Q&A: Vietnam's place in the 5G race

While the debate around 5G and Huawei continues in New Zealand, Vietnam has just become one of the first countries to successfully test its network, making its first 5G phone call on May 10. Director of Augen Software Group Mitchell Pham has been following Vietnamese development of 5G and spoke with the Asia Media Centre about the country's progress.

What is Vietnam's position on 5G?

Vietnam started its 5G race in 2015, and wants to be one of the first countries to roll out this technology by 2020. Several local telecom operators have been allocated licenses to trial the technology in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City ahead of commercial launch. Viettel, the country's largest operator, plans to test 70 5G base stations in June in preparation for a large-scale deployment.

On May 10, 2019, Viettel and Sweden’s Ericsson Group successfully conducted the first call in 5G in Vietnam. This makes Vietnam the 5th country to successfully test a 5G network, following the US, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Who will supply 5G to Vietnam?

Unlike in the Philippines or Thailand, Vietnam is not planning to use 5G technologies from Chinese company Huawei.

Vietnam has been developing its own core technologies for 5G, including chips and devices. Its plan is to use Vietnamese technologies for 80 per cent of core network infrastructure equipment, and the rest with technologies from Europe and North America.

Who is influencing the decision making?

There are no laws or regulations mandating the supply and suppliers of telecommunications infrastructure equipment. However, like all tier-1 banks in Vietnam, the largest telecom operators are state-owned. For instance, the largest operator, Viettel, is owned and operated by the country's military.

As such, there is government influence in international supply choices when it comes to core infrastructure of the nation and its economy, especially when security is involved. For instance, Viettel currently does not use Chinese equipment for 4G, and will not use any for 5G either.

What are the key issues/concerns surrounding 5G?

Vietnam’s decision not to use Chinese equipment comes from economic and security considerations.

Technologically, as China continues to be a security threat, Vietnam continues to avoid using infrastructure equipment made by Chinese companies. The country frequently attributes cyberattacks on its critical infrastructure to state-sponsored Chinese hackers.

Economically, as Vietnam continues to develop its high-tech industries, use of inexpensive Chinese equipment will discourage Vietnamese companies from developing their own technologies and the associated advantages and economic benefits.  For instance, Viettel is currently operating mobile networks in 10 overseas markets, so having its own 5G technologies will provide it with a competitive edge both domestically and internationally.

Geopolitically, as Vietnam continues to grow its security and defence ties with the United States, not using Chinese equipment will strengthen mutual trust and in turn facilitate Vietnam’s future security cooperation with the US and its allies, especially in such areas as intelligence sharing.

Are there any key similarities or differences in Vietnam’s position on 5G compared to New Zealand’s? 

In New Zealand, our government is involved in the decision on international equipment supplier for 5G infrastructure. The conversation seems to have been around security risks within the technology offered by Huawei, rather than which country the company is from. However, there seems to be consistency in not using Chinese equipment among most of the members of the Five Eyes security alliance (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States), so perhaps there are also geopolitical forces at play.

The rest of the country (industries, businesses and consumers) seem to be more concerned with having enough competition in the economy against Nokia and Ericsson to drive both cost and quality benefits to users.

What does this all mean for New Zealand?

Vietnam is today one of Asia's largest and fastest growing digital economies. This presents many opportunities for New Zealand innovation and technology products and services, especially those with embedded knowledge and knowhow that can help Vietnam address challenges and seize opportunities to continue growth and advancement.

Mitchell Pham is the Director of Augen Software Group in New Zealand and of Kiwi Connection Tech Hub in Vietnam, as well as Honorary Advisor of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, and Beachheads Advisor for NZTE.