BARCELONA -- Mobile World Congress 2017 -- Germany's Deutsche Telekom has given a huge boost to the emerging 5G standard, announcing plans in Barcelona earlier today to introduce the high-speed mobile technology across its entire network footprint from 2020 onwards.
That plan would see Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) begin to invest in a standardized version of 5G shortly after one became commercially available in the 2020 timeframe, and marks the strongest commitment yet by a European operator to 5G technology.
While most of Deutsche Telekom's European peers are also testing and conducting trials of 5G, none appears to have spoken so publicly about a vision of ubiquitous 5G.
"We want to achieve 100% area coverage where we are operating," said Timotheus Höttges, Deutsche Telekom's CEO, during a presentation to reporters at this year's Mobile World Congress. "If you believe that 5G is just another mobile standard after 2G, 3G and 4G, then you are totally wrong -- it is an entirely new shampoo."
Despite the bullish talk, however, Deutsche Telekom's executives had little to say on the specific timeframe for a commercial deployment, other than noting that rollout was likely to begin in Germany in 2020.
Höttges also drew attention to some major hurdles that Deutsche Telekom will have to overcome if it is to realize its 5G ambitions. For one thing, research suggests that the cost of deploying 5G across Europe could amount to between €300 billion ($318 billion) and €500 billion ($530 billion), he said.
"It is not just about putting new antennas on rooftops but lots of additional investments and so it is important that spectrum is available at reasonable terms," he said, putting pressure on regulatory authorities to charge lower fees for the frequency licenses they sell to operators. "We are ready to develop the technology but we need certainty, not ambiguity, for the investments we have to make as an industry."
During an earlier conversation with Light Reading, Deutsche Telekom's chief technology officer, Bruno Jacobfeuerborn, had balked at the some of the cost estimates associated with 5G, suggesting that Deutsche Telekom might need to look at network-sharing deals as a means of reducing the bill.
He also accepted that 5G could see rollout over a very long period during which it co-exists with older network technologies, meaning Deutsche Telekom does not achieve its 100% coverage goal for many years. (See 4.5G Sets High Bar for 5G.)
Spain's Telefónica and Finnish vendor Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) similarly believe that 4G will have a long shelf life as 5G is slowly introduced across networks. (See Don't Count on 5G for a Capex Boost.)
A big concern is whether 5G technology will provide a decent return on investment given the disappointments of its predecessors, which have largely failed to stimulate revenue growth for telcos. (See 5G: Another Next-Generation Disappointment?.)
Operators including Deutsche Telekom remain optimistic about 5G on this point, however, referring to some of the technology's unique capabilities.
Through a 5G technique called network slicing, for instance, telcos believe they will be able to provide many different types of network service over the same infrastructure, essentially tailoring the network to a user's specific needs.
Höttges also drew attention to some of the applications on display at this year's Mobile World Congress in areas including virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence and robotics.
Indeed, Deutsche Telekom provided a demonstration of a robot that can be controlled in real time by a human being thanks to 5G-related progress on reducing network latency.
Last year, the operator showed off a pre-5G connectivity solution that could support latency of less than one millisecond, but it has now developed a feature that "guarantees" latency of eight milliseconds over a much longer period of time.
Augmented reality glasses
Another product and service innovation has come about as the result of a partnership with Zeiss, a German company that specializes in optics and optoelectronics.
That one takes the form of a set of thick-rimmed glasses allowing wearers to see data and information in part of the field of vision. While still a long way from commercial deployment, the Zeiss prototype, worn on stage by Höttges, certainly looks more like a typical pair of spectacles than the Google Glass head-mounted display that was ultimately abandoned by the web company.
Höttges said Deutsche Telekom was opening up the details of its collaboration with Zeiss to the crowd-sourcing community in the hope of developing innovative uses cases for the glasses product.
Asked about the outlook for 5G in regions where earnings have traditionally been low, Höttges conceded that Deutsche Telekom might need funding support in particular circumstances.
"We see revenue potential from new use cases and those additional revenue streams could help to amortize investments, but the rollout is tricky when ARPUs [average revenues per user] are low," he said. "Do we want to rollout 5G in all countries? Yes, but the business cases are not always clear and there are cases where we might ask for subsidies -- in rural areas, say."
One issue in such communities is the lack of fiber that will be needed for backhaul purposes in a 5G future.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading