Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei score 5G wins, but too early to call winners: analysts

5G was a popular theme throughout Mobile World Congress 2018. (Monica Alleven/Fierce Wireless)

In the race to 5G among operators, it’s not clear who’s going to be No. 1—each of the four biggest U.S. operators, for example, has declared they’ll be first, and operators outside the U.S. are champing at the bit to be first in some form or other.

The situation among their 5G infrastructure vendors isn’t exactly crystal clear, either. Vendors are often under NDA unless their customers agree to go public with any deals, and it’s pretty early in the game to declare winners based on what contracts are to be had thus far.

Analysts at Raymond James say it’s too early to call winners, but clearly Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia dominate the wireless infrastructure market. Nokia has announced 50 5G trials, and Ericsson has signed 38 operator agreements, according to a Feb. 26 research note from the Raymond James team led by Simon Leopold.

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“So far, Nokia seems to have a slight edge against beleagured Ericsson for next-generation wireless deployments,” wrote R. Scott Raynovich, founder and chief analyst at Futuriom, citing Leopold’s research. Huawei has also announced 13 operator engagements (two in Canada, three in Japan/Korea, three in China and five in Europe; it's pretty much shut out of the U.S.). Nokia's new wireless chipset, ReefShark, was also impressive, Raynovich said in a recap of Mobile World Congress 2018.

Since that Feb. 26 Raymond James note, the number of Ericsson operator agreements for 5G trials rose to 39, with the addition of KT in February 2018, and it has officially announced five deals, a spokesperson told FierceWirelessTech. The company had no comment on its competition, saying it is focused on delivering 5G to its customers.

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The Raymond James analysts say there are a variety of metrics one may count in assessing supplier positions. Viavi Solutions has done its own summary, including one (PDF) that looks at 5G trials in which Ericsson beats out others with 30% share. Huawei and Nokia are neck and neck with 22% and 21%, respectively, followed by ZTE, Qualcomm, Samsung, Intel and others in a snapshot that obviously includes a mixed bag of players.

Overall, Leopold and team remain skeptical of the near-term impact of 5G. “In our view, 5G deployments are a positive over the longer term but will not likely have any material implications for wireless vendors in the near term for several reasons: First, the initial 5G service planned for 2018 is restricted to fixed broadband service for metro MDUs in limited geographies, with the current trials partnering with Qualcomm and Novatel and excluding traditional wireless equipment vendors such as Nokia, Ericsson and CommScope,” they said.

“The larger mobile 5G opportunity that encompasses wireless devices such as cell phones and tablets is unlikely to materialize until 2019 at the earliest,” the analysts wrote. “Secondly, while each new wireless generation typically sees new frequency and wider bandwidth per frequency, there is not much room for new frequency bands in 5G, as higher frequencies would begin to overlap with satellite transmissions. 5G’s differentiation likely manifests in the form of other improvements other than peak bitrate increases, such as spectrum efficiency or lower power. All of these could reflect opportunities for wireless vendors, but not likely to the degree that requiring all new radio infrastructure would, as was the case with 4G/LTE,” they added, concluding that while the 5G trials won’t move the needle materially in 2018, it will be an important year to learn about how the business case is developing.

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Of course, Raynovich points out that Samsung could be a dark horse to pick up market share in North America and Europe while Ericsson and Nokia duke it out. Indeed, Samsung Electronics America was selected to supply Verizon with commercial 5G fixed wireless access network solutions in Sacramento, California, due the second half of 2018, and it’s been involved in trials for quite some time.

RELATED: Samsung ‘very patient’ when it comes to U.S. infrastructure market

Samsung Networks has been in the U.S. for more than 20 years, and while it hasn’t seen the kind of rocket growth its handset division has seen, it sees a big opportunity to grow share with 5G. Samsung’s Woojune Kim told FierceWirelessTech last fall that the company has always been very patient when it comes to the U.S. market, and every time there’s an inflection point in the industry, there’s opportunity.