Who will be the first to roll out 5G?

29 May 2018

Image: sirtravelalot/Shutterstock

A digital arms race is underway among nations, operators and tech firms to be first out of the traps with 5G.

Even though the 5G standard (or collection of standards) is not officially defined, technology and telecoms companies are falling over each other to gain 5G leadership.

There is hardly a telecoms company or a comms minister today that doesn’t strategically slide a reference to 5G into whatever they are talking about.

It sounds on-trend and, even though a single defined standard has yet to be agreed by groups such as the IEEE, most of the industry is pointing towards low-latency networks that are capable of 1Gbps-type speeds or higher.

I think the reality will be more complex and less tidy. Spectrum will of course be paramount, but 5G as I understand it will be as much of a revolution in software-switching as frequency, and the kind of speeds promoters of 5G harp on about require high-density concentrations of masts in urban areas, never mind rural areas.

The soothsayers are setting everyone up for an anticlimax reminiscent of 3G, which was promoted as a game-changer but in reality took several years and lots of tweaks to be anything close to what was promised. Or are they?

In April, Huawei rotating chairperson Eric Xu responsibly warned that the promise of 5G was being overblown. However, preparations are happening at a furious pace.

This was not long after Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2018 in Barcelona where it emerged that, according to figures from the GSM Association (GSMA), there are currently 77 operators trialling 5G across 49 countries.

Who is leading?

At MWC, it was suggested that Europe was at risk of falling behind on 5G use cases, with the Small Cell Forum warning that fragmented European regulation and a lack of urgency among large mobile operators could see Europe lag behind North America and larger Asian economies in launching future 5G-enabled use cases.

The Asian tech giants are certainly leading the charge on 5G and this could be making the US a tad tetchy, possibly explaining the trade embargo against ZTE and the atmosphere of suspicion holding back companies such as Huawei, but also derailing Broadcom’s attempted takeover of Qualcomm by presidential order.

I find it hard to agree that Europe is a slouch, however.

In Ireland, for example, five firms have already been awarded spectrum in the 3.6GHz band after bidding €78m between them. Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD, also revealed that Ireland’s 5G mobile broadband auctions using 700MHz spectrum will take place in 2019. Rather than the roll-out of 5G on a population basis, as had been the case with the 4G auctions in 2012, the country will instead license 5G on a geographic basis.

This week in the UK, digital minister Margot James called for a new generation of mobile phone masts to be built across the UK to be ready for the launch of 5G as early as 2020.

Interestingly, James, like Naughten, is transfixed by the potential for 5G to be a rural broadband silver bullet and has cited the TransPennine rail route, which is being used as a 5G test site, as an example of a new approach to masts, according to the Financial Times.

Crucially, and this is where James is leading the charge, she said that policymakers need to “crack the planning issue” if 5G networks are to go live in 2020, less than two years from now.

Commercially, mobile operators in Europe – and Ireland particularly – are rushing to get out of the traps with the next generation of mobile.

In Dublin in February, Vodafone and Ericsson demoed network speeds of 15Gbps using beam-forming technologies. Beam-forming, in its crudest sense, is similar to a flashlight pointing its beam on an object. In one active 5G antenna, 500 radio transmitters were used to form a beam to ensure the perfect transmission of up to 15Gbps at a latency of less than five milliseconds.

Nevertheless, that’s a lot of radio power to achieve the futuristic speeds we are all being promised and, while it can possibly work in a concentrated area, how well would it work over long distances?

Vodafone’s rival in the Irish market, Three, is also looking to 5G as a rural broadband silver bullet.

It emerged recently that Three plans to spend €100m a year on its 5G roll-out and, according to CEO Robert Finnegan, there will be no urban-rural digital divide when the next generation of networks is rolled out.

In the 5G spectrum allocations by ComReg last year, Three Ireland secured 100MHz nationally. “Three wanted to secure 100MHz of 5G spectrum nationally and not to differentiate between rural and urban areas. We are delighted that we are the only bidder that was able to achieve that,” Finnegan said at the time.

In recent weeks, data player Imagine secured a €120m investment from Canadian investment giant Brookfield Asset Management to deploy its 5G fixed wireless infrastructure across Ireland and Europe.

The idea is that these 5G masts will provide a last-mile solution in places where fibre to the home (FTTH) is challenging or impossible. Imagine predicts that the average household and business’ consumption of data is expected to exceed 150GB per month by 2020.

In the UK, SSE has signed a deal to bring 20 of Three’s core data centres ‘on net’ for 5G by expanding Three’s fibre and 5G networks.

And, on Europe’s mainland, major change is afoot. A core aspect of Vodafone’s recent acquisition of Liberty Global’s assets in Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania for €18.4bn was FTTH combined with 5G to supercharge 54m homes with next-generation gigabit-speed services.

5G – which is not one technology but a whole bag of standards and technologies –  is expected to be the intrinsic link between devices, autonomous vehicles, drones, the internet of things and much more.

Where will be first to deploy 5G?

With all the activity in Europe, you would be forgiven for thinking the Europeans will be the frontrunners.

But, in the US, AT&T wants to be the first US carrier to have 5G available in 12 cities by the end of this year.

My prediction, however, based on what I witnessed at MWC, is that it will be those feisty Asian telcos and tech giants that will make the fastest headway in getting 5G off the ground and into the air.

Expect cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo to be the places where large-scale population adoption of 5G becomes normalised from 2020 onwards.

The US is focusing on cities first while Europe wants to solve its rural broadband dilemma. Europe is focused on hoping that 5G will be the antidote to long-running rural broadband problems. In time it may be, but the real challenge will be physics and it will be an urban-rural divide in terms of speeds, except perhaps in rural applications where 5G is tactically used with fibre to solve last-mile issues.

But, just like with fibre, Asian cities with large population centres and lots of high-rise apartment buildings will gain the most from the beam-forming capabilities of 5G.

This will also equip manufacturers with insight, experience and prowess in 5G.

And that is why the Americans are on edge.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years