- Telcos in different parts of the world have been moving at their own speeds on the rollout of fifth-generation (5G) networks to date. But 2021 is likely to be the year where early implementations start to support large numbers of mainstream subscribers for the first time.
The precise timing of new launches this year may ultimately depend on lifting any lingering economic and social distancing restrictions that could hamper engineer site visits in some cases. But after the widespread coronavirus induced disruption of 2020, 2021 is likely to see accelerated expansion as operators pull out all the stops to meet their original schedules.
Regional variations owe much to government impetus
In its Global Mobile Trends 2021 report, the GSMA already noted a resurgence of 5G activity in late 2020 after a series of delays in the first half, estimating that 113 MNOs had rolled out 5G networks in 48 countries by December last year.
The current state of 5G infrastructure in any one country owes much to government stimulus purposely designed to foster economic growth. In South Korea for example, progress was boosted by government spending totalling US$315m in 2019 and US$591m in 2020 according to Statista, with president President Moon Jae-in outlining ambitions for South Korean companies to capture a 15% share of the global 5G market by 2026. That led to research company Omdia rating South Korea as the leading country for 5G deployment from a list of 22 last October[i] while IHS Markit hailed the country’s outstanding results in a series of tests conducted in December[ii].
State support for MNOs and the input of telecoms equipment supplier Huawei have also driven rapid expansion in China. The country’s operators plan to build 600k 5G base stations in 2021 according to the country’s ministry of industry and information technology (MIIT), on top of the estimated 690k currently in operation that already supports over 160m users. A report published by Ericsson late last year forecast there would be around 200m global 5G subscribers in late 2020, 175m of which would be in China[iii].
The three major US mobile network operators (MNOs) will continue to expand their 5G coverage and capacity in 2021. They start to move beyond low band network infrastructure and towards mid-band and milimeter wave (mmWave) networks transmit in the 24-40GHz frequency wavebands. These will eventually deliver much faster data speeds and greater coverage density needed to handle larger numbers of connected 5G devices and people in cities, transport hubs and other congested sites.
While 5G launches thus far have been concentrated in the mature markets of Asia, the US and Europe, developing countries are set to see their own 5G debuts in 2021. Limited services are already available in South Africa and Lesotho (MTN and Vodacom), Brazil (Claro) and Uruguay (Antel) for example, with potential deployments in Chile, Colombia and the Dominican Republic shortly expected according to the GSMA. Elsewhere Singapore has plans to cover the whole island with 5G connectivity by 2025, while Telstra and Optus will roll out services using mmWave frequencies in Australia this year once spectrum becomes available.
5G smartphones add the missing piece
Of course, it’s one thing for operators to build out their 5G infrastructure, another to populate it with paying customers. And a key difference in 2021 will be higher volumes of lower-cost 5G smartphones coming onto the market for the first time. Major manufacturers like Apple, Huawei, LG, Samsung and Xiaomi will ramp up the numbers of 5G smartphones they produce while the easing of supply chain problems caused by coronavirus will open the way for new handsets to ship outside China and South Korea more freely.
Expanding their turnover from mobile and broadband connectivity alone has proved increasingly difficult for telcos given strict regulatory frameworks in some regions and intense price competition. The economic disruption caused by the pandemic has made it even harder to do. So the imminent availability of higher bandwidth, low latency 5G networks and affordable 5G-capable smartphones are critical to operators’ strategy in the future. Especially as they try to maximise revenue from additional service delivery on top of all, you can eat mobile phone minutes and data packages.
The massive levels of investment into 5G rollouts puts telcos under even more pressure to start delivering – the GSMA predicts that 80% of their combined capital expenditure (around US$890bn) will be spent on 5G over the next five years. And top of the agenda is expanding the density and coverage of their 5G infrastructure while preparing the ground for future implementations of automated Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN) systems. These systems are designed to improve performance and configuration for specific applications and use cases while simultaneously cutting operational costs.
Ultimately it may be the business to business (B2B) customers in key enterprise verticals like manufacturing, financial services, retail and healthcare expected to embrace the Internet of Things (IoT) on a much bigger scale. And this is the segment that will repay the lion share of the 5G network investments. But with the standalone infrastructure needed to provide high density, low latency connectivity to large numbers of devices still some years away from completion, it will be consumer subscriptions that start to generate income in the meantime.
To start the ball rolling, MNOs may need something more than just new devices and more bandwidth to entice customers – the search for the 5G “killer app” or even a partnership in OTT or gaming is very much on.
 Omdia: South Korea remains the global leader in 5G, Switzerland tops Europe, GSMArena, 1st October 2020
 South Korea puts others in 5G shade – report, LightReading, 7th December 2020
 5G’s rollout speeds along faster than expected, even with the coronavirus pandemic raging, CNET, 30th November 2020