For operators with relatively new and modern 4G networks, upgrading base stations and antennas to 5G can be primarily a software update rather than an old-style rip-and-replace. Deutsche Telekom, for instance, has announced the software upgrade of an additional 15,000 antennas for 5G, serving Nuremberg and Hanover among other cities, as well as rural areas like Schwanebeck in the Harz Mountains and Westerland on Sylt.
These are using 2.1 GHz refarmed 3G spectrum, joining some of the antennas already converted, which are in the 3.6 GHz band. The telco is already providing 5G coverage to over 16m people in Germany, spanning over 1,000 towns and cities.
The operator claims that, in the rural areas, the network is achieving more than twice its previous speeds, with peaks of 225Mbps, a figure that rises to between 600Mbps and 800Mbps in cities. And DT also claims to have four times better coverage than its closest rival, Vodafone, because of its rapid start to the roll-out and superior spectrum position.
So far, Germany has not banned Huawei equipment from its operators’ 5G RANs. This is important both to Vodafone, which gets over half its base stations from Huawei, and DT. The incumbent has equipment from all of the big three in its 4G and 5G RANs, and ha decide to phase Chinese products out of its core. But it has argued vocally against restrictions in the RAN, particularly as it has been backing away from Nokia equipment. It has told government investigations that it would be “Armageddon” if Huawei were banned, costing it about €3bn (US$3.4bn) to replace existing equipment. It is virtually impossible, it says, to add 5G antennas from one supplier to a 4G network from another, and it wants to be able to continue to source components for its Huawei SingleRAN.
DT is a supporter of open RAN initiatives, because it does want more choice of RAN supplier, and claims to have been spending less with Huawei over the past three years. But its choices remain limited until O-RAN platforms are mature, especially because, in 2017, it decided to defocus on Nokia in favor of Ericsson and Huawei. This means it has limited Nokia installed equipment to build on, which makes a migration to Nokia kit for 5G NSA more complex and expensive. Either it involves deploying a more resource-hungry NSA architecture option that allows for 4G and 5G base stations from different vendors to share the same LTE core; or it involves a rip-and-replace, which the vendor would probably be expected to pay for, but which would take up to two years.