As telecom operators across the globe race to launch services, 5G no longer seems a distant reality and could mark its presence as early as end 2019. Amongst the early movers are companies in South Korea, the US and Switzerland, which have already launched 5G services in select pockets. While the coverage spans a much larger area in South Korea, in the US, two cities, Chicago and Minneapolis, have been lit with 5G so far. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, Sunrise has launched 5G services in 150 cities/villages across the country.
A look at the key developments taking place in the 5G space around the globe…
South Korea has emerged as the leader as far as 5G deployments are concerned. The country launched a nationwide 5G mobile network on April 3, 2019, with the top three service providers – SK Telecom, KT Corporation and LG Uplus – beginning services. In their endeavour to launch 5G services well ahead of other countries, South Korean operators had signed various 5G deals with leading telecom vendors. For instance, in March 2019, KT Corp awarded a contract to Ericsson to enable the nationwide launch of commercial 5G services. It also signed an MoU with Nokia in February 2019, under which the two parties have decided to collaborate and trial various 5G technologies, including network functions virtualisation (NFV) and network slicing. The initial service roll-out is reported to be heavily focused in and around Seoul. According to data published by the Ministry of Science and information and communications technology, almost 90 per cent of the country’s 5G base stations are located in Seoul, its surrounding areas and five metropolitan cities. As of April 5, 2019, about 85,261 5G base stations have been set up across 17 cities and provinces. Of these, 72,983 are located in the metropolitan cities of Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Gwangju, Daejeon and Ulsan. In terms of operator ownership of these 5G base stations, SK Telecom has reportedly deployed 21,203 stations, around 80 per cent of them located in Seoul and other metropolitan cities. KT Corporation has reportedly constructed 22,645 5G base stations, with around 64 per cent located in the capital and around it, and 23 per cent across five metropolitan cities. LG Uplus has a concentrated coverage, with 94 per cent of its 11,051 5G base stations located in Seoul and the surrounding metropolitan areas.
Other countries in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region are not far behind. In Japan, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) has allocated the frequency bands for 5G advanced wireless communications services to four mobile carriers – NTT DOCOMO, KDDI (au), Softbank Corporation and Rakuten Mobile, the new fourth operator. Of these, the last three have collaborated with utility provider TEPCO Power Grid (TEPCO PG) to conduct trials of base station sites and equipment sharing. As part of this collaboration, the three operators will utilise TEPCO PG’s utility poles and other electric power infrastructure. The trials are expected to begin in the first half of 2019.
Australia-based Optus and Telstra have also jumped on to the 5G bandwagon. While Telstra has 5G sites across all major cities in Australia, Optus is also swiftly catching up. In February 2019, Optus announced the switch-on of a live 5G site in the Kellyville suburb of Sydney. This is one of the 50 sites that Optus plans to construct across Sydney and Melbourne in the coming months. This roll-out is being carried out in partnership with Ericsson, wherein Optus will leverage Ericsson’s 5G radio access network equipment.
Not to be left behind, China too has been trialling the technology across various cities. Its Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued test frequency licences for 5G systems in December 2018 to the country’s three incumbent operators. Soon after, in January 2019, China Mobile, in partnership with ZTE, completed a field trial of 2.6 GHz 5G New Radio (NR) technology in Guangzhou, achieving download speeds of 1.8 Gbps. Starting April 2019, 5G network trials have been initiated in Hongkou district of Shanghai as well. This trial will be conducted using over 228 BTSs that were deployed in that area in the preceding three months.
The US announced the commercial launch of 5G services around the same time as South Korea when Verizon Wireless switched on its 5G ultra wideband network in select areas of Minneapolis and Chicago on April 3, 2019. As a part of this launch, Verizon enabled users in the two cities to avail of the 5G wireless network from April 11 onwards. To access the 5G network, customers can use a Motorola Z3 mobile and a 5G Moto Mod, a physical magnet-like attachment for the phone. Verizon is planning to bring 5G services to over 30 cities within 2019. AT&T Mobility has also launched its 5G network in 19 cities for select businesses and consumers with access to a NETGEAR Nighthawk 5G mobile hotspot.
Closely following the lead of the US and South Korea, Switzerland-based Sunrise announced, on April 4, 2019, that its 5G network had gone live. The initial coverage is expected to be across 150 towns and cities. At present, only partial coverage is provided for larger markets such as Zurich. Meanwhile, Switzerland’s state-owned operator Swisscom has announced that it will begin selling its first 5G-compatible devices from May 2019 onwards and it will roll out commercial 5G services as soon as the Federal Office of Communications grants it the requisite licences. Earlier, in February 2019, Switzerland’s Federal Communications Commission had completed the 5G spectrum auction, wherein it awarded frequencies in the 700 MHz, 1400 MHz and 3500 MHz bands to the three incumbent operators – Swisscom, Sunrise and Salt.
Countries like the UK and Germany have also announced plans to roll out 5G by the end of 2019. Keeping this timeline in mind, Vodafone UK has set up pre-commercial infrastructure in seven cities where 5G services will soon be switched on. Recently, the operator added another 12 cities to this list where it intends to launch 5G services by the end of 2019. Likewise, O2 UK has announced that it will soon begin the roll-out of its 5G network in “the four corners” of the country. Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London will be the first cities where it will switch on its 5G network, gradually expanding to other areas from 2020 onwards so as to better leverage the wider availability of 5G-compatible handsets in the market.
Meanwhile, in Germany, the Federal Network Agency conducted 5G spectrum auctions in March 2019. The country’s three incumbent operators – Telekom Deutschland, Telefonica Deutschland and Vodafone Germany – are believed to have participated in the auction along with DrillischNetz, a wholly owned subsidiary of telecom company 1&1 Drillisch.
In the Middle Eastern region too, operators have been trialling the technology and are expected to roll out 5G services in sync with the global timeline. UAE-based operator du, in partnership with Huawei and Nokia, is in the process of rolling out 700 5G sites across the country and is aiming to commercially launch 5G by end 2019. Likewise, Etisalat has partnered with Huawei and Ericsson to deploy 300 5G-enabled base station sites across the country in the first half of 2019. Etisalat is planning to take this number to 600 by the end of the year.
As far as the African countries are concerned, South African operator Rain, in collaboration with Nokia, launched a commercial 5G network in Cape Town in February 2019. As part of this collaboration, Rain will leverage Nokia’s end-to-end 5G solutions including optical fronthaul transport products and its fixed wireless access FastMile 5G Gateway, which uses 3GPP-compliant 5G NR. The infrastructure roll-out will be carried out using 3600 MHz spectrum and massive multiple-input and multiple-output technology. In other African countries too, various vendor operator deals have been signed to prepare the ground for 5G. For instance, Telecom Egypt has signed an MoU with Nokia to introduce a 5G network and test use cases for the Egyptian market.
The way forward
While the above-mentioned developments are significant, much more action can be expected on the 5G front in the months to come. Most of the countries across the world have already done some sort of groundwork for 5G. Operators will now focus on building on this foundation to deliver a robust network.