Baker: A look at the progress of 5G rollouts across Europe

Europe is a complicated place to organize anything in a consistent way, and the 5G rollout is true to form. (Getty Images)
Industry Voices Simon Baker

If the Federal Communications Commission had not been founded in the 1930s and control of the United States’ airwaves had been vested at the state level instead, imagine how the development of 5G would be going in the United States right now. Chances are it would be a whole lot slower than it has been and full of differing approaches and timetables.

The introduction of 5G in Europe is a bit like that. There are 27 countries in the European Union, and add in the others in Western Europe, and then move East and the number rises above America’s states.

Europe is a complicated place to organize anything in a consistent way, and the 5G roll out is true to form.

First off the mark were some richer countries where operators reckoned consumers were most likely to opt for the pricey first set of 5G smartphones on offer. Operator Sunrise in Switzerland was the first company to launch 5G in Europe in April 2019, and rival Swisscom said it had 90% population coverage already by the end of 2019. 

Britain made an early start, with operator EE the first network to launch in May last year, with rivals Vodafone following in July and O2 in October. Most major UK towns are now covered. In Spain, Vodafone also launched in June last year, with Telefonica following suit this September. In Italy, both Vodafone and TIM had 5G networks in commercial operation in June 2019.

Altogether there were 15 national commercial launches by operators by the end of last year in nine EU countries, according to the European 5G Observatory.

The coronavirus crisis has subsequently pushed back the deployment schedule in some countries, as operators have focused on maximizing throughput over their existing networks to keep up with higher demand for communications with so many people working at home. The crisis has also slowed down the frequency licensing process in several countries.

RELATED: Industry Voices — Baker: Apple and mobile operators tango together on 5G iPhone 12

Nevertheless, several countries have made strides this year, among them Germany, Europe’s largest economy. At the end of July Deutsche Telekom said 5G covered half the population and aims to cover two-thirds of the population by the end of this year. And earlier in the summer, DT said it had two million subscribers to its 5G service.  

One the fastest rollouts in Europe is taking place in Denmark, where Danish operator TDC NET launched 5G this September with an immediate coverage of 80% of the population, with another 10% of the population expected to be covered by the end of the year. In Holland, another small and compact country, 5G got going in April this year and already four-fifths of the population is covered. 

Elsewhere in the Nordic region, 5G is gaining pace. In Finland service started last autumn, while In Sweden Telia and Tele2 began service in early summer. In Norway Telenor will be in five main cities by the end of the year, while Telia aims to cover half the population by the end of 2021. 

France is currently the big standout in Europe. Frequency allocation was delayed from the spring due to the lockdowns and only limited service is expected before the end of the year. 

East slower than West

Though the same set of international operators in Western Europe are also prominent in Central Europe, the deployment timetables are normally less advanced. However, Orange chose Romania for its first 5G launch across Europe, and now says it has full coverage of Bucharest. Service started in April in Hungary, in Poland in May and in the Czech Republic this summer.

In Russia there have been issues about availability of spectrum, and despite active testing, service is unlikely to be extensive much before 2022.

Focus on sub 6GHz

European frequency allocations to date have centered on sub-6GHz. The relatively small coverage areas of these cells means that service is focused on city centers and built-up areas. Initial deployments are often dependent on limited frequency allocations, and in several countries, such as Germany, operators are using dynamic frequency sharing with 4G networks. Millimeter wave will largely come later. There has already been some release of lower 700MHz band, and more is likely to follow.

In general, operators are not charging substantial premiums for 5G because they believe doing so could easily destroy interest. Tariffs are particularly competitive in the UK. Starter prices in Germany rise to around 80 euros a month for unlimited access.

Limited time spent on 5G networks

Do European subscribers get their money’s worth? According to OpenSignal, which measures the coverage and performance of mobile networks, based on data from May to August this year, 5G download speeds in Europe generally tend to double or triple download speeds over 4G; in an international comparison this is well below the top scorers of Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

European countries do not yet score highly on the proportion of connected time spent on 5G; UK users spent only 4.5% of their time connected to 5G – the highest percentage in Europe was the Netherlands at 13.2%. 
The European Roundtable of Industrialists is very critical of the pace of deployment across Europe, pointing out in a report published in mid-September that so far the installation rate is only 10 per 1 million inhabitants, against 1,500 per 1 million in South Korea, and that the proportion of 4G antennas in Europe converted to 5G was just 1%. While the list of deployments given here may sound impressive, full national coverage may take time. For instance in Italy, off the mark already in 2019, TIM is not expecting to provide the whole country with 5G connectivity for another five years.

Europe is well behind the leading regions of the world in 5G takeup, in particular China as well as South Korea. 
It is also well behind the take off curve of 4G in Europe in its initial quarters in 2012. While Europe’s remaining telecom infrastructure players Nokia and Ericsson may get a new lease on life through the freezing out of Huawei in many markets, on the smartphone side, Europe is pretty much out of the game. In 2012 Finland’s Nokia was still a major global brand in phones. Today its share is small, and other European names have gone. Only 3.5 million 5G smartphones were sold in Europe in the third quarter, according to IDC data. Whether that tempo accelerates in 2021 will depend heavily on the marketing and pricing decisions of America's Apple, Korea's Samsung and a grouping of Chinese Android phone makers.

Simon Baker is program director for mobile phones and consumer devices at IDC EMEA and a coordinator of IDC global forecasting for the 5G smartphone market. He is a long-time analyst in the mobile phone arena. Please contact him at [email protected]

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.