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Huge uptick in global 5G deployment across 2020

Although yet to fully accommodate the boost it got from the recent launch of suitably enabled iPhones, the 5G market has enjoyed a strong third quarter, according to data from mobile testing specialist

The number of countries with 5G deployments – including commercially available nets as well as those with limited availability and those in pre-release – increased by 62.3% between the third quarter of 2019 and Q3 2020, with 99 countries having 5G deployments at the end of this year’s third quarter, according to the latest market survey by mobile phone performance testing firm Ookla.

The study defined a deployment as when a provider had some level of 5G presence in a city. A city can have multiple deployments when more than one provider is present. Overall, the study found that there were 14,643 cities worldwide with 5G deployments at the end of Q3 2020, a 1,671% increase over Q3 2019. The total number of deployments worldwide was 17,046.

The US had the most cities with 5G deployments at the end of Q3 2020 with 7,583. Germany was second, Austria third, the Netherlands fourth and Switzerland fifth. The Netherlands showed the largest percentage change in the number of 5G deployments between Q3 2019 and Q3 2020 with a 50,350% jump from two deployments in Q3 2019 to 1,071 in Q3 2020. Thailand saw the second-largest percentage increase, the US third, Germany fourth and Canada fifth.

Assessing the nature of the global 5G deployments, Ookla noted that most early trials and commercial deployments of 5G spectrum allocations around the world have been centred around the mid-band (3.3-4.2GHz) spectrum. Yet it added that with the recent commercialisation of dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) across all major 5G infrastructure suppliers – a stepping-stone to standalone 5G that allows for the simultaneous delivery of 4G and 5G technology on the same spectrum slice – there was now increasing demand for 5G support on many existing 4G frequencies, ranging from 600MHz to 2.5GHz.

In unique 5G markets such as Japan, there is an additional need for the 4.5GHz band as well as the millimetre wave (FR2).

In the US, early deployments have used millimetre wave frequency bands in the 28GHz and 39GHz bands, which Ookla said has delivered “impressive” speeds in what it calls a very constrained footprint. Rapid 5G deployment in the 600MHz band in the US has added a substantial nationwide 5G footprint – and, with that, much wider 5G availability for many more Americans.

Ookla cited the recent merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, in which the deployment of 2.5GHz spectrum has been accelerated significantly, which should improve both network efficiency and user experience on T-Mobile’s network. The analyst forecast that 2021’s availability of 5G carrier aggregation will allow T-Mobile to combine 600MHz with 2.5GHz to deliver improved 5G speeds on top of the existing nationwide footprint.

The study also noted that DSS has been deployed by AT&T and Verizon, which allows operators to choose from existing low-band spectrum assets (850MHz) and deliver both LTE and 5G at the same time. While not improving significantly the perceived user experience, this move has broadened the 5G footprint.

Adopting an alternative metric to ascertain 5G adoption, Ookla looked at the proportion of samples taken over 5G relative to the total number of samples on all technologies to measure global growth in 5G. Using such apps, China had the highest percentage of 5G Speedtest results compared with other mobile technology types in Q3 2020 at 18.9%. South Korea was second, Hong Kong third, Puerto Rico fourth and Qatar fifth.

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Attempting to predict what 5G may look like in 2021, Ookla said that with device chipset advancements such as 5G carrier aggregation expected in 2021, operators would be able to combine two 5G frequency bands in the sub-6GHz (FR1) range, allowing not only faster speeds, but also greater coverage.

More importantly, the ability to combine frequency division duplexing (FDD) and time division duplexing (TDD) FR1 channels will enable operators to leverage low-band frequencies (sub-1GHz) for uplink transmissions (user device to cell site), while combining the low-band with the mid-band (2.5GHz, 3.5GHz) on the downlink. This, said Ookla, would significantly expand the availability of fast 5G download speeds across larger geographies.

Similarly, it predicted that DSS would enable operators to combine already-deployed FDD spectrum with dedicated mid-band spectrum for an enhanced standalone 5G experience. It said this would unlock the full potential of 5G networks, such as ultra low latency and network slicing, while delivering an improved mobile experience to users.

Ookla concluded that if the current growth rate continues, it will not be long before most nations have access to 5G. Yet despite this optimism, it cautioned that there are nations and subsets of subscribers that may not see the benefits of 5G for years to come.

Making matters worse was the fact that such countries typically were places where consumers relied primarily on mobile phones for their internet connectivity and available networks would not support standard business applications, such as rich media experiences or video calling.

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