5G radio technology is making its way into mobile networks around the world faster than many people thought it could, with more than 35 global carriers announcing deployments so far. Many of them are working with more than one 5G radio vendor, so the number of 5G contracts announced far exceeds the number of deployments.
Vendors are eager to announce their 5G contracts, and are definitely keeping score. Huawei says it currently has 50 contracts, and Nokia is a close second with 48, three of which were announced since the company's last official update. Ericsson has only announced the 5G contracts for which it can publicly name the customers - 24 so far. At last count Ericsson's equipment was operational in 15 live networks, versus 10 live networks for Nokia's equipment.
Nokia hopes to distinguish itself as the provider with the most comprehensive 5G solution, and the company says its contracts to date demonstrate this.
“More than half of the deals that we have signed actually include more than just radio,” said Sandro Tavares, Nokia’s head of global mobile networks marketing. “5G is much more than simply an upgrade of the radio access network. … We are the only player that is fully end-to-end.”
Verizon, however, has chosen Ericsson to provide 5G core network, radio access and transport services. Verizon is also working with Nokia and Samsung, as are AT&T and Sprint. T-Mobile has named Ericsson and Nokia as 5G vendors.
Huawei is excluded from the U.S. market by the U.S. government because of security concerns. Asian operators SoftBank and SK Telecom have also eschewed Huawei as a 5G equipment supplier, but Japan’s NTT DoCoMo has conducted 5G tests with Huawei equipment, and South Korea’s LG Uplus is using the Chinese company’s base stations for its 5G network in Seoul. Recently, the company said it might consider selling its 5G portfolio to a Western competitor while maintaining its existing 5G contracts.
Huawei’s political problems have been less of an obstacle in Europe. The vendor says it has contracts with 28 European operators, including Vodafone UK, EE, Hutchison, Sunrise and Elisa.
Samsung has contracts with AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, as well as with all the major South Korean operators. SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus all launched 5G in tandem late last year.
5G is opening the door to some non-traditional vendors, because some 5G features can be implemented via software rather than hardware. In Japan, Rakuten Mobile has tapped NEC to help it create a cloud-native 5G network that will rely on a software-based radio access network. NEC will build a massive MIMO 5G antenna radio unit that will operate in the 3.7 GHz spectrum band. In addition, Rakuten has said it is working with Nokia, Altiostar, Cisco, Mavenir, Intel, Qualcomm and Airspan. The company’s network launch was originally scheduled for October, but has been pushed back to early 2020.
Nokia’s Tavares said Rakuten is unique in its plan to combine radios from one vendor with baseband processors from another vendor. If the strategy is successful, it could pave the way for other operators to attempt similar interoperability.