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How is 5G getting on?

Woman with question mark on paper over her forehead

With the FCC announcing the results of its latest spectrum auction, we’re having a look at how the networks and supporting ecosystems are developing around the world.

Of course, it is critically important to deploy 5G networks, this is the most expensive and time-consuming aspect of the connectivity euphoria, but all the other cogs have to click into place as well. Without the devices and applications on the market to make use of the speed, you have to actually wonder what the point is.

But to start with, how many countries have actually hit the on-switch?

DISCLAIMER: We appreciate we haven’t covered every possible country, telco, product, offer and service, but that would be a monstrous task. If you consider this more of a summary of progress, you might not be disappointed.

US and South Korea take the lead, but not by much

It will have surprised very few that the US and South Korea were first to market, this was a prediction made years ago, though there were quite a few countries are following quickly.

Who made it first is a bit of a contentious discussion. The three major MNOs in Korea hit the on-switch first, though Verizon claims as the connectivity euphoria was only available for celebrity influencers, it should be considered the first. Starting on April 11, Verizon launched 5G in Chicago and Minneapolis. Since then more cities have been added to the mix.

What is worth noting is that this is mobile 5G. Technically both Verizon and AT&T launched home services in 2018, though as there were no mobile devices available it was nothing more than a misleading marketing plug. AT&T is now present in various cities throughout the US, while Sprint has launched in a handful of regions, making use of its 2.5 GHz spectrum, at the end of May. Completing the big four in the US, T-Mobile US will start to launch towards the end of 2019.

Sticking with North and Central America, the Canadian telcos have plans to launch 5G services in 2020, as does America Movil in Mexico. The rest of Central America will stagger in over the next couple of years, dealing with 4G connectivity challenges first.

In Asia, we have already discussed South Korea, but it is worth noting it is hoovering up subscriptions. Contrary to Verizon’s claim, the telcos insist it was a full-service switch-on, while the Ministry of Science and ICT said 260,000 5G subscriptions were added in the first month.

South Korea is also steaming along with network densification plans, claiming to have deployed 54,202 5G base stations by the beginning of May. This is where other nations might face more of a challenge, considering how concentrated the South Korean population is in Seoul and the size of the country.

China is a country which fits into this challenging mould. Despite being one of the technology leaders in the 5G world, it is not one of the fastest to market. China Unicom launched some test projects this year, with plans to launch in 2020, while China Mobile is planning to have 10,000 5G base stations by the same date. The big question is how quickly China can roll out hardware across such a vast geographical area.

Elsewhere in Asia, Japan’s telcos are also targeting a 2020 launch date, as is Viettel in Vietnam and StarHub in Singapore. The Indian Department of Telecommunications has 2020 plans across the industry, while Reliance Jio is being predictably aggressive, also suggesting it will launch its own device.

In Europe, it has been suggested the telcos will be slower off the mark than others around the world, though there are some bright spots defying the trends.

EE has already switched on its network in the UK, while Vodafone will follow next month. O2 plans to launch towards the end of 2019, as will Three. One of the issues facing the UK in the immediate future is the price of tariffs, which are notably higher than 4G. Once all four MNOs are up and running this might calm down, but for the moment, 5G is just for the wealthy.

Switzerland is a country which is seemingly leading the European charge however. Having launched 5G in April, Swisscom plans to have 90% of the population covered by the end of the year. Sunrise has also launched, while a third MNO Salt will be in hot pursuit before too long.

In Finland, Elisa Oyj first turned on its 5G network in 2018, and has been scaling the deployment to various different cities across the first couple of months as devices have become available. Telia has also launched in a handful of cities, while DNA plans to launch not only a mobile service, but also a FWA offering in Vantaa.

Orange in France and Telecom Italia in Italy are two other telcos which plan to launch across 2019, though the majority seem to be targeting 2020 for any 5G buzz.

The Middle-East is another region which is at the front of the 5G pack, and perhaps it should come as little surprise considering the wealth of the citizens and also the smaller size of the nations involved.

Ooredoo in Qatar is another telco which is claiming to be the first worldwide to deliver commercial 5G services, while it has also launched in Kuwait alongside Zain. UAE 5G became available via Etisalat UAE on May 30, while du is planning on launching in the immediate future. Bahrain will also see launches in 2019, according to the government, while it looks like it will be 2020 for Saudi Arabia, though many of the messages from here are confusing.

As you would expect, many of the 5G rollout plans in South America are somewhat being the curve, though there are some exceptions. Entel in Chile is targeting 2020, as is Telefonica in Columbia, while Brazil is also confident.

Africa is similar to South America, with some of the wealthier nations pushing ahead while the majority are still tackling the massive digital divide.

