Speed, spectrum and service: 5G around the world

01 June 2020 | Melanie Mingas

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It was tipped to be the year 5G went global but add a pandemic and a global recession to the mix and 5G’s fortunes could now be hanging in the balance.

While it was originally hoped that business disruptions caused by Covid-19 would not delay 5G deployments, the reality has been far less black and white.

In recent weeks, South Africa and Sweden have turned on 5G networks and China Mobile has awarded contracts for 5G build outs.

Meanwhile, trials of 4G and 5G Open RAN will commence in the UK, Germany, Spain and Brazil this year after Telefónica confirmed a “strategic ecosystem collaboration” with Altiostar, Gigatera Communications, Intel, Supermicro and Xilinx, Inc.

However, India and Poland are just two of the markets that have faced delays and cancellations to 5G spectrum auctions.

“Many countries are still waiting for the regulators to give them the green light to deploy 5G, but many operators are spending a lot of time on 5G,” Mikaël Schachne, VP of Mobility and IoT at BICS, told Capacity earlier this year.

“At first, 5G will be more of an evolution as opposed to a revolution. We will have a full transformation where 5G core will be made available, but this will require a lot of effort,” Schachne added.

Studying four countries leading the 5G roll out – Australia, South Korea, the US and UK – OpenSignal assessed the performance of 10 5G operators that have been offering services for a minimum of six months.

Speed and spectrum

5G is fast, but the results vary. Of the 10 operators studied, 5G speeds were between 18.4 times and 1.7 times faster on than 4G, with average 5G download speeds following a similar pattern and ranging between 506.1 Mbps on Verizon down to 47 Mbps on T-Mobile US.

Despite the variations, in every case the 5G download speed was dramatically faster than 4G. This was even the case for SK telecom; already boasting the fastest 4G download speed, 5G improved this by a further 3.5 times.

“Understanding the extent to which 5G improves the mobile experience is critical both for consumers considering upgrading to 5G and also for the mobile industry that’s planning how quickly to invest in 5G,” said report author Ian Fogg, head of Opensignal’s analysis team.

As demonstrated in the graphic, the key is spectrum.

 

 Verizon’s speeds topped the charts because it is the only operator to exclusively use mmWave spectrum. The slowest performing networks were primarily low-band repurposed 4G spectrum – 600Mhz for T-Mobile US and 850Mhz for AT&T – that offer good coverage but less capacity and slower average speeds.

All other operators relied on mid-band spectrum, including Australia’s Telstra, all three of South Korea’s operators, Sprint in the US and the UK’s EE and Vodafone. The result was that user speeds differed greatly from well over 200 Mbps on all three Korean operators, to 114.2 Mbps on Sprint.

“In part, this speed difference is because of the amount of 5G spectrum available to deploy — wider channels are better, ideally 100Mhz in a single 5G band — but it’s also due to other differences in the networks such as the capacity of the onward connection from each cell site or the performance of each operator’s core network,” Fogg said.

“As the new T-Mobile combines the assets of Sprint, we expect to see the average 5G speed of new T-Mobile users rising as they benefit from the mid-band 5G spectrum which Sprint has deployed,” he added.

Service

Speed means little without availability, but the time users spent connected to 5G was another point of variation in the experience.

Fogg said: “There is little point in having the potential to enjoy 5G, if that 5G experience is not often available.”

On T-Mobile US a high of 19.8% was achieved. In fact, T-Mobile US users spent the most time connected to 5G globally, closely followed by thee three South Korean operators, whose 5G availability ranged from 15.4% to 12.6%.

“This indicated that while T-Mobile 5G speeds may not be the fastest, their users will experience the higher 5G speeds considerably more often than the users of other 5G operators,” Fogg said.

“South Korea continues to demonstrate not only tremendous 5G adoption, but a widely available and fast 5G experience. 4G continues to be important to users’ overall mobile experience because for now users have much higher availability on 4G, indicating that the mobile industry should look to accelerate 5G deployments so more people can enjoy the advantages of 5G more often,” Fogg added.

The 5G network will support more than 10% of global mobile connections by 2023, according to the Cisco Annual Internet Report, paving the way for “more dynamic mobile infrastructures for AI and emerging IoT applications”, including autonomous cars, smart cities, connected health, immersive video and more.

The evidence suggests that strong and steady progress has been made in 5G roll outs to date, however some connections are more equal than others. The danger now is that without sharing best practice and fostering unity on a global scale, 5G roll outs may continue but they will not deliver a like-for-like experience.