Faced with spectrum release and infrastructure rollout delays due to COVID-19, operators and tech vendors worldwide started embracing Dynamic Spectrum Sharing, or DSS, to salvage their 5G plans in 2020.
Click here for an Excel file containing data completed 5G commercial service launches as of September 2020. It also includes spectrum and vendor partner data for 5G trials worldwide (for clients only).
5G deployments accelerated in the first half of 2020 in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, with at least 35 new operators launching commercial 5G services, up from just 21 operators in the same period last year. Seventeen more operators have commenced commercial 5G operations in the second half of 2020 as of September, bringing the worldwide total to at least 113 operators spread across 52 markets.
Vodafone Group PLC still has the widest 5G footprint among all operators, having launched commercial 5G in 13 markets worldwide. It added three markets this year: Australia as a joint venture with CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd., the Netherlands and South Africa. Hutchison, on the other hand, offers 5G in four markets: Austria, Hong Kong, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Deutsche Telekom AG has 5G operations in seven markets through its several brands such as Magenta Telekom and T-Mobile: Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Puerto Rico, the U.S. and U.S. Virgin Islands. T-Mobile US Inc., in particular, claimed to have launched the world's first stand-alone 5G service in August 2019. Rain in South Africa made a similar claim about launching stand-alone 5G earlier in July 2019.
Mid-band remains the most popular spectrum for commercial 5G deployments, being used in at least 89% of all active commercial 5G networks. In particular, 67% use 3.5 GHz. In comparison, only 13% of global deployments use low-band spectrum, while 12% use millimeter wave, or mmWave, spectrum. Several operators have announced their plans of launching mmWave 5G within the year.
Delayed auctions prompt operators to deploy DSS 5G
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the 5G launch timelines of some operators, as movement restrictions and economic slowdown prompted the postponement of several spectrum auctions worldwide. India, for instance, will not be able to launch 5G this year after it pushed back its 5G spectrum auction to 2021. In Europe, Austria, Czechia, France and Spain have also postponed their respective 5G auctions to later this year.
In the absence of 5G spectrum, some operators opted to deploy DSS 5G. DSS technology allows 5G services to run alongside earlier generation technologies on multiple spectrum bands, including those not specifically earmarked for 5G. Brazilian operators Claro Brasil and Telefônica Brasil (Vivo), for instance, used their existing 4G spectrum to deploy commercial DSS 5G in July 2020 after the local regulator postponed the release of 5G spectrum. Claro used 2.6 GHz while Vivo used a combination of 700 MHz, 1.8 GHz and 2.6 GHz.
At least 25 operators are using DSS in 5G trials or commercial launches as of September 2020. In the U.S., Verizon Communications Inc. is planning to launch DSS 5G this year. Even before the pandemic, DSS has been included as the next step after Verizon's initial deployment of mmWave 5G in urban centers. "The launch of DSS technology will unleash the power of 5G technology, allowing for robust computing at the edge of the network, and greater programmability of the network to manage dynamic traffic and uses," said Verizon in a press release in June 2020.
AT&T Inc. made a similar announcement in the same month, saying it will use DSS in its nationwide 5G expansion. T-Mobile US Inc., on the other hand, downplayed the impact of DSS earlier in February 2020.
Technology vendors offer support for DSS
Several technology vendors were supposed to highlight their DSS-related products at MWC Barcelona this year. The cancellation of the event did not stifle interest in DSS, and technology vendors bolstered their DSS offerings amid the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In February 2020, Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson (publ) announced the commercial release of its DSS solution named Ericsson Spectrum Sharing. Ericsson partnered with chipset maker QUALCOMM Inc. and device manufacturers LG Electronics Inc., Guangdong Oppo Mobile Telecommunications Corp. Ltd., Sony Electronics Inc., vivo Communication Technology Co. Ltd, Wistron NeWeb Corp. and Xiaomi Corp. to scale the use of DSS globally. Ooredoo in Qatar, Play P4 in Poland, Swisscom AG in Switzerland and Telstra Corp. Ltd. in Australia were among the operators using Ericsson's DSS solution.
Chinese technology vendors Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and ZTE Corp. also released their respective DSS solutions, Hybrid DSS and SuperDSS, in the same month. Nokia Corp. was initially quiet on DSS until it announced its DSS AirScale solution in April 2020. Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. followed later in July 2020 with its own DSS solution.
In terms of contracts, Ericsson and Nokia carried forward their momentum from 2019 and expanded their customer footprints by growing their live network deployments and garnering new commercial agreements in the first half of 2020. Ericsson reached a key milestone Aug. 12, 2020, with its 100th commercial contract. As of Sept. 7, 2020, Ericsson has reached 108 commercial 5G contracts, with 58 publicly disclosed 5G contracts and 60 live 5G networks. Since its last major customer count update Feb. 1, 2020, the company has more than doubled its live network count from 24 to 56.
As of Sept. 7, 2020, Nokia's customer count metrics grew to 152 commercial 5G engagements, 89 commercial 5G deals and 34 live 5G networks. These numbers highlight strong progress since Feb. 1, 2020, when the company counted 63 commercial 5G contracts and 18 live networks.
Meanwhile, Huawei and ZTE continued to bolster their presence in mainland China and the rest of the Asia Pacific. In our last report, we mentioned Huawei had announced 91 commercial 5G contracts as of Feb. 20, 2020. Since then, Huawei has not publicized an official update to this number. It is, however, highly likely that Huawei has surpassed the 100-contract benchmark. Huawei's publicly announced 5G customer wins outside of mainland China were limited to Rain and MTN Group Ltd. in South Africa. While ZTE disclosed that it has garnered 46 commercial 5G contracts to date and cooperation with more than 70 operators globally, it also revealed only one new 5G customer win outside of mainland China: True Corp. in Thailand.
Samsung has expanded its customer based beyond its South Korean home market in the first half of 2020, added several high-profile operators to its customer roster: TELUS Corp. in Canada, Spark New Zealand Ltd. in New Zealand and United States Cellular Corp. in the U.S.
Using 5G in the fight against COVID-19
While the COVID-19 pandemic initially slowed or delayed 5G build-outs for many operators, in some cases, it also provided both operators and vendors the opportunity to showcase the value of 5G in combating the disease. For example, ZTE pointed to its collaboration with China Telecom Corp. Ltd. to connect more than 200 hospitals in 82 cities with both 4G and 5G technology to facilitate digital remote diagnostics and other cooperative efforts.
Click here to see a preview of our report about 5G use cases in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Mainland China remains the epicenter for 5G network build-outs and service implementation. The sheer volume and density of subscribers in megacities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, spurred by government directives for 5G network expansion, have resulted in more than 400,000 base stations for 5G deployed and 100 million subscribers as of August 2020. The Chinese government asserts these numbers will double to 800,000 base stations and 200 million subscribers by the end of this year. If achieved, mainland China's year-end 2020 subscriber counts would represent 70% of the world's 5G subscriber base.
Wireless Investor is a regular feature from Kagan, a media market research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence's TMT offering, providing exclusive research and commentary.
Ciaralou Palicpic contributed to this article.
This article was published by S&P Global Market Intelligence and not by S&P Global Ratings, which is a separately managed division of S&P Global.
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