Last month, Börje Ekhom claimed that “Europe is too slow with the roll-out of 5G” in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde. The CEO of the Swedish networking and telecommunications company Ericsson expects that Europe will need two years to reach the current level of China. Research shows Europe is slower in rolling out 5G.
Börje Ekhom mentions his claim with the results of the Ericsson Mobility Report, which is published biannually on the company’s website. “Today, the leaders are China, Australia, South Korea and the USA. Even the Middle East is ahead of Europe”, Ekhom says in Le Monde. “80% of all 5G subscribers are Chinese. The Asian country has moved 11% of its subscribers to 5G, North America 4%. Europe has only moved 1%.” These numbers roughly accord to data to be found on statistics portals such as Statista.
However, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the number of 5G subscriptions should not be conflated to mean the number of 5G users. Not every subscriber has a 5G capable device or actual access to a 5G network. On top of that, the number of subscriptions is only one way to measure the deployment of the latest generation of mobile technology. “You can also determine the swiftness of the roll-out based on the speed of the network itself or the area covered with 5G”, Sofie Pollin, telecommunications engineer at the University of Leuven, says in an interview with the editors.
The state of 5G
It’s difficult to quantify the speed of a country’s 5G network. The download and upload rate of a network differs per operator. Europe itself has over 800 mobile operators, 14 times more than China. When comparing multiple sources, the 5G network of the United States seems to be significantly slower than the European counterpart. Europe’s network then again appears to be slower than the Asian and Middle Eastern net.
What does its speed matter if you don’t have access to this new network? T-Mobile, the largest 5G operator in the US, already reaches 85% of the country’s inhabitants. The Chinese government targets full coverage by 2025. In comparison, Europe wants to cover 75% of its population by that same year.
Another element to use in order to measure the state of the roll-out, is the number of base stations. In September 2020, the European Round Table for Industry (ERT) and the Global Counsel released a report that shows Europe is lagging behind in both upgrading existing 4G base stations and building new 5G stations.
Don’t forget the people
By examining these parameters, it becomes clear that Europe is slower with the deployment of 5G. Especially compared to countries such as the US, South Korea and China. Telecom expert Pollin claims the faster roll-out in Asia had to do with the organisation of the Olympic Winter Games of 2018 in Pyeongchang.
Moreover, she believes the Asian countries are doing a better job when it comes to change management. “The Chinese and South Korean public is more willing to accept this transformation than we are. Europe is not making clear enough that 5G is worthwhile”, Pollin says. “Our 4G networks are fast and reliable, which makes us wonder why we need to upgrade.”
An additional complication for the European roll-out of 5G is the fragmentation of its operators, Ekhom believes. “None of these companies work on a scale large enough to compete with other countries.” The Ericsson CEO pleads for a framework, to make fusions between operators possible. Yet it’s companies like Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei that sell 5G equipment to mobile operators and that could benefit from larger investments.
According to Pollin, Europe is not too slow with the roll-out of 5G. “The EU goes entirely for a digital society and is sure that 5G will be vital for the future”, Pollin states. “I don’t think we should accelerate more, trying to catch up. A slower deployment of 5G isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps some of the first flaws will have been dealt with.”
Based on various parameters, it is right to say that Europe is not the best pupil in class. The deployment of the 5G network is not running as smoothly as in other countries. Nonetheless, this does not directly mean the roll-out is too slow as claimed by Börje Ekhom. It is difficult to predict the potential consequences of a slower progression. Therefore, the claim is mostly true.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE © Stijn De Meester and Antoon Van Lommel, Artevelde University of Applied Sciences Gent, Belgum
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