Four telcos on Monday announced access agreements with Digital Nasional Berhad (DNB), the state-controlled wholesaler that is currently building out a single nationwide 5G network.

Celcom Axiata, Telenor-owned Digi, incumbent Telekom Malaysia (TM), and U Mobile have separately agreed 10-year deals with DNB, enabling them to begin offering services via the network later this week.

Celcom said from 1 November, customers will be able to access 5G services at no extra cost until the end of this year. In a report by The Star, U Mobile said customers with compatible devices will be able to connect to the network from 3 November. At the time of writing, Digi and TM appear not to have shared their launch plans, that will likely change soon though.

In a stock exchange announcement, TM said “5G will accelerate TM’s aim in offering Fixed-Mobile Convergence (FMC) and advanced digital solutions to meet the dynamic and growing needs of communities, enterprises, industry and nation.”

Meanwhile, Digi said in a statement that it “looks forward to working with the Malaysian Government, MCMC (Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission), DNB and industry, lending its expertise in customer insights, supply chain, infrastructure, and experienced technical talents to accelerate Malaysia’s digital transformation.”

Monday’s development represents an important milestone in the difficult birth of 5G in Malaysia. By opting in 2020 for the single wholesale network (SWN) deployment model, Malaysia’s then coalition government hoped to save time and money by avoiding operators rolling out overlapping infrastructure.

Unfortunately though, it seemed to create more problems than it solved. First and foremost, after a year of grappling with a major pandemic, the government that hatched the SWN idea collapsed in late 2020. The crisis put the process on hold for months, and there’s a strong argument that political paralysis would have had less of an effect on 5G if it had been left to private enterprises to roll out their own 5G networks.

Not long after DNB got moving again in 2021, it soon became apparent that Malaysia’s MNOs were unhappy with the wholesale prices being offered to them by a state-run monopoly. Only two of them were prepared to sign up and actually use the network. At the same time, telcos began lobbying the government to create a second national wholesaler to add some competition into the mix.

The deadlock was broken in March when the government offered to turn DNB effectively into a state-controlled consortium by selling up to 70 percent of it to operators. Months of negotiations ensued, culminating in a deal earlier this month that saw Celcom and Digi each take 12.5 percent stakes, and TM and YTL Communications each acquire 20 percent. The government retained the remaining 35 percent plus a golden share.

With the share subscription agreement done and dusted, and now access deals in place with four major MNOs, Malaysia can finally move forward at pace with 5G. And it needs to. According to Ericsson, 5G population coverage in most developed markets is already north of 60 percent, while in Malaysia, DNB covers around 33 percent of populated areas. It aims to cover 40 percent by the end of this year, reaching 80 percent by 2024.

“The testing and integration of 5G sites by the MNOs have progressed well and I believe they are ready to provide 5G services to end-users located in areas where 5G infrastructure is currently available,” said Yang Berbahagia Datuk Seri Asri Hamidon, DNB chairman, in a statement earlier this month. “In addition, the local 5G ecosystem has grown rapidly, with 12 device brands now offering more than 100 5G-compatible models for use in Malaysia. As such, we are encouraged by the establishment of the infrastructure to facilitate the rapid adoption of 5G.”

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