This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on April 10, 2023 - April 16, 2023
When Hong Kong-born YTL Communications CEO Wing K Lee left home to pursue higher education at the University of Texas in the US in 1986, phoning home just to hear his mother’s voice, even for a couple of minutes, was a pricey affair. The then 18-year-old had to make the best of every expensive minute, after realising that telecommunications companies were exploiting people’s desire to communicate.
“I missed my mother a lot, but it used to cost me US$5 per minute to talk to her. That made it very expensive and I felt victimised by the exorbitant pricing of the telco of the day,” says Lee.
“Even when I started working [phone calls still] weren’t cheap, even though the price went down to US$2.50 to US$3 per minute. Cheaper than US$5, but not nearly as cheap as today, when it’s literally free, [thanks to] WhatsApp calls. Even during those years, I knew that tech should [be used to] improve people’s lives.”
So, when Lee was offered a job at US-based telecoms giant Sprint Corp in 1993, marking the beginning of his career in the industry, he thought, “Finally, I have an opportunity to solve these problems”, knowing that a lot of people would benefit from it if he managed to crack the code.
And crack the code, he did. With 33 US patents to his name, Lee worked hard for almost two decades, researching and developing ways to make communication easier, cheaper and faster. While the advancements in the telecoms industry can’t be entirely attributed to him, his efforts have definitely contributed to the free calls and text messages over the internet that we benefit from today.
Lee is seen as a disruptor of sorts, which makes sense as he was handpicked by YTL Corp Bhd to set up and lead YTL Communications as its CEO in 2010. In 2009, the Malaysian government was eager for 4G to be deployed across the country, but the existing telcos weren’t on the same page. The government realised that it would be very hard for the country to move forward without a strong 4G backbone.
“The 3G ecosystem was for voice and SMS. It wasn’t [suitable to support] apps. But 4G was the first time where it was data first and the telcos were too comfortable [with their 3G offerings]. That was why we were brought in, to challenge and shake up the industry at the time, and we did,” Lee tells Digital Edge.
In 2010, Yes deployed 4G with the launch of YTL’s YES WiMAX. The other telcos joined the bandwagon after that, launching their 4G networks around 2013.
Fast forward to today, a decade after 4G was deployed in the country, history is repeating itself with the deployment of 5G. In March 2021, the government set up Digital Nasional Bhd (DNB), a special-purpose vehicle owned by the Ministry of Finance to drive the development of 5G infrastructure in Malaysia. DNB then offered 5G as a wholesale network service to the telcos, but there was a lot of dissatisfaction and pushback from the industry, not just over the setting up of DNB, but also resistance to 5G access being deployed via a single wholesale network (SWN).
YTL Communications, through Yes, signed up with DNB in December 2021, along with Telekom Malaysia Bhd (TM). The other telcos came on board in November 2022, after almost a year of negotiations with DNB to come up with terms that were agreeable to all parties involved in providing 5G access.
But once again, the country’s 5G journey is at a crossroads. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s administration has been cracking down on monopolies and the rollout of the 5G network in Malaysia has not been spared. He said the government would review the policy as the previous administration did not manage it in a transparent manner.
On March 26, Communications and Digital Minister Fahmi Fadzil said no decision had been made on the role of DNB yet but the government was hoping to do so in the coming weeks.
Despite the noise surrounding the rollout of 5G, Lee is adamant that the SWN model is the best way forward and has been impressed with DNB’s rollout efforts and timeline. When asked why the company was so quick to put its faith in SWN, a method that was used to deploy fibre networks in other countries, he says it is the most practical and sensible solution for 5G deployment.
“We cannot compare Malaysia with the rest of the world. Malaysia is unique and we, as a country, have our own characteristics and challenges. And to be frank, no one is proud of our 4G performance, which is also why the government invested a lot in the Jalinan Digital Negara (Jendela) programme, to shore up our digital infrastructure.”
The telecoms industry also needs to acknowledge that the old model of deploying connectivity, which is to let each telco figure out its respective deployment strategies, has not served the country well, says Lee. This means a new model is required and in this case, it is the SWN.
“Is it a bad thing? I don’t think so. The SWN has been used to deploy fibre around the world for a long time. Singapore has a [single] wholesale [fibre network] nationwide. Hong Kong and Australia too. That’s why these are among the highest performing countries in the world when it comes to fibre performance — because they have a common infrastructure to serve the country very well,” he says.
“The world’s largest 5G network is in China, and guess what? Theirs is also a shared network. So, why is it that all of a sudden, sharing has become a bad word in Malaysia? The fact is, sharing has been practised in the fixed fibre world and is prominent in the 5G world. Why? Because 5G requires a lot of sites.”
5G requires a higher spectrum and bandwidth — the mid- or c-band — which is what allows it to deliver high performance. But the mid-band doesn’t travel far. In order to deliver the kind of speeds that are expected of 5G, which is typically more dense than 4G or earlier technologies, network densification needs to happen, Lee explains.
