On January 17, Vietnam’s largest telecommunications company announced that it would be moving forward with fifth generation technology (5G) commercial and military services starting later this year. The development spotlighted Vietnam’s ongoing approach to 5G as well as Viettel’s commitment to enter the fray of the few companies currently competing in the 5G space.
As I have observed before, within the range of country-specific responses to 5G amid U.S.-China tensions on the subject, Vietnam has been among those that have been key to watch. Apart from the fact that Vietnam has not embraced Chinese technology from companies such as Huawei due to its lingering distrust of Beijing, Vietnam has also been encouraging the development of Viettel, biggest state-owned military telecommunications company in the country, which has been attempting to increase its presence in neighboring Southeast Asian states as well as in other developing countries in regions such as Latin America and Africa. Last August, Viettel announced that it planned to develop its own 5G equipment in line with the Vietnam government’s indication of the need to boost its own capabilities in this respect.
Last week, we saw another round of attention on this aspect of Vietnam’s role with respect to 5G. On Friday, after Viettel conducted is first trial video call on its 5G network, the company said in a press release that would be launching commercial 5G mobile services from June 2020 as part of an ongoing effort to develop civilian and military services, with a view of then moving to nationwide deployment in June 2021. Vietnam’s Minister of Information and Communications, who witnessed Viettel’s showcase of its technology, subsequently said that if things progress as intended, Vietnam will have achieved its goal of commercializing 5G with Vietnamese equipment in 2020, something which few nations have achieved to date.
Viettel’s announcement came as no surprise given its previous 5G ambitions, even if the pace at which it is proceeding has been quite speedy (the company has said that it developed its 5G technology from May to December last year). The announcement is also not without significance. If developments progress as Viettel stated, it would become just a few firms developing 5G network equipment along with the likes of Nokia, Samsung, Ericsson and Huawei. More broadly, it also underscores the fact that the options for some of the key emerging Asian countries such as Vietnam are not merely restricted to choosing or not choosing Huawei, but also experimenting with other options as well and even developing some of their own capabilities.
To be sure, it is still early days, and broader questions remain with respect to Viettel’s announcement. For one, without concrete targets beyond the rough timeline that was put forth, it is difficult to assess how exactly the company plans on realizing its aspirations into reality with just a few months of expertise thus far regarding 5G. Such metrics are important if the company is to truly compete with leading firms such as Nokia and Ericson, which is no small task and will require significant resources. More generally, while Viettel is currently an important part of Vietnam’s 5G ambitions, how Hanoi builds out other aspects as well remains to be seen.
Nonetheless, given Vietnam’s approach to 5G and Viettel’s commitment to make inroads in this space, Viettel’s announcement deserves attention. And as such, the progress of the company and the country in this regard, and the management of opportunities and challenges therein, will continue to be important to watch in the coming months and years.