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Deutsche Telekom vaults itself forward in the 5G race

In what should be described as somewhat of a slow burner, Deutsche Telekom has made the bold claim it will be able to connect 50% of its population to 5G by mid-July.

When discussing aggressive 5G deployment strategies, the German telcos are rarely mentioned. But it seems once again we are able to point to the age-old stereotypes of efficiency and humility, as DT announces it has deployed 12,000 5G base stations to date.

“This is the largest 5G initiative in Germany,” said Telekom Deutschland CEO Dirk Wössner. “We are bringing 5G to urban and rural areas for half of the German population. And we are now reaching this milestone earlier than planned.

“Despite the coronavirus crisis, we have expanded 5G without detours. Our networks have worked reliably. In addition to the current situation, our technicians have made over 12,000 antennas fit for 5G.

“By the end of the year, there will even be 40,000 antennas fit for 5G. That is a huge achievement. Deutsche Telekom will also have the best network for 5G. In a first step, around 16 million people in Germany will be able to use 5G from today. By mid-July, half the population of Germany will be able to use it.”

Using 3.6 GHz and 2.1 GHz spectrum to deliver the 5G services, the team should be able to offer the connectivity dream which has been hyped by the industry. There might still be some reservations regarding ‘not spots’, but densification plans are underway to fill in the connectivity voids.

What is also worth remembering with such a claim is that achieving 5G coverage for the first 50% is incomparably simpler than spreading coverage over the last 50%.

Interestingly enough, this is certainly a turnaround from the sluggish drive towards 4G a decade ago, though this assumption does rely on the ability of DT to migrate customers to 5G tariffs.

4G subscriptions 2010-14 (thousands)
Country 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Germany <1 141 796 3,696 12,301
Australia 90 1,730 6,781 12,230
UK 250 2,866 19,309
France 5 3,350 10,883
Japan 1 1,139 13,186 39,022 64,789
USA 215 6,578 38,604 96,489 157,907

Source: Omdia Knowledge Centre, World Information Series

For the purpose of comparison, we have tried to limit the above data to similar markets (population and economy), while we have also included the USA to measure against an aggressive early adopter in the 4G era.

Europe on the whole was slow to break into the 4G era, but Germany’s scale was hardly mind-blowing even by the standards of the region. There are certainly rewards in scaling mobile networks rapidly, and one would hope Germany has learned lessons from the past. The issue which now remains is whether it can convince customers to make use of the new connectivity revolution.

The other question which has been raised here is the need to densify network, a nod to the shorter ranges of frequencies being employed for 5G connectivity.

Numerous telcos have suggested there is no need for densification initiatives, claiming the same network footprint which was used by 3G and 4G would be sufficient. Breakthroughs such as Massive MIMO and Beamforming could compensate for the shorter coverage characteristics of using higher frequency spectrum, as could carrier aggregation. That said, analyst opinion on the need for densification is varied, while activities in Germany and China would also suggest it is a needed component of 5G deployment.

CEO Timotheus Höttges has previously said the German telco would require 50,000 mobile sites to get to the required coverage levels, a considerable uplift from the c.25,000 it currently has in place. These densification programmes will become ever more important as high-band frequencies, such as mmWave which has considerably shorter range, start to make waves in the European 5G pond.

While this is an on-going debate, one which has not been satisfactorily answered by the telcos currently, this should not distract from the progress being made by DT here. 12,000 5G base stations in 1,000 towns and cities is a healthy position to be in, and 50% coverage by mid-July is certainly a surprising claim. There will be ‘not spots’ and patchy performance, but there are always teething pains.

It appears DT has been quietly going about its work to get to this point, catapulting it up the table in terms of 5G leadership.

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