Densification is the process of increasing the number of cell sites by adding distributed antenna systems, small cells and fibre optics in a geographic coverage area to increase capacity and coverage. As a result of cell site densification, not only will performance go up, resilience will also increase as a single end-user will always have multiple sites serving him or her at any given time.
But densification comes at a cost, says Lee. To do this right, a lot more sites are needed and the cost burden is too high for a single telco to bear. Hence, a common shared 5G wholesale network is the most practical way to have world-class 5G performance and resilience in Malaysia.
“Even from an ESG (environmental, social and governance) standpoint, it makes no sense for this country to have a replication of these high-density 5G sites six times over for each telco. That’s absolutely the wrong thing to do because every single site requires power and cooling. If we allow site duplication, are we being responsible for future generations? No, and this is why the SWN model makes sense,” he says.
In May last year, YTL Communications launched its 5G offerings and nine months later, on Feb 28 this year, Yes 5G was recognised as having Malaysia’s fastest mobile network speeds in 3Q and 4Q2022 by Ookla, the global leader in fixed broadband and mobile network testing applications, data and analysis. Assessed and determined by Ookla Speedtest Intelligence data analysis, Yes 5G landed at the No 1 spot with a speed score of 84.53, beating its competitors with a top speed of 569.09 Mbps for download and 65.58 Mbps for upload.
Lee admits that he isn’t all that enthusiastic about rolling out high-speed connectivity using fibre-optic communication cables — a technology which he believes is dated. “Frankly, I’ve never been excited about fibre.”
This seemed a rather odd statement coming from the CEO of a telco, especially since the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission’s (MCMC) Jendela plan is on track to provide access to fibre broadband to the whole of Malaysia by 2025.
Chuckling at the silence in the room following his remark, Lee explains that when he worked at Sprint, which is headquartered in Kansas, he helped the company build its nationwide fibre-optic network, and that was in 1993.
“I used to eat it for breakfast while working at Sprint in the US. Fibre is old news. It is old school technology. The future is wireless, and that’s what excites me,” he says.
Throughout his career, Lee has proudly played a catalytic role in pushing the boundaries of the telecoms industry. He stayed at Sprint, his second job, for 13 years, first as chief architect, then as director of enterprise architecture and finally, chief technologist. He subsequently worked at Sprint Nextel as Sprint Innovations Lab director and later, director of agile product development until 2008.
In 1999, Sprint decided to invest in wireless technologies, which Lee thought was “pretty cool” at the time. This was when he was asked to be the chief architect of the company’s wireless business, which was to launch the first nationwide wireless network in the market called Sprint PCS.
“I learnt a lot. I was privileged to have the opportunity to be in the early driving seat of the wireless evolution in the US. Mind you, the data speed of this ‘brand new’ network was 80kbps. Now, our Yes 5G network has an average speed of 590Mbps. That is how much we have advanced since 1999,” he says.
Lee and his team discussed the launch of Sprint PCS with the company’s board of directors and towards the end of the night, they pointed out that they already had fibre and it was doing fine, maybe even better. Questions like “How can we make money from this?” were put forward, serving as a wake-up call to Lee.
“Is that why wireless technology would not match the capability and speed of a fibre type technology? No, but wireless is a liberating technology because it doesn’t have wire. And when you don’t have wire, a whole new world of possibilities emerges,” he explains.
“That excites me. Humans are tethered to their mothers until the day they are born. Then, they are no longer tethered. So, why tether ourselves up again with fibre and be limited by it? That’s why I never get excited about fibre, to be entirely frank and respectful. I believe that with wireless, we can unlock new possibilities.”
The company eventually launched a product called picture messaging, the first messaging service that is capable of sending pictures between feature phones. This was before the multimedia messaging service (MMS) came into existence.
“It was a transformative experience because while we could not match the speed of fibre, we were able to deliver a new experience that fibre could not match because you were now able to share a picture with your family wherever you were. It was magical,” Lee recalls.
“Then, we started working on wireless music, wireless mobile TV, mobile payments and mobile advertising. We got the chance to work on the entire ecosystem, which is why I have so many patents. I had so much fun in the US.”
In his last role at Sprint, Lee led product development for the first large-scale 4G network in the world based on a standard called WiMAX.
After joining YTL in Malaysia, it was no surprise that his first order of business — after being offered the job in 2009 — was to launch Yes as Malaysia’s first nationwide 4G network in 2010. While WiMAX was used for the launch, Lee and his team designed and built an all-IP network to ensure it would be future-proof, including the migration to 4G LTE and now, 5G.
“When I first visited Malaysia in 2009 and landed at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, I was very impressed. Then I got into my car and turned on mobile roaming. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find data on the highway. I could only make phone calls and send SMSes,” he remembers.
