Deep into 5G growth as Hong Kong emerges from pandemic
As the world moves out of Covid-19, Hong Kong-based HGC Global Communications is preparing for the future 5G era, with lots of cellsites needing to be connected by fibre. Alan Burkitt-Gray talks to CEO Andrew Kwok .
HGC Global Communications is deeply embedded in the launch of 5G services in Hong Kong, the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, where the company is based, CEO Andrew Kwok says. “In Hong Kong there are four mobile operators. One of them has its own fixed-line business. For the other three I can safely say that we have the highest market share in infrastructure for 5G.”
It’s backhaul and core connectivity, he tells me from Hong Kong at the end of May as we prepare for the first virtual ITW.
“We are very deeply involved in the whole 5G infrastructure in Hong Kong. It’s a pretty sizeable investment.”
That’s because 5G many more cellsites than previous wireless generations, and each site needs to be connected by fibre. “We do have a lot of fibre already, but we have to keep improving the experience.”
Most applications for 5G – such as the internet of things (IoT) – will need low latency, he points out. That’s why there is the need for lots of base stations, so they’re close to users, all connected by fibre and yet more fibre.
“Going down the road there will be a lot of IoT applications, and it will be the mainstream of our business,” says Kwok, who has been CEO of HGC Global Communications since it was created as an independent company almost three years ago, on 3 October 2017.
On the plane
But for 15 years before that he was effectively doing the same job, heading the global business of Hutchison Global Communications and Hutchison Telecommunications (HK). His LinkedIn entry for his time at Hutchison Global Communications gives his location as “on the plane”. Over the last few years I’ve seen him in London, Chicago and many other cities – but just once in Hong Kong, his home city.
“We also aspire to transfer our knowledge and experience that we have developed in Hong Kong and replicate it overseas,” says Kwok. Where does he have in mind? “It’s too early to say where. Asia is something we’re looking at. I don’t want to name the countries because discussions are still going on.”
Those discussions are centring on “Who needs 5G most”, he says. There are two main criteria, he adds: the population of the territory in question and its viability for IoT services – how many machines are likely to be connected, in effect.
“We are not going to be handling the apps ourselves,” he said, “but we do work with more than 130 over-the-top (OTT) companies in our network. There are a lot of them. And we have a very good relationship with mobile operators, not only those in Hong Kong but also those around the world.”
HGC Global Communications is still expanding its network capacity, he adds. “Traditionally London is our main hub in Europe, but we’re also in Frankfurt.” But the company is also looking at other locations.
“We are stepping into unified communications. A lot of our customers don’t see a PABX any more. Everything is in the cloud; everything is on the app.” And the telephone extension that people call may be a mobile, on a data connection.
“Our work in the cloud – the public cloud – is picking up in a big way,” says Kwok. “We have a lot of collaboration with cloud providers.”
But over the next 12 months – before we gather at ITW in 2021 – “we’re hoping for 5G to pick up as fast as possible”, he says. “The mobile operator needs to earn a lot of money [from 5G]. When your customer makes a lot of money, you [the carrier] will earn a lot of money.”
5G investment mode
But it will come. “With 5G, the mobile operator is still in the investment mode. The market has not picked up yet. We’re in a dynamic situation,” he says. That’s particularly the case at the moment – and maybe in the future – with the increased need for a home office, with high-bandwidth capability in people’s apartments and houses. “5G will play a crucial role in the new ecosystem,” he says.
And how is HGC Global Communications managing in this Coronavirus era? Hong Kong has been through this sort of thing before, he points out gently, with SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, another Coronavirus, which spread from the Guangdong province of southern China in 2003 and reached not just Hong Kong but also Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam and Toronto in Canada.
“In January when we first heard about the [Covid-19] virus we recalled what we experienced in 2003 with SARS. We immediately upgraded all our platforms and our supply of equipment – that was six months of supplies – so we were not affected.”
That was pretty good going, I muse. Most people around the world were burying their heads in the sand, pretending it wasn’t going to happy, until two months later – almost the end of March in the UK’s case.
“We also looked at our main control centre. We diversified it, not just to Hong Kong but also to another city. We diversified it to one of the Asian cities, a secret location.”
At the same time, in preparation for whatever might happen, HGC Global Communications decentralised authority to its US and European control centres. “In the past things have needed approval [from Hong Kong], but we wanted to make sure our main centres around the world would be autonomous.”
In Hong Kong itself, “we rented a hotel, so if our building was not viable, our engineers could stay there”, he says. “We were the first in Hong Kong to work at home, in January and early February.” That was helped by the company’s network upgrade: “That really pays.”
And it really did pay off, because local traffic in Hong Kong increased by 30% thanks to the pandemic, and “international traffic rose about the same”. If the company had not upgraded in advance, and if engineer were not allowed into the building, that traffic rise would have been a problem. “We implemented the upgrades ahead of lockdown.”
In fact, the results on the network were positive, he adds. Traffic was up, “but network outages improved on last year’s performance, despite all the hurdles. We kept our network in a very stable condition despite the increase in traffic.”
But there were other aspects to HGC Global Communications’ activities during Hong Kong’s lockdown. “We did our social giving back,” says Kwok. “We went out on the streets to hand out free masks to citizens – luckily I have friends in the business – and we delivered masks to elderly people living alone. This gives the company a good image and gives the staff a meaningful united moment.”
The company “also established home office learning for secondary schools, using our smart solutions, to establish remote learning rooms. And we gave away free computers to students who couldn’t afford them.”
Luckily the company’s staff escaped any Covid-19 infection, he says. “We did a lot of cleaning up of our premises.” But now, “we are developing a working-at-home culture”. As, indeed, is everyone, thanks to telecoms operators such as HGC Global Communications.