Hutchison Drei Austria, a leading telecommunication service provider, plays a pivotal role in Austria's digital journey. Commencing 5G operations in 2019, Drei is now poised to expand 5G coverage into rural areas with its newly acquired 5G spectrum. In an interview with ZTE Technologies, Matthias Baldermann, CTO of Drei, talks about the company's 5G deployment plan, business opportunities enabled by 5G, and the increasingly important role of telecommunication in thepost-COVID-19 time.
In your opinion, which industries will drive the introduction of 5G in Austria?
First and foremost, we—the Austrian network operators—being supported, of course, by the network equipment suppliers. We will not only upgrade to 5G in the existing network nationwide, but also set up additional 5G locations in very rural regions. In this way, 5G will bring super-fast Internet even to very remote regions with none or poor coverage so far. Private households and businesses in rural areas will benefit greatly from 5G, and many are gaining access to fast broadband Internet for the first time. But 5G brings more than just fast Internet. It will above all become an economic driver for many other industries.
Which industries do you have in mind here?
5G improves all dimensions of previous mobile communications by several orders of magnitude. In addition to a much higher-performance and faster broadband (eMBB), it will openup new possibilities for a variety of IoT applications (mMTC): in other words, millions of sensors that contribute to simpler, more cost-effective and more sustainable solutions in all areas of the industry and social life. On the other hand, 5G is the foundation for the so-called mission-critical services—applications that meet the highest requirements in terms of reliability and fastest response times (latency) in order to support real-time computing in extreme situations (uRLLC).
Numerous 5G applications are already emerging. The health/e-health sector, the agricultural sector (smart farming), cities (smart city, for example, real-time traffic control) and, of course, the domestic industry (Industry 4.0, campus networks) will particularly benefit in the future.
What challenges do you think lie ahead before 5G becomes widely available?
We have already taken the first steps. On the one hand, Drei has secured spectrum in all bands important for the development of a future-proof 5G network—in the 3.5 GHz band for urban areas with high traffic volumes, as well as in the recently auctioned spectrum in the 700/1500 MHz bands for the nationwide coverage of rural and tourist regions in best quality.
On the other hand, we have already started our 5G expansion in 2019. The first few hundred 5G locations are in operation.
With the auctioned frequency spectrum in the 700 MHz band, we have also committed ourselves to significantly improve broadband coverage in rural areas and along roads and traffic routes with 5G. In particular, we will provide 5G to 738 rural communities across Austria.
Now we will keep this promise. We will expand our network with great vigor in the coming years and upgrade to 5G nationwide. The planned network investments will be in the high 3-digit million range.
But we also need the right general framework. It is important to shorten the lead time to obtain required building permits and to reduce the rental fees for publicly owned sites.
What strategies will you focus on in developing 5G for business customers?
Our business customers will benefit from 5G in multiple ways. Our entire network will be more efficient, faster and available everywhere. Moreover, 5G brings a portfolio of new characteristics and features specifically designed for the industry, which in combination open up new possibilities. Here are two examples:
Every business customer has very specific needs and individual requirements and use cases. With network slicing—a new functionality within 5G networks—we can provide every business customer with a tailor-made profile for the portfolio of their services and use cases.
Campus networks will gain high significance in the industry as a combination of highly available 5G-based private networks to serve industrial halls and large sites, where vehicles, plant components, sensors and industrial robots can be monitored, tracked and controlled in real time—and all this wireless, flexible, with the highest precision in milliseconds, interference-free and with the highest security standards.
What initiatives have you taken to support the vision of a ''Digital Austria''?
We as Drei and jointly with the mobile industry have made it our business to ensure that Austria takes a pioneering role in the expansion of 5G in Europe. This is in the knowledge that a rapid 5G expansion will act as a motor for the Austrian economy and provide important momentum for many innovations. Moreover, our commitment to the rapid 5G expansion in Austria has become an integral part of the 5G frequency spectrum requirements and will be fulfilled in the coming years.
Particularly in this year, at the height of the corona crisis in spring, we were involved in the government initiative “Digital Team Austria” for small and medium-sized enterprises. Together with our technology partner ZTE, we provided 2,000 companies routers and three months of free internet. The campaign specifically helped small businesses to better master constraints and home office situations during the lockdown.
We see that the crisis has brought a boost to digitization for many domestic companies. Many Austrians flexibly worked from home during the lockdown, collaborated in virtual meetings and communicated remotely—and a good portion of this new pattern will certainly be retained in the future. We want to continue to support these companies with our Drei Digitalimpuls initiative and will also maintain to contribute in government initiatives. After all, every Euro invested in the digitization of Austria has a double or triple effect—an investment into the future enabling Austria to become an even more attractive business location and innovation hub.
How do you see the telecommunications industry in the post-COVID-19 time?
Over the entire first half of the year, our customers made 17% more calls than in the previous year. During the first weeks of the lockdown, our customers made almost two thirds more phone calls and used the Internet one third more intensively. Between January and June 2020, our customers used 32% more data than in the first six months of 2019.
While normality is returning in many areas of life, most new online habits have remained. People in Austria use the phone considerably more, including young people. In addition to the classic voice telephony minutes, telephoning via internet by using collaboration tools such as Zoom or Skype has also increased significantly. In other areas, too, usage was significantly higher than in the same period of the previous year, with social media more than doubled. Use of our Drei TV increased by a third.
Telecommunication has always been important. These days, however, the essential role of powerful, stable and high-quality mobile networks for communication in today's society is becoming all the more apparent—both privately and as a foundation for our economy.
Furthermore, the changes in the work environment that we see today as a reaction to Covid will certainly have a positive effect in the future. We will certainly use more flexible home office and a reasonable share of business trips will be replaced by virtual meetings. A small contribution to the environment—supported by new insights and powerful mobile communications.
For the future, what do you expect from ZTE?
We want to continue to regard ZTE not only as a supplier, but as a partner who is aware that the quality of their equipment and technologies is the basis for the satisfaction of our customers and thus for our success in the Austrian market. We expect that ZTE will continue to develop and provide high-quality, future-proof and innovative network equipment, end devices and functionalities in the future. We wish to continue the close dialogue between our experts who plan, operate and optimize our network with ZTE's R&D teams in the very open and constructive manner we have jointly established and benefited on both sides.