Telefónica has achieved a record of sorts by passing the 80% mark for Spanish 5G coverage, higher even than carriers such as Korea Telecom or China Mobile. But while that is a great effort, coverage is not the same as revenues or customers, and on those metrics, the Asian giants are in the ascendant, although Chinese 5G coverage has been criticized for not being as good as it seems.
One challenge when comparing 5G roll-outs and assessing operator claims is that we are not always comparing equal fruit, with some services being faster, reliable and more consistent within their coverage areas than others. In the USA, for example, AT&T claims to reach 225m Americans, 69% of the population, with its low-band 5G service, but this in some cases has underperformed its existing LTE offering, which taints that coverage claim somewhat.
Then Verizon has a combination of offerings with its 5G Ultra-Wideband operating in millimeter wave bands, in 28 GHz and 39GHz frequencies, with high download speeds between 338Mbps and 508.3Mbps when measured recently by OpenSignal. But this has only limited coverage in a handful of cities.
On the other hand, its Verizon 5G Nationwide service achieved far wider coverage over low-band spectrum, coexisting with 4G by using dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), but offering far more modest bit-rates.
Europe’s overall 5G coverage remains patchy, with none yet in several EU member states, and Orange only launching France’s first 5G service as recently as November 2020. Orange had decided to focus on 3.5 GHz midband spectrum, like most early 5G movers outside the USA, to obtain a balance between performance and coverage, having quickly rolled out to 160 municipalities by the end of 2020 with three to four times its 4G speeds.
Elsewhere in Europe, 5G roll-out has been preceding at various rates and speeds, with T-Mobile Austria one of the first off the blocks, with commercial launch to selected customers in the 3.6 GHz band back in March 2019. This exploited rights TMO had just acquired in the 3.4-3.8 GHz band, which has enabled it since to extend coverage to about 40% of premises by the end of 2020, using DSS over that midband spectrum. Again, there is overlap with rival Austrian offerings, from Three and A1 Telekom.
There is a similar expansion profile in Germany, Europe’s largest mobile market, where a dynamic three-way tussle is developing between Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone and Telefónica O2. Vodafone was first off with its 5G service in July 2019, operating in both the 700 MHz and 3.5 GHz bands for combined coverage and higher performance when within range of the latter. Deutsche Telekom then followed in September 2019 and Telefónica over a year later in October 2020.
Telekom uses spectrum in the 2.1 GHz band, originally assigned for 3G, for rural and suburban areas as well as many towns, with 3.6 GHz in larger cities. This combination extends good performance further but leaves more remote areas still unable to access the 5G service. Nonetheless, because of its faster roll-out, Telekom has the most extensive coverage, having reached 40m, or half the population, by July 2020 and over 55m by the year end. Vodafone was only on 10m at that time, planning to reach 20m by the end of 2021.
As a later starter, Telefónica’s service in the 3.6 GHz band is confined to 10 cities, including Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt, but with plans to overtake Vodafone before the end of 2021 with 25m people covered, rising to 50% by the end of 2022.
Of the other major European countries, the UK was first to enjoy 5G services with BT’s EE launching across six cities in May 2019, followed two months later by Vodafone, with Three and Telefónica’s O2 coming later in the year. EE focused on the 3.5 GHz band with 700 MHz to fill in coverage, with Non-Standalone services combining 4G and 5G connectivity and bands. The operator plans to start its phase 2 in 2022 with roll-out of a full 5G core network, and then like many other top tier operators, aiming to introduce ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC) and network slicing later as a third phase, hopefully in 2023.
By most measures, the UK leads major European countries in 5G roll-out and is second only to Switzerland, ranking sixth worldwide on a list published by research group Omdia in June 2020. On this list South Korea was top, Kuwait second and Switzerland third.
Indeed in Switzerland, Sunrise launched a partial 5G service in March 2019, followed a month later by Swisscom with a more comprehensive offering. By the end of 2020, Swisscom was claiming to have covered 90% of the population, with many of the people not reached being in more remote mountain valleys inaccessible to signals even when the masts are not that far away, as is the case with the longer established LTE.
Spain is the other notable European country with extensive 5G coverage, served by four operators, Vodafone, Telefónica, Orange and Masmovil. The last of these, however, relies on Orange’s network for some of its coverage. Vodafone was first off in June 2020 with launch of commercial 5G services over 3.7 GHz in 15 cities, over infrastructure supplied by both Huawei and Ericsson. Telefónica followed September 2020 with NSA 5G services over a combination of new 3.5 GHz spectrum and refarmed 1.8 GHz and 2.1 GHz frequencies. Roll-out has since been rapid, with 80% of the Spanish population covered by the start of 2021, so that the country has now risen significantly up the European league table of 5G deployments by population reached.
Beyond Europe, the USA’s story has been well told, with services launched quite early and widespread coverage achieved through use of low band spectrum, as in the much discussed AT&T case. Then South Korea is widely celebrated as having the most advanced 5G services whose performance benefits extend to a high proportion of the population.
China provokes the greatest interest through having run into problems associated with the speed and ambition of 5G roll-out, many of which have been aired despite attempts by the government as well as operators to obscure them. The pace of roll-out has been undeniable since the services were launched by all three operators, China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom, in September 2019. Equally impressive has been the rapid recruitment of 5G subscribers, even if there is some doubt over the precise numbers actually able to access the services.
That indeed is one of the bones of contention, which was raised by Huawei in October 2020 despite that company being the biggest provider of infrastructure for the services. Ryan Ding, head of Huawei’s carrier business, described China’s 5G as “fake, dumb and poor” in October 2020, as quoted by the Sina Tech websit when speaking at an industry event. He intimated that speed of roll-out had trumped other considerations such as economics, power consumption and consistency of service. He pointed out that in South Korea, average downlink rates were over 600Mbps, compared to 270Mbps in China, while actual 5G penetration in September 2020 was just 8%, having been concentrated on the most productive urban areas. He also cited very poor user experience around the edges of cells with frequent handover between 5G and 4G.
Ding alluded to a problem that is not confined to China, power consumption, citing Huawei’s own study finding that 32% of cell sites had insufficient power. This was backed up by another study coming from the China Post and Telecommunications News, a media outlet directly run by the government’s MIIT (Ministry of Industry and Information Technology), finding that the annual electricity bill would approach $29bn for 5G coverage to equal that of current 4G networks, in the absence of further power saving improvements.
It seems that efforts to save power have been brushed under the carpet by pressure to roll out 5G as quickly as possible. It appears that Huawei itself is now pushing back against this pace, but even its efforts may be in vain.