Europe's operators are perhaps right to be warier than some of North America's. While T-Mobile's revenues have risen at a compound annual growth rate of roughly 17% since 2012, those at Deutsche Telekom's domestic business are down about 0.8% over the same period. Not all US operators are prospering in the same way as T-Mobile, but competitive and regulatory conditions have been more favorable in the US than in Europe, from a telco standpoint. A US relaxation of rules on net neutrality could further bolster their position.
Deutsche Telekom has hinted at this disparity, arguing that Europe has "different market needs" from the US. But it has also downplayed the significance of T-Mobile's announcement. "If people speak about 5G these days, most of them are talking about details and certain use cases -- not the big picture," said a spokesperson for the German operator. T-Mobile, he notes, was talking about 5G new radio, and "5G is not just the next mobile radio standard."
He has a point. Many of the core network changes that facilitate "network slicing" and support other 5G features will probably come after T-Mobile's service launch in 2019. And as far as some operators are concerned, it is this overhaul -- rather than anything on the radio side -- that will open up new service opportunities. With network slicing, for example, 5G operators will be able to run multiple virtual networks over the same physical infrastructure, with each virtual network supporting specific service characteristics. (See The Growing Pains of 5G.)
Those opportunities might not translate into a revenue boost for operators, but simply providing higher-speed connections almost definitely won't -- if past experience is anything to go by. Moreover, while the 5G moniker will give T-Mobile something to brag about, the users of smartphones and other mobile devices may notice little improvement on 4G if 5G is delivered over 600MHz spectrum. Such a bandwidth-constrained sub-GHz range looks ill suited to the task of providing the very highest-speed services. (See EE: New Tech Is Mobile Revenue Savior.)
None of this may alter the perception that Europe has fallen behind other parts of the world in the next-generation mobile technology stakes. If 5G is capable of spurring economic growth, a genuine lag should matter to everyone from policymakers and regulators to operators and end users. That spur seems likelier to come with iterations of 5G that follow those now in the crosshairs of T-Mobile, Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) and AT&T. It is up to Europe's operators to prove they are competitors in that race.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading