5G

Germany’s delayed 5G network from 1&1 is starting to take shape

German greenfield operator 1&1 AG has been promising since August 2021 that it will build a fully virtualized 5G mobile network in Europe on the basis of open radio access network technology, with support from Rakuten Group.

Rakuten Symphony is acting as the general contractor, taking over the build of active network equipment and mobile performance. The United Internet-owned 1&1 has also signed up infrastructure partners including towercos America Tower, GfTD GmbH, and Vantage Towers, and fiber network provider 1&1 Versatel. 

The operator has also subsequently said that servers from Dell and Supermicro, routers from Cisco, software from Rakuten, Mavenir and Altiostar and antennas from NEC and Communications Components (CCI) will be used initially. More recently, it observed that around 100 companies are involved in building its network, but noted that this is “without the participation of dominant equipment suppliers such as Huawei.”

Combined with its 2019 acquisition of spectrum frequencies in the 2 GHz and 3.6 GHz bands, as well as national roaming support from wholesale partner Telefónica Deutschland, the stage seemed to be set for the rollout of what would become Germany’s fourth 5G network. 

However, the network buildout has been plagued by delays since the outset, missing antenna deployment targets and more. 

It has taken until now for 1&1 to announce that it will be able to start selling 5G mobile services, indicating that 5G smartphone contracts will be available for customers from December 8. Although 1&1’s 5G network was officially launched in December 2022, it has only been able to sell 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) services since then. 

The story so far

1&1’s ambition to become the fourth German mobile network operator can be traced back to 2014, when Telefónica Deutschland acquired mobile network operator E-Plus. As a condition for approval of the merger, Telefónica and 1&1 formed a wholesale cooperation agreement that could be converted into a national roaming agreement over time.

In 2019, 1&1 acquired its own 5G spectrum assets, leased some 5G frequencies from Telefónica, and launched its bid to build a modern 5G network.

Following a period of negotiation, not to mention spats over wholesale pricing, the pair entered into a long-term national roaming agreement in 2021 that covered Telefónica’s 2G and 4G network, providing essential interim coverage as 1&1 continued its own network deployment. This was quickly followed by the agreements with Rakuten and the three tower companies. 

However, it soon became apparent that 1&1 would not meet the installation target of 1,000 antennas by the end of 2022 — one of the coverage requirements stipulated by the Federal Network Agency. Indeed, only five 5G antenna sites were available at the end of that year.

At the time, 1&1 indicated that a partner which had “contractually committed to providing approximately two-thirds of the 1,000 antenna sites” had reported problems meeting its obligations on time. It has since been revealed that the partner in question is Vodafone-backed Vantage Towers.

The situation appeared little improved at the start of 2023, when 1&1 said 235 sites were under construction and indicated that the first interim target of 1,000 radio masts “should be achieved in the course of the year.” It also filed a complaint with the Federal Network Agency, requesting a review into what it regarded as the “hindrance” of its 5G network deployment by Vantage Towers and Vodafone Germany.

In September this year, 1&1 then announced it had concluded a comprehensive national roaming agreement with Vodafone Germany that included 5G, replacing the existing roaming agreement with Telefónica that only covered 4G. 1&1 said it will be technically possible for Vodafone to provide 5G roaming from July 1, 2024, but no later than October 1, 2024. 

Further adding to the confusion, 1&1 revealed in November that it has now added 5G to its Telefónica national roaming deal, enabling it to launch 5G mobile services from December. However, it still intends to use national roaming from Vodafone as planned from summer 2024 and gradually reduce services from Telefónica Deutschland.

Summary

In summary, Germany’s fourth 5G network appears to be taking shape, but it has faced a number of twists and turns and delays along the way. In its results presentation for the first nine months of 2023, 1&1 said it had deployed 503 sites at the end of September and expects to deploy 500 more in the fourth quarter. 

It also said it has built two out of four core data centers, 23 (of 24) decentralized EDGE data centers, and 81 (of approx. 550) regional far EDGE data centers. Longer term, 1&1 remains focused on its goal of supplying a quarter of German households by the end of 2025 and 50% by the end of 2030.