Mobile World Congress: 5G moves from concept to deployment, US and Asia leading

Last year at Mobile World Congress the key themes revolved around potential 5G use cases and standards. At this year's Feb. 26-March 1 gathering in Barcelona, Spain, Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence, finds the talk is all about actual deployment and the technical systems to support 5G. Though standards-setting body 3GPP originally estimated 5G deployments would take place in 2020, pressure from global mobile network operators has led to an acceleration of the standardization process.

For example, in December 2017, the first set of standards was released, outlining the specifications for building non-stand-alone versions of 5G New Radio. or NR. NR is the foundation for wireless standard 5G, just as LTE is for 4G. As 5G service is rolled out, NR will first build on today's LTE networks, expanding and improving existing coverage. The aim is to enable enhanced mobile broadband by using 5G small cells to boost the data rates of an LTE anchor.

This was an important first step for 3GPP, as manufacturers will want to dip into 5G by initially selling technologies that rely on existing LTE networks — the goal being to enhance existing network architecture, as opposed to a full rip and replace of all hardware components. Following this, everyone from chipmakers to small cell developers can begin building their physical components while 3GPP sorts out the software specifications and, eventually, stand-alone versions of 5G NR that are wholly separate from 4G LTE networks.

Operators are taking advantage of the new NR standard with deployments of 5G enhanced networks around the world, led principally by the U.S. and Asia. Europe meanwhile, risks falling behind due to slow-moving regulations and inadequate spectrum-licensing schemes.

According to Nokia Corp. CEO Rajeev Suri, speaking at the Mobile World Congress, "far and away, the U.S. and China activity will dwarf Europe."

Europe lacks the catalysts for large-scale 5G deployments due to complicated and slowly evolving regulatory environments that impede rapid rollouts of 5G networks. Additionally, many European countries and operators remain preoccupied with expansion and densification of 4G LTE networks.

Meanwhile, some advanced Asian countries are already building preliminary 5G networks, notably China, Japan and South Korea, which rolled out 5G testing during the Winter Olympics in PyongChang. Aggressive 5G testing is under way in Japan and China, and the GSMA estimates China will represent 40% of global 5G connections by 2025. China Mobile Ltd. will roll out pre-commercial 5G networks in 2019, with full commercial launches following in 2025.

In the United States, three of the major operators have announced 5G deployment plans, including AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc.

"We're going to be first to market" in 5G, declared Nicola Palmer, Verizon's chief network engineer and head of the carrier's wireless networks, during a FierceWireless event held in parallel with the Mobile World Congress.

At the same event, AT&T vice president of radio access network and device design Gordon Mansfield proclaimed, "We have every intention of being first." Obviously, the operators cannot both be first to launch 5G; however, they may both be able to claim the title of "first to 5G" based on their respective definitions and strategies behind 5G network deployments.

Specifically, AT&T's Mansfield said his company would be the first to launch a "mobile" flavor of 5G with a network based on the 3GPP's recently ratified Release 15 standard, which contains the non-stand-alone version of the 5G NR specification. Last month AT&T promised to launch a mobile 5G service in a dozen cities in the United States before the end of this year.

Verizon, on the other hand, has said it will launch a fixed 5G service in three to five cities this year, and Palmer said the carrier will launch a mobile 5G service immediately thereafter.

Not to be outdone, T-Mobile announced it will start building out its 5G network this year and plans to be in 30 cities by the end of 2018. The first four of those announced are New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Las Vegas. Speaking at Mobile World Congress, T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray boasted that the company's competitors aren't deploying their 5G deployment in locations anywhere near as dense. "Why are we in New York and not Waco? Because New York matters."

Ray said it wouldn't be until this time next year that U.S. consumers will see the first phones announced as supporting 5G on T-Mobile's network. "A year from now, we're very confident," he said today, Feb. 28, during a Mobile World Congress presentation. Until then, no one will actually be able to use the 5G network this year.

Sprint Corp. has announced plans to launch "5G-like" services in six U.S. cities starting in April, enabling increased speeds and latency as it launches massive MIMO radios on its networks. While MIMO is not itself a full 5G technology, Sprint describes it as a critical bridge to 5G deployment. Speaking to an audience at MEC, Sprint CTO John Saw described massive MIMO as a "game-changer for TDD-LTE networks." The operator also announced a partnership with QUALCOMM Inc. and device manufacturers to launch 5G-enabled mobile devices in the first half of 2019.

Wireless Investor is a regular feature from Kagan, a group within S&P Global Market Intelligence's TMT offering, providing exclusive research and commentary.