As mobile network operators take aim at their 5G futures, they are presented with multiple pathways to delivering 5G, including frequency spectra, 4G to 5G migration options, and whether to implement software-centric open radio access network, or open RAN, solutions. Kagan’s global survey of 73 mobile network operators, conducted in September 2020, provides insight into operator preferences for 5G network deployments.
2020 survey respondents pointed to the mid-band as their most preferred frequency spectrum range, with 63% of the mobile network operators, or MNOs, planning to leverage the 3 GHz to 4 GHz bands to deliver initial 5G services. This is up from our 2019 results — albeit from a smaller survey field of 56 operators — when 50% of operators planned to use the mid-band for initial 5G service rollouts.
The second-most-popular 5G spectrum range is millimeter wave, or mmW, although the percentage of respondents planning to use mmW dropped from 45% in 2019 to 36% in the 2020 survey. Another change from last year is that the percentage of operators aiming to deliver 5G using the two lower-band spectra ranges — sub-2.6 GHz and sub-2.1 GHz — at 41% combined in 2020 exceeds the percentage planning to use mmW spectra.
In terms of pathways to 5G, it is important to highlight that 5G will be delivered over a variety of spectra, some of which is already used for 4G service. For simplicity, 5G spectra are divided into three categories: low-band (sub-2.6 GHz), mid-band (3 GHz to 4 GHz), and mmW (24 GHz and above). Some operators are marketing lower-band spectrum as mid-band, most notably T-Mobile US Inc., which refers to its 2.5 GHz spectrum (acquired from Sprint Corp.) as mid-band as part of its "Layer Cake" strategy, which includes 600 MHz low-band along with its mmW high-band to deliver 5G via three discrete spectrum bands.
Different paths to 5G
The most popular of the four discrete choices for a migration path, indicated by 51% of survey respondents, is one which leverages existing 4G LTE spectrum and infrastructure. This is known as non-standalone 5G, and enables operators to deploy 5G services both quickly and more cost-effectively than the other choices.
The second most popular choice for 5G service deployment (25% of respondents) was utilizing 4G LTE networks in conjunction with licensed assisted access, or LAA, technology, which like non-standalone 5G enables faster time-to-market, but lower overall performance due to its dependence on 4G network elements (and its lack of a 5G core).
The third most popular option – implemented or planned by 21% of respondents – for MNOs is to build a standalone 5G network, which runs in parallel to existing 4G networks and services. This is more expensive as it requires investment in and deployment of a 5G core. A standalone 5G network is sometimes referred to as "true 5G" as it does not utilize any 4G network elements, and is therefore capable of delivering both higher throughput speeds and lower latency, with the related benefit of lower operational costs.
The fourth and least popular option selected by only 4% of our respondents was utilizing open RAN technology. Open RAN leverages cloud- and software-based solutions to enable 5G service, as opposed to the more traditional hardware-centric approach. An extension of software-defined networking, or SDN, and virtualization technology, open RAN provides operators with a more flexible path to 5G service implementations, by allowing MNOs to avoid being "locked in" or overly dependent on RAN hardware vendors and systems.
While open RAN was not a popular choice for the initial turning up 5G networks and services in this year’s survey, there is no question that open RAN technologies and solutions will gain traction in the operator community as 5G networks move from nascent deployments toward maturity. This mirrors the expected increase in SDN and network functional virtualization, or NVF, solutions within the wireline networking sector. In fact, for operators that offer both wireline and wireless services, SDN and NFV will enable them to achieve true fixed-mobile convergence, or FMC, where historic partitions, or "silos" defining each network are eliminated and the formerly discrete wireline and wireless networks are consolidated, differentiated only by the access network technologies.
5G Survey: Spectrum, network evolution and open RAN plans
5G Survey: Despite COVID-19 delays, operator roadmaps still lead to 5G