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5G Survey: Spectrum, Technology Roadmap Highlights

Highlights

The following post comes from Kagan, a research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence.

To learn more about our TMT (Technology, Media & Telecommunications) products and/or research, please request a demo.

5G service is slowly but surely moving from hype to reality, according to Kagan's first global survey of 56 mobile carrier executives, completed in September. While the majority of survey respondents asserted that 5G is already operational in their networks, a deeper look at survey data indicates that 5G has yet to reach more than a small fraction of current customer bases. Initial 5G service footprints are limited to select areas within major metros, and true mass-market 5G — matching current 4G/LTE footprints — is at least two to three years away. Rural 5G coverage, touted by many wireless operators as a critical element of their 5G strategy, is likely to be even farther out given 5G technology's current inability to serve larger geographic areas efficiently or cost-effectively.

5G frequency options

In terms of the frequency range that operators expect to utilize for 5G service delivery, exactly half (50%) of operators plan to leverage the 3 GHz to 4 GHz mid-band spectrum. It is also clear that most operators will use multiple frequency ranges and associated technologies to deliver 5G, as indicated by the 45% that plan to use millimeter wave, or mmWave, (>24 GHz) and the 21% that will utilize the 2.2 GHz to 2.6 GHz range. Bringing this point home is the 13% that plan to leverage the lower-end frequency range, i.e., the sub-2.1 GHz spectrum, to deliver 5G. Finally, indicative of the still-nascent reality of 5G, 14% of operators did not commit to a frequency range and instead indicated they are still running trials/tests.

As mentioned above, most wireless operators will use multiple spectrum blocks to deliver 5G, illustrated by the 80 answers from 56 respondents. For example, operators currently using mid-band spectrum to deliver their initial 5G services are also planning to use mmWave solutions for specific applications, i.e., fixed wireless access, or FWA.

Current 5G claims

One of our leadoff questions asked operators which generation(s) of wireless technologies are currently deployed in their networks, from 2G to 5G. Surprisingly, 57% of operators surveyed replied that they have 5G installed and operational in their networks. Of course, the 5G service footprints are quite small in terms of square kilometers/miles and are concentrated in major metros with high population/user densities that have driven initial 5G rollouts, many of which are still effectively in field trial stages. A whopping 89% of the operators in the Middle East and Africa, or MEA, touted 5G service deployments, and 83% of the North American operators. Asia-Pacific came in third at 57% while European operators were close behind at 54%.

Perhaps a more realistic and established snapshot of current mobile broadband service footprints is provided by the data regarding 4G and 4G LTE networks. Globally, 55% of the surveyed operators have 4G LTE networks deployed, with the highest percentage in Europe at 77% and the lowest in MEA (11%). The most striking differential in the 4G-to-5G data provided from the operators was that among the MEA operators, where 89% claim live 5G networks, only 11% had 4G LTE networks and 33% had 4G.

Evolutionary paths to 5G

A related question focused on technology and network evolution and revealed how operators differed by region in terms of how they will leverage their existing wireless infrastructure (4G LTE), build a stand-alone 5G network or take another path. Half (50%) of operators worldwide plan to leverage their existing 4G LTE networks to support evolving, non-stand-alone 5G, including 67% of North American operators and 71% of operators in Latin America. European operators stood out dramatically, with only 23% planning to leverage existing network technology.

By the same token, 69% of European respondents asserted they will build stand-alone 5G networks, which requires a 5G core. MEA operators were the second-most aggressive on this front, with 56% planning to take the standalone 5G route, while one-third (33%) of North American operators and 29% of operators in the Asia-Pacific region are going this direction. Overall, 39% of wireless operators worldwide plan to build out stand-alone 5G networks.

An alternative to the first two network evolution choices mentioned above is a third option of leveraging 4G LTE in conjunction with Licensed Assisted Access, or LAA, prior to full-on 5G implementations. Only 11% of operators worldwide plan to take this route, with 14% of operators in both the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America representing the highest percentage of the surveyed regions. None of the North American operators plan to take the LTE-plus-LAA road to 5G.

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