U.S. mobile users with 5G-equipped devices enjoy the fastest 5G speeds in the world but are spending the least amount of time actually connected to 5G, according to Opensignal, an independent global standard for measuring real-world mobile network experience, which presented its latest analysis on the global 5G experience at Mobile World Congress Los Angeles.
The analysis compares early 5G network adoption from first-mover nations like South Korea, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Australia and the U.K. with the United States. Whether this is a symptom of the 5G rollout being in its early stages or due to unique 5G spectrum challenges in the U.S. remains a key question.
Opensignal analyzed the maximum speeds that U.S. 5G smartphone users experienced over a six-month period. Results show 5G speeds are evolving quickly. The U.S. tops the chart with maximum 5G download speeds of 1.8 Gbps, delivering on the promise of mmWave technology. However, Australia, Switzerland and South Korea all logged download speeds over 1 Gigabit per second, showing that mid-band 5G technologies can deliver as well.
But 5G Users Spend Vast Majority of Time on 4G
While U.S. 5G mobile users have speed, they lack network reach. Opensignal found users with 5G smartphones in the U.S. only achieved 5G connection on 1% of attempts. By contrast, in South Korea, which has 3 million 5G users already signed up, 20% of attempts were on 5G.
The United States has a relatively higher reliance on mmWave spectrum (which offers more limited coverage and reach) than the rest of the world who tended to utilize mid-band spectrum for early 5G rollouts. These new findings highlight some of the spectrum challenges faced in the U.S. where 5G mid-band spectrum has been relatively harder to come by compared with other countries.
“Our latest Opensignal analysis helps spotlight some key questions the industry is facing when it comes to 5G – namely, how do you market a service like 5G that is only available a fraction of the time, at least initially. And as 5G comes in different ‘flavors’ depending on the spectrum used, each with its own set of benefits and challenges, how do you tackle the unique set of hurdles that mmWave will need to overcome,” said Brendan Gill, CEO of Opensignal. “The early focus has clearly been on speed, especially in the USA, but the conversation needs to evolve quickly to focus on making sure 5G is really here, not just barely here.”
Despite a widely reported slowdown in cell tower deployment, T-Mobile has accelerated its plans to launch its nationwide 5G network on 600 MHz spectrum on a nationwide footprint of more than 200 million POPs, which it expects will be live later this year, according to comments made by CEO John Legere in the company’s third quarter earning call yesterday.
“Our 600 MHz spectrum will be the foundational layer for the New T-Mobile’s 5G Network that once combined with Sprint’s spectrum will result in a broad and deep nationwide 5G experience for everyone, everywhere,” Legere said. “We now have thousands of 5G-ready cell sites capable of lighting up 5G on our 600 MHz spectrum.” More than 26 million 600 MHz-compatible handsets are already operating on the T-Mobile network, he added.
Legere touted the strength of the low-band spectrum radio waves The carrier also continues to invest in building its nationwide 4G LTE network, reaching 326 million POPs including 311 million with both 600 megahertz and 700 megahertz combined. Legere said the carrier has caught up with AT&T and Verizon with coverage of 99 percent of the U.S. population.
“New T-Mobile’s nationwide 5G will be able to cover more people in more places and work indoors and out unlike Verizon and AT&T’s current 5G networks, which can be blocked by things like walls, glass, and leaves, and this is all while we continue to expand our 4G LTE network coverage and deliver industry-leading performance,” he said.
A story in the Aug. 28, 2019, Wireless Estimator titled “T-Mobile cancels 5G upgrades and new builds nationwide, possibly crippling some contractors,” told a different story about the T-Mobile buildout.
“Beginning last Friday, contractors started getting calls from T-Mobile’s market managers informing them that most purchase orders they had for new builds and 5G upgrades were going to be put on hold until 2020 unless materials for the project were sitting in a warehouse,” according to Wireless Estimator. “The news came as a shock to many wireless contracting companies that had been counting on fourth quarter builds to maintain their increased staffing required for T-Mobile’s ambitious buildout of the past eight months.” One contractor was left with a purchase order for $700,000.
With the major carriers rolling out 5G, what is the technology strategies of regional carriers? One regional, Nex-Tech Wireless, a Kansas-based wireless carrier, has signed a deal with Ericsson to modernize its network with voice over LTE technology, including the ability to service specific markets with 5G capabilities.
“This agreement allows Nex-Tech Wireless to deliver outstanding VoLTE service to their customers while preparing their network for the transition to 5G,” said Rob Johnson, head of Customer Unit Regional Carriers for Ericsson North America. “The upgrade to a cloud-based IMS core will bring customers the highest-quality voice and communication services experience today while looking ahead to the future.”
To assist in modernizing its network, Ericsson will provide Nex-Tech Wireless with its Fast VoLTE Launch solution, a full-stack industrialized and validated virtual IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) on Ericsson BSP8100, to enable HD quality voice over LTE (VoLTE), Wi-Fi calling, and future-enriched communication services on a range of devices across LTE, Wi-Fi and future 5G access.
In addition to the upgrades, Nex-Tech Wireless is rolling out 600 Mhz 5G capable sites in specific markets, where Ericsson will provide 3GPP standards-based 5G New Radio (NR) hardware and software capabilities, together with virtual EPC upgrades of the Cloud Core network, so that the carrier can deploy 5G when ready.
