What are operators’ strategies for 5G rollout?

With demand for 5G continuing to grow, operators are racing to progress their rollout of 5G. In this article we explore the 5G rollout strategies of six different operators, and look at their goals for deployment of both standalone and non-standalone 5G over the coming year.

With demand for 5G continuing to grow, operators are racing to progress their rollout of 5G. In this article we explore the 5G rollout strategies of six different operators, and look at their goals for deployment of both standalone and non-standalone 5G over the coming year.

Telia

5G rollout: Telia first launched a public 5G network in Finland in 2019, followed by Norway, Sweden and Denmark in 2020. It now offers at least some coverage across all the countries it serves (Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia).

Initially Telia focussed on deploying non-standalone 5G (5G NSA), so as to maintain pace of development of networks. However, Telia recently launched its first 5G standalone (5G SA) core in Finland. This was the first commercially available 5G core network launched in the Nordics and Baltics region. It is now in the process of launching standalone 5G in Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden. Telia worked with Nokia and Ericsson to deploy 5G RAN, but has awarded the contract for 5G SA core across these 6 countries solely to Nokia.

Telefonica

Telefonica has launched 5G in four key markets – Spain, Germany, UK and Brazil.

  • Spain: Telefonica has achieved 80% population coverage (across over 1,250 towns and cities).
  • Germany: Telefonica aimed to reach 30% population coverage by the end of 2021 (and was on track as of October 2021) and is now working towards the target of 50% coverage by the end of 2022.
  • UK: O2’s 5G network reaches customers in over 150 UK towns and cities. O2 is now focussed on densification to improve the quality of service for customers.
  • Brazil: Telefonica has rolled out 5G services in eight cities.

Because Telefonica invested heavily in its 4G networks, the company is using 4G LTE as part of its early introduction of new 5G capabilities. It has therefore largely deployed non-standalone 5G, although it announced in November 2021 that it plans to begin deployment of standalone 5G services in 2022. It has awarded the contracts to deploy its 5G SA radio networks to Ericsson and Nokia.

Vodafone

Vodafone first launched non-standalone 5G in 2019, and as of 2021 offered 5G services commercially in 12 countries across the EU including the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain and Ireland, reaching more than 142 million homes.

It is now continuing to expand its 5G offering, but has opted for a slower pace of rollout by focusing on 5G standalone technology. Vodafone Germany was the first operator to offer standalone 5G in Europe (from April 2021). The network provides coverage in 170 cities, and Vodafone Germany has set ambitious targets to extend this coverage. Ericsson and Nokia both provided equipment for the RAN and core.

In 2021 Vodafone also launched a commercial pilot of 5G SA in the UK (the UK’s first live deployment to test 5G SA at scale), and in parallel has deployed a 5G SA core pre-commercial network in Spain.

Deutsche Telekom

Deutsche Telekom is extensively rolling out its 5G offering both in Germany and across its host of subsidiaries worldwide, such as T-Mobile in the United States, where it deployed one of the first commercial standalone 5G networks in the world.

According to its website, DT Germany already offers 5G to 85% of the German population. This takes the form of non-standalone 5G, which is available in more than 60 cities, with the plan to cover 99% of the German population by the end of 2025. DT is also ready to launch standalone 5G, which it said would happen in 2022 at the latest, and currently has four 5G SA test sites in operation.

In the US, DT subsidiary T-Mobile stands out among operators because it was first to launch a nationwide standalone 5G network in August 2020. It partnered with Cisco and Nokia for the 5G core, and Ericsson and Nokia for the RAN. Although its 5G SA network doesn’t yet live up to the full potential of 5G, further speed improvements and the launch of network slicing are in the works.

T-Mobile already covers 308 million people with its Extended Range 5G set up (low-band 5G, which offers low data transfer speeds). T-Mobile is now focused on its midband Ultra Capacity 5G service, which covers over 200 million people.

AT&T

AT&T has so far only deployed non-standalone 5G, and is focused on strengthening its low-band, midband and high-band 5G rollout through 2022.

AT&T’s 5G network reaches more than 250 million people across more than 14,000 towns and cities in the United States. This is primarily through 5G via dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). AT&T’s 5G service is generally split up into a ‘nationwide’ sub-6GHz and ‘5G Plus,’ which offers far higher speeds at the cost of a far more limited range. The ‘nationwide’ label, however, is something of a misnomer as there are still areas of the US which it is yet to cover. 5G Plus is currently only available in cities (38 in the US as of May 2021) and high-traffic indoor spaces (such as airports and sports arenas) but it expects to extend this coverage.

AT&T also planned to deploy the first 40 MHz of the 80 MHz C-band spectrum by the end of 2021. It will dramatically increase this effort across the next couple of years, and cover 70 to 75 million people across the United States with C-band by the end of 2022.

As far as standalone 5G is concerned, AT&T is still in the testing phase.

DISH

DISH is the only operator in the US to be building a greenfield 5G network. Starting from scratch without the burden of legacy equipment means it will be deploying a cloud-native, Open RAN-based 5G network (with Nokia’s equipment). Uniquely, DISH intends to be the first in the world to run its service from the public cloud, after committing to using AWS’s servers to control the 5G network.

DISH has been struggling to keep up with its timelines for deployment of 5G. It initially aimed to have one 5G market live before the end of 2020, but after multiple delays it eventually launched in a 90-day beta in Las Vegas in the final quarter of 2021. Its goal is to expand in early 2022 and reach a critical mass of 70% network coverage in the US in 2023. Additionally, the company has been mandated by the federal government to provide complete network coverage by 2025.

Author: Rob Hindaugh and Daniyal Islam are Consultants at STL Partners, specialising in 5G, edge computing and telco cloud.

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