Dr Steffen Oehler is the Chief Executive Officer of Unified National Networks (UNN), which is in charge of the 5G rollout in Brunei. In this opinion article, he offers his personal viewpoint on some issues raised in previous Verdict reporting on the advent of 5G in Malaysia and the nation of Brunei (also known as Brunei Darussalam). At Verdict we are always glad to engage in a dialogue with our readers and people and organisations we report on, and we are happy to offer Dr Oehler this chance to put his point of view.

Dr Oehler writes:

It is with interest that I read your article Malaysia and Brunei nationalise their 5G networks that was published on 31 August 2021 about the 5G development in ASEAN. However, it needs to be pointed out that the main conclusions drawn in the article related to UNN and 5G in Brunei Darussalam are based on completely outdated information and misleading judgements.

To touch the point of delayed 5G adoption in the article, such statements should be based on a more thorough assessment and not only on popular headlines. As the article referenced me by name, I’m compelled to make the following corrections which should be published in full to provide your readers with the full facts and insights that they deserve.

Brunei Darussalam in no way is playing catch-up on 5G deployment and that can be proven by facts. UNN has started the physical rollout of a truly unified Single RAN network in September 2020, one year after taking over the operational responsibility of the networks. And this is not really slow considering strategy formulation, planning and design, procurement and equipment delivery to the country.

So far UNN has modernized 54% of all base stations (including fibre backhaul) in a period of 12 months, so that by the end of August 2021 65% of the population is covered. The base case is to provide four carriers for 3G and up to five 20MHz carriers for 4G. The Single RAN network is 5G ready now without any additional deployment. The commercial start of the 5G services is a decision to be made by the Telco industry Ecosystem, not by UNN alone.

The 5G network in Brunei was launched in a Proof of Concept (POC) mode in April 2020, supported by the national regulatory authority AITI and the Ministry of Transport and Infocommunication (MTIC), and is providing limited coverage in selected hot-spots for the past 16 months, allowing to showcase 5G and providing 5G service to the Lab of the University of Brunei Darussalam (UBD). In parallel a national 5G taskforce was formed spearheaded by AITI to ensure the broad participation of all national stakeholders to identify 5G use cases and regulatory requirements. This was widely published in the national press.

Indeed, the investments required to deploy 5G on a national scale are significant and are targeting Radio Access, densification of the network, fibre backhaul and transport network. In addition, significant investments have to be considered in the core network infrastructure, including Cloud. These need to be based on the commercial use cases that will determine, which of the core capabilities of Stand Alone (SA) 5G networks to focus on. However, that has not prevented UNN to initiate the rollout of the 5G ready Radio Access Network, considering the available spectrum and the Spectrum Strategy of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority AITI.

The main consideration for UNN was not only to identify the base case for a 5G return on invest, but more importantly that the investments have targeted to create an excellent national 4G / 3G network with leading capacity, IoT capabilities and extending coverage to serve the needs as they are today which cannot wait for the 5G of tomorrow. This also in the perspective of limited penetration of 5G devices, including IoT, and limited non MBB use cases. And this strategy is paying off, as can be seen in the ranking of Brunei Darussalam in ASEAN related to the speed of the mobile network. Brunei Darussalam is now the number two after Singapore

The facts and figures explained above should form the basis to revert to the topic of the article in a broader sense. The option of “Build one network, used by all” has a special charm for Brunei Darussalam considering the geography, small population size and specifics of local industries, as the approach previously of “it’s my network” was not translating into a dynamic market and recognizable service value propositions.

For Brunei Darussalam, this is a promising development, focussed on the real customer demand, customer experience and future untapped opportunities arising in combining connectivity, IoT, Cloud and Smart “Everything” to form value propositions based on economies of scale.

No doubt the Bruneian market shall be driven by competition, where the retail part of the telco Ecosystem is based on a level playing field for Imagine, DST and Progresif, all successors of the previous vertical operators Telbru, DST and Progresif. To indicate, that this could have an impact on the competitive dynamics of the market without considering the facts is a bit careless, so let’s speak about the facts and figures for the telecoms market in Brunei Darussalam.

Until September 2019 the market was clearly segregated, one mobile operator offering 2G/3G/4G services, the other mobile operator 3G only and an effectively monopolist providing connectivity, fixed broadband and fixed voice services. UNN taking over the operational responsibility in September 2019 focussed initially on establishing a level playing field in place for the retail part of the industry. By end of January 2020, five months later, the retail market emerged fully competitive, effectively with three retail service companies now each offering fixed broadband and voice, corporate connectivity and 3G/4G mobile services to the national market. This powered by UNNs infrastructure and services provided on a non-discriminatory base. The 2G network by the way was switched off June this year to maximise the spectrum usage.

The approach taken in Brunei Darussalam is reducing capital expenditures in the network in the mid- term, however with a heavy front load of investments to truly create a unified national network with leading technology, future proof capacity in mobile and fixed networks and rollout of coverage in very sparsely populated rural areas. For a country of less than half a million inhabitants, it is hard to see any other cost-effective approach.

This is all about technology, however, it is more important to focus on what happened in the retail market. There are a few key telecom market indicators that illustrate the telco industry transformation in Brunei Darussalam that underpins its national digitalization agenda. These are:

  • The fibre coverage in terms of Homes Passed has reached >85% in the country, with another 10% to be added the next 12 months,
  • The household broadband penetration rate increased in the past 2 years from 50% to 75%, 95% of all broadband delivered by fibre now,
  • In the mobile service space, the retail customers are receiving double the data for half of the price compared to 2019, this including voice and SMS flat rates in the tariffs.
  • Similar in the fixed broadband market, where 75% of all broadband is now on 50Mbps and above compared with 80% of all broadband on 20Mbps in 2020.
  • Fixed Broadband tariffs now containing double or triple the data and retail price level is at 50% of level compared with 2019.

The trigger point for the development in Brunei Darussalam has not been initiated by the race for regional 5G leadership. The trigger point is the wide recognition, that economic development and growth, making the national economy robust and future proof has to rely on the digitalization of almost all spheres of industry and economy, government services and society. So 5G from my perspective is just one technology element amongst others in a broader picture.

As long as all of this is materializing to its full extent by the efforts of private entities, competing in the national market and internationally, there is limited need for intervention. For Brunei Darussalam, SWN represents a much broader approach, where the SWN is formed to operate the entire national network, including all mobile technologies, the fixed broadband network, the national transport network and all submarine cable assets of the country. In addition, the SWN has the mandate to develop Data Centre and Cloud infrastructure to be provided competitively in the national market and internationally. This is driven by a long term Vision of Wawasan Brunei 2035 and the digital transformation agenda of the Government, where the specific preconditions in the country led to the establishment of Unified National Networks (UNN).

To make a blanket statement, that state driven SWN approaches have drawbacks compared with commercially driven 5G rollouts, in the context of a small country such as Brunei Darussalam is full of negativity and cannot be substantiated when considering the facts on the ground as listed above. The approach in Brunei Darussalam is an objectives-driven approach with government key agenda topics in mind, executed with strict and transparent governance, which has proven to create the expected benefits for the national market.

To associate the so-called state-driven SWN approach in general with capital leakages, corruption and overpayment of contracts is inappropriate and it looks like the author of the article has a bias against the SWN approach in general, and has unfortunately not been able to analyse the facts for the specific case of Brunei Darussalam.

The new SWN in Brunei Darussalam is a new era of competition and development in Brunei Darussalam which deserves thorough analysis and proper considerations when referencing the case.

Single Wholesale Network UNN in Brunei Darussalam – A New Hope!