nodes of 700 MHz network on Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) technology were installed. As of Q221, a total of approximately 20,900 nodes of 4G-2300 MHz network were installed, further supporting network capacity expansion. In addition to the customer experience improvement, the installations in those areas are going smoothly, but there’s more to it than just quantity.

“Responsible business is a key principle for our business operations at every level. This principle also addresses good governance and the safety of our employees and those working on behalf of dtac. Our customers therefore can rest assured that we consistently strive to raise standards when it comes to human rights, anti-corruption, and that we are firmly committed to minimizing accidents at work,” Thongchai Kwanphut, Head of Network Operations, said.

dtac has set a target of Zero Incident for its employees and subcontractors, including 80 technicians working at heights. They must follow strict health and safety guidelines to ensure optimal safety throughout dtac’s entire network supply chain.

Faster Transition to 5G

There are now 60 smartphone models from nine brands in the Thai market that are compatible with 700 MHz 5G. And there will be several new models launching in the near future.” Peerapol Chatanantavej, Head of Device Portfolio at dtac, said.

Transitions between mobile generations are becoming increasingly shorter. It took about five years for Thailand to shift from 3G to 4G, in which the transition duration is assessed by measuring the time between the launch of the first 4G-compatible smartphone and the launch of the cheapest 4G-compatible model with a price lower than 4,000 baht. Regarding 5G NSA, the shift will be even faster – very likely taking three and a half years to four years.

This is largely driven by mass smartphone manufacturers like Samsung, Oppo, ViVo, Xiaomi, and Realme, who have been launching newer 5G-compatible models at increasingly lower prices. The price for the most affordable 5G-compatible models is expected to come down to between 3,000 and 5,000 baht in the near future, while the cheapest model existing in the market now costs only 6,990 baht.

“The transition will be complete when more affordable 5G-compatible models are launched in the market. How long this takes depends on the global ecosystem, which consists of service providers, smartphone manufacturers, and chipset manufacturers,” Mr. Peerapol said.

In parallel to the launch of commercial 5G services, dtac business is also continuing the development of industry use cases which deliver superlative security and reliability on 26 GHz. dtac recently launched its first 5G private network using edge computing with Amazon Web Services (AWS), robotics solutions with ABB and IoT-based smart energy management solutions with ASEFA. Together, 5G commercial and industry applications are expected to accelerate Thailand’s digital transformation and help the economy bounce back sooner. Although, as Mr. Samak cautioned, it may be more of a marathon than a sprint.