What a difference a year makes. This time last year, 5G deployment was just getting underway in earnest. Now the technology is all over the globe, but there were signs deployment could be slowing, even before COVID-19.
As well as the cornoavirus outbreak, which had not been designated a pandemic when the research for this survey was carried out in January and February, several challenges were apparent. They include geopolitical concerns, difficulties developing profitable business models and securing 5G and internet of things (IoT) networks, and the need for telcos to transform their culture (see this analysis of their progress) to be much more agile.
In our readership survey a year ago, about 20% of respondents said that they or their customers were deploying 5G and 44% were participating in trials. This year we asked about future deployment and found that close to half intend to deploy 5G this year, as shown in the graph below.
Source: Mobile Europe/European Communications, February 2020
Where is 5G available?
Mobile operators have deployed 5G in more than 6,500 locations worldwide, according to the Ookla 5G map below (from the first week of February 2020), which is updated weekly to track deployment in cities around the world. The screenshot below, captured in late January, shows Europe as a hotbed of activity.
As Kester Mann, Director, Consumer and Connectivity at CCS Insight, noted in his recent Mobile Europe blog, “One trend that has taken many by surprise is the strong progress of 5G in Europe. During the build-up to the first launches, much was made of the region trailing the US and developed Asian markets, yet Europe now accounts for almost half of all 5G network launches.”
Indeed, all four UK mobile operators have launched 5G. Deployment continues apace in Asia as well, but in the US, where carriers have been aggressively rolling out 5G technology, deployment has slowed somewhat unexpectedly. Shares in 5G equipment provider Ericsson AB dropped 7% in January on this news.
Ericsson CEO Börje Elkholm blamed the slowdown in the US partly on a holdup in the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, but he also told The Wall Street Journal that 5G is slowing in many countries because of geopolitical concerns about the use of Huawei equipment.
“That has created more uncertainty for our customers,” he said. “This whole notion that this was a win for Ericsson and Nokia so far has not materialised.”
The US continues to push hard to try to keep other countries from using Huawei 5G technology, but it may be losing the fight. In late January 2020, the UK, for example, decided in favour of allowing limited non-core deployment of Huawei 5G technology.
In the same month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also implied tacit support for Huawei during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Although she did not name Huawei, she said, “How do I make myself secure? I think I make myself the most secure through diversification and redundancy where it is necessary; those are the technical approaches to secure myself.
I don’t think I make myself particularly secure if I completely eliminate providers in their entirety and then don’t know how they develop – I am sceptical about that.”
What’s most important?
Deploying 5G technology is, in fact, the biggest priority by far for the mobile operators and suppliers we surveyed. A full 91% put it in their top three priorities for 2020, a huge leap from our 2018 and 2019 surveys.
This is an updated version of the article that originally appeared in the Q1 2020 edition of Mobile Europe & European Communications magazine, which can be download free of charge from here.
The next most important priority is improving network security, with just over half of respondents putting it in their top three. It’s good to see this rising as a priority. Last year only 15% of respondents cited security as a significant challenge.
More than half of respondents said they believe 5G networks are more difficult to secure than mobile networks that use previous generations of technology, and 60% have already started making critical improvements to network security. This can include implementing a comprehensive cybersecurity risk assessment, setting policies and processes for data governance, and ensuring data integrity in partner ecosystems.