Ericsson has collaborated with Nex-Tech Wireless in the past on over 350 LTE sites across the Midwest.
5G, using 3GPP standardized wireless technology, has been commercially deployed by 15 mobile network operators worldwide, according to 5G Americas, the industry trade association and voice of 5G and LTE for the Americas and TeleGeography (GlobalComms Database). There will be an additional 47 launches of 5G technology expected before the end of 2019 for a total of more than 62 live 5G networks.
LTE will provide the solid foundation for 5G. Already, more than half of all the mobile wireless technology connections worldwide are LTE technology, with a reported 51 percent market share at the first quarter of 2019, providing 4G mobile broadband access to a large portion of the world’s population with 4.4 billion global connections, according to data from Ovum.
“LTE continues its momentum worldwide, at the same time that 5G becomes a commercial reality in many parts of the world,” said Chris Pearson, president, 5G Americas. “The mobile wireless industry has worked hard to provide technical innovation for both LTE and 5G for the benefit of customers globally.”
LTE is currently deployed on 646 networks worldwide according to TeleGeography. In addition to growth in LTE deployments and connections, the LTE technology evolution continues to expand with 299 LTE-Advanced networks worldwide at 1Q 2019. In addition, although not publicized to any great extent, 60 networks may be considered LTE-Advanced Pro; 58 of which have deployed Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) and/or LTE for Machine-Type Communications (LTE-M) 3GPP Release 13 technology features for the Internet of Things.
“The Cellular Internet of Things is future-proofed by 3GPP standards, with many different use cases enabled by Narrowband-IoT and LTE-M, as we fully enter the massive Internet of Things era,” stated Vicki Livingston, Vice President, Communications, 5G Americas. “These 4G LTE IoT technologies will form the foundation of the future success of 5G IoT services with Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications requirements for smart factories, connected car, public safety and other critical communications.”
1Q 2019 – North America
LTE metrics for the U.S. and Canada continue to show regional leadership. LTE achieved 445 million connections and reached 121 percent penetration of the total population or 1.2 connections per person as of March 2019 compared to 140 percent overall wireless technology penetration. This is the highest penetration rate for LTE of any region in the world.
Comparatively, North America’s market share for LTE at 87 percent far exceeds all other world regions; the next highest world regions are the Oceania, Eastern and South Eastern Asia region with LTE share of 70 percent followed by Western Europe at 54 percent (data by Ovum).
North America is also among the world’s leading 5G innovators with three national operators offering live 5G services in numerous markets across the country and a fourth expected deployment this year. According to U.S. President Donald Trump, a proponent of 5G technology leadership for the country, there will be 92 U.S. cities with 5G services at the end of 2019.
1Q 2019 – Latin America and the Caribbean
“Antel in Uruguay has launched the first 5G network in the region, with more 5G planned deployments to come, as Latin America and Caribbean operators continue to invest in advanced network deployments for LTE,” commented Jose Otero, Vice President, Latin America and the Caribbean, 5G Americas. “With the support of governments in the region by providing more licensed and globally harmonized spectrum, the momentum and societal benefits provided by LTE and 5G will continue.”
LTE’s market share increased to 44 percent at the 1Q 2019, and is forecast to be the most widely used cellular technology in the region by the end of 2020.
1Q 2019 – Global
At the end of March 2019, global LTE connections reached 4.4 billion and market share reached 51 percent. LTE connections are forecast to reach 6 billion by year-end 2022 (forecast includes M2M) and 61 percent share of market. 5G technology is forecast by Ovum to achieve 37 million by year end 2020, grow to 156 million by end of 2021 and then increase to more than half a billion in 2022. 5G Americas’ member company Ericsson has forecast that 5G subscriptions are expected to reach 1.9 billion in 2024.
The noteworthy development is that 3GPP standardized 5G technology has been launched in 15 markets globally with 62 expected total deployments by the end of 2019 (TeleGeography).
Carolina West Wireless has signed a multi-year network modernization deal with Ericsson to use the Ericsson Fast VoLTE Launch, which will allow Wi-Fi calling and future 5G access, as well as VoLTE. The agreement also includes network densification, expansion and upgrade to 3GPP standards-based 5G New Radio (NR) hardware and software capabilities.
Slayton Stewart, CEO of Carolina West Wireless, said the contract helps the carrier today with improved LTE service and tomorrow with next generation cellular.
“Ericsson has a field-proven VoLTE solution, and we’re making the investments today that will help us evolve our networks tomorrow. Ericsson has been a long-standing partner of ours, and their end-to-end 5G-ready solution offerings allow us to provide our customers with the most advanced technology,” Stewart said.
With VoLTE in place in the network, consumers will have access to more flexible and easy-to-use communication services integrated on a multitude of devices, which will work seamlessly when users move between different accesses like LTE and Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi calling enables operator voice services to be provided in more locations, such as indoor environments by complementing macro network coverage.
In 2018, Carolina West Wireless announced an agreement to use Ericsson’s cloud-based Network Management as a Service solution to offload end-to-end management of monitoring, troubleshooting, configuration and optimization of their network.