In an era of growing digitalisation, 5G has emerged as a game-changing technology. 5G and the immense potential it offers for improving network speeds and connectivity, and supporting next-generation technologies such as internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence and virtual reality have created a buzz in the telecom space. Recognising this potential, countries across the globe have been making substantial efforts to create the necessary architecture for launching 5G services. A few countries, including the UK, South Korea and Italy, have already allocated 5G spectrum. Many others, like the US, Australia, Spain, Germany and Singapore, are chalking out strategies to conduct 5G auctions soon.
Operators too are working on leveraging the 5G opportunity. According to Deloitte, of the 681 commercial 4G operators globally, more than one-fifth, that is, 154 operators across 66 countries, are in the process of conducting field trials and testing 5G technology. It is expected that 3 per cent of mobile service providers are likely to launch 5G commercially by 2020. Ericsson forecasts that there will be 1 billion 5G subscribers by end 2023, accounting for around 20 per cent of mobile data traffic.
A look at the evolving global 5G ecosystem across major regions…
According to the GSM Association, the Asia-Pacific region, led by pioneering 5G markets such as Australia, China, Japan and South Korea, will become the world’s largest 5G region by 2025. Industry experts believe that China will emerge as the global leader in terms of deployment. China started its 5G trial programme in 2016. It has successfully completed two phases of the programme comprising verification of key technologies and technical protocols, and is currently in the third phase of verification of the system scheme. China-based operators including China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom are currently working towards launching commercial 5G services by 2020. To this end, China Mobile has started conducting 5G trials in some cities and is in the process of creating guidelines for the construction and sale of 5G phones. Further, the operator has set up a 5G innovation fund to promote the development of industrial applications for 5G. China Unicom has announced its plans to conduct 5G trials in 16 cities including Beijing, Xiongan, Shenyang and Qingdao. Further, it is planning to build 300 5G base stations in Beijing. China Telecom has conducted 5G pilot programmes in cities such as Shenzhen, Shanghai, Suzhou, Chengdu and Lanzhou.
Other countries such as South Korea and Japan are also emerging as front runners in the 5G space. South Korea showcased its 5G technology during the Winter Olympics in Pyeong Chang, with Korea Telecom (KT) demonstrating a 5G network along with Samsung Electronics, Intel and Ericsson. In June 2018, the country auctioned 3.5 GHz and 28 GHz spectrum for 5G. Further, three major operators, SK Telecom, KT, and LG U+ recently agreed to launch 5G services at the same time in order to avoid unnecessary competition. In Japan, NTT DOCOMO has been carrying out a number of trials, mainly with Huawei. The operator partnered with Nokia to provide next-generation equipment for the operator’s 5G launch. SoftBank is also very active in the field and has signed a partnership agreement with Huawei to demonstrate potential 5G use cases for its enterprise partners.
Australia-based operators Optus and Telstra have also jumped onto the 5G bandwagon. While Optus has started conducting 5G lab tests, Telstra has a few 5G base stations live on the Gold Coast, and in Toowoomba, Canberra, Perth and Adelaide. Further, Telstra aims to deploy 200 5G-enabled base stations across the country.
In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unveiled plans for conducting the first two 5G-specific high band spectrum auctions in November 2018 and 2019. FCC plans to sell the 28 GHz millimetre wave (mmWave) band in November 2018 while the 24 GHz band will be sold later.
Among operators, AT&T started conducting 5G field trials with mmWave spectrum in mid-2016 and tested 5G services among residential customers, small and large businesses, and high-traffic retail locations. In 2017, AT&T launched pre-standards 5G fixed wireless trials in a number of areas. In 2018, AT&T announced its plans to upgrade cell towers with network upgrades that include ultra-fast long term evolution (LTE). Advanced features such as 256 QAM, 4×4 multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) and three-way carrier aggregation for supporting 5G roll-outs. Another US-based operator, Sprint has started deploying 2.5 GHz massive MIMO radios. These radios are software upgradable to 5G new radio (NR), allowing Sprint to support both LTE and 5G NR modes simultaneously without additional towers. Further, T-Mobile has started deploying 5G-ready equipment and lighting 5G in 600 MHz spectrum. It plans to begin building out 5G on mmWave spectrum. T-Mobile also continues to expand its network capacity through the refarming of existing spectrum and the implementation of new technologies including voice over LTE, carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO, 256 QAM and licence-assisted access. Meanwhile, US-based Verizon established its own 5G Technology Forum, which included Apple, Cisco, Ericsson, Intel, LG, Nokia, Qualcomm and Samsung, subsequently completing and releasing its own 5G radio specification in 2016. Verizon has also acquired spectrum in the 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands and has successfully tested these through a number of trials in order to utilise them as a part of its 5G ecosystem. In early February 2018, Verizon and South Korea-based operator KT successfully conducted the first-ever pre-commercial 5G video call on two fully functioning prototype 5G tablets developed by Samsung.
The European Commission has created the 5G for Europe Action Plan, which provides a roadmap for public and private investment in 5G infrastructure in the European Union (EU). The roadmap sets out several measures to guarantee a coordinated approach among all EU member states to make 5G accessible to all by end 2020. The region is expected to hold significant market share with countries like the UK and Italy having started testing 5G networks during 2018 and planning to launch 5G smartphones by 2019. In fact, Italy is one of the first countries in Europe to auction frequencies for 5G services.
Among operators, Germany-based Deutsche Telekom, the region’s biggest operator, is already building 5G foundations through fibre roll-out, installation of new sites and deployment of 5G-ready baseband equipment. It is also erecting 5G antennas in Berlin. France-based operator Orange has also started making similar preparations for 5G. Meanwhile, Telia is expected to build 5G networks in parts of Stockholm and Tallinn by end 2018.
However, Europe has failed to turn its good intentions into a global success. Analysts believe that the region is far behind in terms of 5G preparedness. This is because, barring Deutsche Telekom and Orange, which manage regionwide networks, other operators have not yet expanded into other European countries due to the EU’s tough competition laws. Therefore, most European operators lack the continental scale needed to invest in sizeable 5G networks as compared to AT&T and China Mobile, which have massive network footprints. Further, the lack of coordination among regulators regarding the spectrum essential for 5G services, despite efforts by the European Commission to streamline the process, has hampered the EU’s attempt to keep pace with its global rivals.
Middle East and Africa
The Middle East and Africa region is also witnessing significant activity in the 5G arena. In Saudi Arabia, the Communications and Information Technology Commission announced that Al Khobar had become the first city in the region to test a 5G network. Saudi Arabia has also established a National 5G Task Force, which will set targets, monitor progress and examine 5G spectrum-related issues, 5G development and 5G verticals. Further, as part of a 3.5 GHz band, 5G Supernet deployment, Ooredoo has established a commercially available 5G network in Qatar.
While developed countries in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia are moving ahead with 5G implementation plans, countries in Africa are still catching up. To this end, the South Africa-based MTN Group has partnered with China-based ZTE to commercialise the deployment of 5G networks and services across the Middle East and Africa region. Under the agreement, ZTE and MTN will conduct a series of evaluations and tests for 5G technology verification to accelerate the commercialisation of 5G in the region. Meanwhile, Cisco is working with a number of service providers in the region, including Du and STC, to unlock the commercial potential of ultra-modern 5G mobile networks and deliver new revenue-generating services.