“I thought to myself, here was a young, beautiful emerging country called Malaysia with a beautiful airport and yet, there’s no data. There was spotty data coverage along the way and it was when I reached Kuala Lumpur did I have reliable 3G data.”
After 14 years, the country has come a long way with its connectivity offerings, says Lee. “In 13 years, we went from having pathetic and spotty 3G coverage to nationwide 4G coverage. And now, we are talking about 5G. That alone, I think, is amazing.”
The MCMC’s Jendela plan was formulated to provide wider coverage and better quality of broadband experience, while preparing the country for 5G technology. According to its 4Q2022 report, 95.82% of all populated areas have access to the 4G network and mobile broadband speed had increased to 52.48 Mbps (mean), far exceeding the initial target of 35 Mbps (mean) in Phase 1, which was to be completed at end-2022.
The report says the challenge in hand is to cover the remaining 1.1% of the targeted 96.9% of populated areas with 4G network services given their remote and interior geographical conditions.
While communication is the foundation for digitisation, there’s more to it than that. But once that foundation has been established, the next step is to enable applications in this new 5G world, says Lee.
Most of today’s apps are hosted in the cloud, so what Malaysia needs now is a strong underlying 5G infrastructure for the wholesale network. Next is to bring in data centres, says Lee, because data centres hold the applications that power the digital economy. With that in mind, YTL Group recently announced the construction of the largest hyperscale data centre in Malaysia.
In January, YTL Power International Bhd’s wholly-owned unit was granted a RM1.1 billion Islamic term financing facility to fund the development of its data centre in Kulai, Johor. YTL Power plans to develop the nation’s first 500mw green data centre park to be integrated with on-site solar photovoltaic power, which aims to provide data storage colocation services to clients looking for more sustainable and lower carbon solutions in Southeast Asia.
“With that, we’re able to bring all these cloud players and amazing content and applications nearer to the rakyat because today, most of these applications and content are hosted in Singapore. For us to emerge as a digital nation, we need to have our own data centre infrastructure to go along with our communications battle, to bring content application at very high speeds and low latency to the rakyat,” says Lee.
More importantly, he says artificial intelligence (AI) lives in the data centre. “AI is data and processing hungry, so we need a hyperscale to host AI. The ultimate convergence that we are seeing in the next 10 years is between mobile and AI.”
With the ability to bring 5G and AI together, it will be a major boost for efficiency, automation and transformation, says Lee. And more often than not, consumers do not realise the role of AI in their daily lives.
“If you take a picture and you don’t like it, you can use a cloud app to beautify it. That’s a great consumer experience where you’re benefiting from AI. But we are barely scratching the surface of AI with that, even with the likes of ChatGPT,” he says.
“AI has been around for 60 to 70 years and there are so many dimensions to it, but only in the last 10 years has AI emerged in the mainstream because of the copious amounts of data.
“AI and machine learning require a lot of models and all the models need to be built with a lot of data to train the model. The better the training of the model, the more effective the AI. That’s why ChatGPT is so cool because the model is so good. But perhaps, this is just me geeking out.”
YTL Communications CEO Wing K Lee believes wireless connectivity will eventually supersede fibre optics, especially since there are frequent fibre cuts, which means that even the largest and most reputable telcos in the country are at the mercy of the challenges that come with fibre cuts, when they occur.
It is costly to bury fibre-optic cables deep enough into the surface for the service to be uninterrupted. In the event that it is not deep enough, regular construction work like housing development or roadworks can accidentally slash the fibre. The challenge is to detect where the cables have been cut and to restore them, says Lee.
“Fibre isn’t a very reliable infrastructure, but I have to say, the country has done a remarkable job in deploying it. But now with 5G, I can get an average speed of 400Mbps, which is faster than most fibre connectivity in the country, which can go up to maybe 200Mbps,” he adds.
“In other words, 5G has reached a level where wireless network performance has exceeded the consumer-grade fibre network and based on Digital Nasional Bhd’s coverage target, 80% of the country will have 5G in 2024, meaning that in a year from now, 5G coverage will eclipse fibre coverage,” says Lee, adding that the company has found that the latest population coverage for 5G in Malaysia stands at 52%.
With that in mind, Yes launched its 5G Wireless Home Fibre (home broadband) last September in Penang, which combines the speed of fibre broadband with the flexibility of wireless, requiring no wall hacking and is completely portable. Although the launch was for Penangites, Lee reiterates that 5G wireless fibre connectivity is available nationwide so long as an area receives 5G coverage.
“5G wireless fibre service is being deployed in many leading countries such as the US and those in Europe. Wireless fibre subscriptions are expected to exceed that of conventional fibre by 2025. We are proud to be the first to bring this innovation to Malaysia,” he says.
“The rakyat has been conditioned into thinking that they need fibre connectivity, which is why we believe this market is ripe for disruption.”
The device also allows for superior flexibility. This means if you’re travelling, you can take the device with you to get 5G connectivity wherever you are, provided that the area is covered by the network.
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