Leading European operators pour scorn on '5G' hype emanating from other parts of the world.

Iain Morris, International Editor

January 9, 2017

6 Min Read
European Telcos Slam '5G' Efforts in Asia, US

European telcos, including Vodafone and Orange, have insisted that Europe is not falling behind parts of Asia and North America on the road to 5G.

Championing the role of Europe and European companies in developing the next-generation mobile technology, both Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) and Orange (NYSE: FTE) have also dismissed some of the 5G initiatives in Asia and the US, saying these are based on "niche" applications and that non-standard forms of 5G will not succeed.

While 5G is attracting interest from operators globally, a handful of service providers in the US, Japan and South Korea are typically seen to be in the vanguard of its development. US-based Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) has talked about introducing a 5G service this year, while Japan's NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM) and South Korea's KT Corp. are also plotting early rollouts of the technology. (See 5G on Track but Fragmentation Still a Concern.)

The current industry focus on the 28GHz spectrum band, which will not be available in Europe for use with 5G services, has exacerbated concern that Europe could trail some other economies on the rollout of 5G technology.

"Handsets will probably become available for that 28GHz band before [manufacturers] then build them for the European frequencies," said Amit Nagpal, a partner at spectrum advisory group Aetha Consulting, during a previous conversation with Light Reading. "Europe won't be happy about that but it's likely the reality." (See Spectrum Hurdle Could Trip Europe in 5G Race.)

Any such lag would reinforce a perception that Europe's telecom industry has recently lost out in the innovation stakes to North America and Asia. The late introduction of 5G technology could also have broader ramifications, given its apparent value to other sectors of the economy.

Yet Vodafone has criticized what it sees as an unfair representation of Europe's 5G status. "Europe is not lagging the US and Asia on the development of 5G," said Luke Ibbetson, the operator's director of research and development, in comments provided to Light Reading. "The 5G standard has not yet been fully agreed and is unlikely to appear on a commercial network for a number of years … It's difficult to see how Europe could be regarded as 'lagging.'"

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Most industry observers agree that commercial services based on the first 5G standard will not appear until 2020, at the very earliest. Yet operators, including Verizon, are keen to use 28GHz-based 5G before then to provide broadband services in areas that are hard to reach with fixed-line technologies. (See Verizon Updates 5G Spec, Could Launch Ahead of 3GPP.)

Ibbetson says this "fixed wireless access" scenario is a "relatively niche opportunity and does not lend itself to the massive scale of mobile broadband."

He is also critical of the focus on 28GHz, pointing out that it does not represent one of the candidate 5G bands identified by the World Radio Conference (WRC). "Solutions designed specifically for this band will have limited geographical opportunity," he says.

Even so, while the 28GHz band will not be used globally with 5G, its availability in the advanced economies of the US, Japan and South Korea has already caught the industry's attention. "28GHz is emerging as a bit of a priority," says Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst at the Heavy Reading market-research business. "A 34GHz product won't exist in as near a time frame."

Next page: Spectrum shuffling

Spectrum shuffling
With 28GHz reserved for satellite communications in Europe, policymakers have been eyeing alternative higher-frequency bands for similar capabilities, including the 24.25-27.5 and 31.8-33.4GHz ranges.

"Europe has pledged to make the 24.25-27.5GHz band available for 5G before 2019," says Arnaud Vamparys, the vice president of radio access networks and microwaves for French telco incumbent Orange.

Vamparys is also optimistic that equipment developed for the 28GHz band could be used in Europe in the 24.25-27.5GHz range, with the help of what he calls a "tuning range mechanism."

All that said, much lower-frequency bands are likely to be the focus of initial 5G rollouts in Europe, as far as Orange is concerned. While the higher-frequency, or "millimeter wave," bands would support access to the very fastest services, they may be unsuited for providing coverage over wide areas and much costlier to deploy.

"The first 5G deployments will make use of spectrum already harmonized for mobile services, namely the 3.4-3.8GHz band for capacity, and 700MHz for coverage," says Vamparys. "That will allow operators to reuse the existing mobile sites, accelerating 5G deployments in Europe."

A number of European countries, including France and Germany, have already held auctions of 700MHz spectrum, which has previously been used by the broadcasting industry. And interest is growing in the potential of "mid-band spectrum," with a UK auction of 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz frequencies expected to take place this year. "In the US, they are a bit short of sub-6GHz options, but in Europe you could have up to 100MHz channels per operator in mid-band spectrum," says Heavy Reading's Brown.

Orange's chief spectrum concern appears to be the lack of progress in freeing up airwaves that lie between these mid-band and millimeter-wave ranges. "Unfortunately, no work is being conducted to identify any bands between 6GHz and 24GHz," says Vamparys. "We believe Europe should focus on identifying additional spectrum in this range for 5G -- in parallel with the work of the ITU [International Telecommunications Union]."

Making Europe a 5G leader
Asked about Europe's 5G lag, Vamparys said Orange was "highly supportive" of a European Commission (EC) plan to make Europe "a worldwide leader in 5G implementation."

Among other things, the EC wants each member state to identify at least one major city that can be "5G-enabled" by the end of 2020. It also wants to ensure that all urban areas and major transport systems benefit from "uninterrupted" 5G coverage by 2025.

That 5G is generating more "noise" in other regions may simply point to their broadband shortcomings, according to Vamparys.

"They do not have as wide-scale fiber deployment as we do in Europe and therefore are being vocal about urgently delivering partial or pre-5G solutions," he says.

Like Vodafone's Ibbetson, Vamparys is quite scathing about the long-term prospects for such early initiatives. "A few players in Asia and North America claim they will launch 5G independently from the 3GPP roadmap, but this would imply relying on non-standardized networks and devices," he says. "Experience has shown that non-standard solutions cannot be successful in the mobile telecom industry."

Orange's current expectation is that commercial 5G deployments will start in 2020, following field trials in 2018 and 2019.

Although it has yet to give away many details of its service plans, the French operator claims to be working on several 5G scenarios, including the rollout of "multi-gigabit" Internet access, as well as technology that will support "mission-critical" Internet of Things applications.

"European operators are being a bit more restrained with the hype but Europe's day is not over," says Heavy Reading's Brown.

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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