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Analysis: European 5G rollouts delayed

February 24, 2022

Analysis of the current 5G landscape in Europe by network intelligence and connectivity insights specialist Ookla identifies delays in 5G network rollouts and in transposing the EU’s objectives into Member States’ national 5G strategies or broadband plans.

While a lot of progress have been made so far, and some operators offer lightning speeds, the picture is mixed across the continent and the ambitions set by the European Union remain just that. Ambitions, suggests Ookla.

According to GSMA Intelligence data, 84 operators deployed 5G services in 31 countries as of January 2022. The State of Digital Communications report published by the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) states that the uptake of 5G in Europe accounts for only 2.8 per cent of the total mobile connections, compared to 13.4 per cent in the United States and 29.3 per cent in South Korea: despite being available to 62 per cent of the population.

As per the EC 2016 5G Action Plan, countries across the EU were meant to make low-band spectrum available for use by June 30th, 2020, and mid- and high-band spectrums by December 31st, 2020. However, four countries out of 30 analysed are yet to assign spectrum. The delays related to spectrum assignment stem from multiple reasons ranging from the impact of COVID-19 on schedules to cross-border coordination with non-EU countries to weak demand from the operators’ side.

As operators look to optimise their network operations and costs and refarm spectrum for 4G and 5G, the pace of 2G/3G network shutdowns is increasing. However, the situation across Europe is more complicated than elsewhere. Based on public announcements, European operators will support 2G in the short term, phasing out 3G instead.

In some cases, in the absence of dedicated 5G spectrum or to supplement existing spectrum, operators are using Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) to use the same spectrum band for different RAN technologies, which are allocated in real time. For instance, Swisscom has announced that it covers 99 per cent of the country’s population with 5G, which borrows spectrum from its LTE network. The operator said that its 5G service on the 3.5 GHz (C-band) spectrum reaches 62 per cent of the Swiss population. C-band spectrum is considered a sweet spot for 5G, as it strikes a good balance between capacity and coverage.

The picture is slightly different when it comes to 5G Availability — the percentage of users on 5G-capable devices that spend most of the time with access to 5G networks.

Within Europe, the Netherlands comes first, followed by Cyprus and Bulgaria. During its Q4 2021 results announcement KPN announced that it has modernised over 4,000 sites to date, and that its 5G network already covers more than 80 per cent of the population using 700 MHz spectrum. The operator’s 5G strategy is focused on enabling a wider ecosystem but also on providing differentiating services for B2B customers in specific industries.

Telemach Slovenia topped the charts in terms of median download speeds over 5G in Q4 2021. The operator is combining existing LTE spectrum with the 3.5 GHz and 700 MHz spectrum awarded in April 2021. Another operator from the United Group, Vivacom Bulgaria, also fared very well in this ranking. In April 2021, the operator won 100 MHz in the 3.7-3.8 GHz band for BGN4.6 million (€2.35m) but it had already launched the 5G network before with a temporary licence in November 2020. András Pali, Vivacom CTO in an interview stated that the operator plans to invest 120 million in infrastructure in 2021. Vivacom utilises DSS combining frequencies in 1.8, 2.1 and 3.6 GHz bands for 5G, so there is no compromise between coverage and speed.

Swedish operators perform well in the ranking – three out of the four national operators rank as the top 10 fastest European players. Whilst Cyta came in as the seventh fastest 5G provider, the operator has been recognised as the fastest mobile network in Europe in November 2021.

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