In South Africa, Vodacom and Rain are planning to launch 5G this year, while MTN hasn’t announced any timelines. Telecom Egypt and Nokia have reportedly come to an agreement to launch in 2019, although specifics are light on the ground, and Safaricom also have 5G plans this year. The Nigerian government has set 2020 as a target.

How long will we have networks without the devices?

Of course, the networks are largely redundant without the devices to make use of the connectivity euphoria.

Starting with the biggest device manufacturers, Samsung has already released its first 5G-compatible device onto the market. The Samsung S10 5G is available through most MNOs who are heading towards the finish line, while some other device manufacturers have signed exclusive agreements.

The second biggest smartphone manufacturer is somewhat of a different story however. With Huawei facing problems with its operating system, Google has paused the partnership thanks to the ban put on working with Chinese companies by the White House, many telcos are wary of selling the devices. In the UK, for example, both EE and Vodafone have removed the Huawei Mate X from their websites, refusing to accept pre-orders until the issues have been clarified.

Apple is one brand which is sitting out the first wave of 5G smartphones, though this is hardly a surprise. This seems to be the strategy from Apple in many different areas; you don’t necessarily have to be the first but be the best. By the time Apple comes to launching its own device, the initial bugs and bumps will have been identified (and hopefully corrected) to deliver the experience which consumers have come to expect.

Looking at the best of the rest, Motorola might have been one of the first to market, but it has fallen out of the headlines since. The issue was the 5G component of the device was a module which could be clipped onto a standard smartphone. Why would anyone consider such a device when there are better alternatives?

The OnePlus 7 Pro has launched exclusively with EE in the UK and Elisa in Finland, while the LG V50 ThinQ looks like a very useful device targeting multi-taskers and gamers. The Oppo Reno 5G and Xiaomi MI MIX 3 are also available.

There are also various connectivity plug-in hubs, smart home appliances and FWA devices which are either currently on the market, or soon to be, available for consumers. The issue which many will face over the remainder of 2019 and early 2020 is a tsunami of devices which will be compatible with 5G. All of these devices will be fighting to attention, so be prepared for 5G to be plastered across every billboard, radio message, TV ad and double decker bus.

What to do on the impossibly fast phone

This is the issue which many will face over the coming months; you have the device, you have the 5G contract, but what’s the point?

In some cases, it does make sense to have a contract without the applications. In central London, for example, when 4G networks are congested, 5G will address a challenge. However, many will be hoping for more.

There are some interesting ideas floating around. Most will focus on faster download speed, though this is largely redundant. If you can get speeds of 100 Mbps, 80% of it will largely be data headroom as there are few applications currently on the market (and applicable to the everyday user) which would require the full-potential of 5G.

In South Korea, telcos are offering customers add-ons to reduce latency. It would be considered a premium, and a very niche service to offer, but for gaming enthusiasts this might be appealing for an extra couple of quid each month. Real-time gaming, VR, immersive content, these are applications which are most relevant today, but it won’t be long before others emerge.

The killer 4G application did not appear straight away either. It took time for the developers to play around with ideas, test out the potentially good ones and scale the few which were realistic. Right now, 5G might look like a solution without a problem, but it won’t be too long before we are all demanding the speeds which seem so unnecessary today.

Are telcos asking for too much cash?

This is the big question; how much do you charge for 5G?

On the one hand, it has cost the telcos a lot of money to roll out the networks. The bean counters will want a return on investment sharpish, encouraging marketing teams to push premium tariffs. However, when you look at the efficiency gains of 5G, it makes the delivery of connectivity much cheaper for the telcos, setting lower tariffs to encourage more people to upgrade might be a better long-term solution for pressures on the spreadsheets.

It does look like the telcos are opting for the more expensive option in the first instance however.

EE and Vodafone have announced their tariffs in the UK, and should you want to get a satisfactory amount of data for the month, you’ll have to send north of £70 a month. This would not be deemed as acceptable to most.

In the US, Verizon is offering customers the chance to upgrade for an extra $10 a month on more premium 4G contracts, while AT&T is charging $70 a month. T-Mobile US, the company most likely to disrupt the pricing strategies of this pair, has not made any announcements to date.

In South Korea, the tariffs are a little bit friendlier, with the option to get data allowances of up to 250 GB being a lot more expensive. Overall, there is little consistency, with different regions taking different approaches to both pricing and data allowances.

With only a handful of operators offering 5G connectivity, there is always a risk of pricing themselves out of the market. As more launch, the price will come down and, in a few markets, there will be disruptors running loss leader packages. To get a better handle on pricing, we will have to wait a while.

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One comment

  1. henry 07/06/2019 @ 7:37 am

    “In South Africa, Vodacom and Rain are planning to launch 5G this year, while MTN hasn’t announced any timelines.”… This may be true, but you can bet your white fluffy socks we are going to make sure this doesn’t happen. Far too many health risks associated with the pylons. They have extreme warnings on them. It is against our human right.

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