Europe's 5G pace is slow and steady as others race

When it comes to introducing 5G, the US is the hare to Europe's tortoise. But in this version, the hare wins.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
6 min read

Europe, the continent that gave the world Nokia, Ericsson and GSM networks, did much to build the mobile phone as we know it today. But the continent's reign as the world leader in mobile technology has come to an end with the advent of the speediest networks the world has ever seen: 5G.

Though some carriers in the US, South Korea and China are on the verge of launching the next-generation networks as early as the end of this year, Europe won't follow until later in 2019. But over the course of 2018, Europe has at least hit the gas on its efforts to catch up.

Being able to tap into a 5G network isn't just important for streaming Netflix more smoothly and more efficiently to our phones when we're out and about. It promises to open the door to a whole new range of technologies, including driverless cars, remote surgery and next-level smart homes full of seamlessly connected devices. It

In spite of it being listed as a priority for many European governments, including those in the UK and Germany, to "lead on 5G," spectrum concerns, competing regulations and an uncertain timeline for 5G devices have caused Europe to fall behind.

Getting with the 5G program

5G relies upon a more complex ecosystem of partnerships -- all of the pieces of the puzzle must be in place for everything to work. "It's not just the networks," said Luca Schiavoni, senior analyst at Assembly Research in London. With different networks and services in different European countries and no one or two dominant companies like AT&T and Verizon in the US, this makes it trickier to coordinate.

"Competition here in Europe is stronger, and also policed more by competition authorities, so you see telecoms operators constantly lamenting the fact that it's harder for them to grow at scale," Schiavoni said. "There is general consensus that scale for 5G is important."

We won't see benefits of 5G if only a small number of people or companies are connected to the network -- it'll take masses of people, devices, services and enterprises for us to make the most of these high speeds.

Compared with their American counterparts, European networks have also been more cautious about forging ahead with 5G. In particular, AT&T and Verizon have been aggressively driving the development of 5G from its earliest days. Only over the past year have European operators started to express similar levels of ambition for the growth of their own 5G networks, even if some are still unsure about the business case for investing in the technology.

Vodafone puts first 5G mobile station into operation

Vodafone has been testing its 5G network technology in Europe.

picture alliance/Getty

Several operators, including Swedish group Telia and Vodafone and EE in the UK, have been particularly keen to show off their 5G capabilities in 2018 through working trials (notably, the former was the first in the world to market with 4G, back in 2009).

The newly bullish attitudes of a number of European networks caused analyst firm CCS Insights to bring forward its estimates about when commercial 5G will arrive in the the UK, according to its latest report in September.

"While Europe may still be around a year adrift of the leading markets in 5G, some regional operators are clearly determined to launch commercial services as soon as next year," said CCS analyst Kester Mann in a statement following the report's publication.

The firm estimates Europe will see 20 million 5G connections -- between devices and networks -- by the end of 2020, growing fivefold to more than 100 million two years later.

Many spectrum auctions, which must take place in each individual country, are also still underway across the bloc, and are key to getting the 5G show on the road. So far auctions in the UK and in Italy have cost networks far more than they anticipated, leaving them less money to invest in building infrastructure, but they have little choice but to go along with the inevitable embrace of 5G.

5G phones: Ready or not, here they come

Network one-upsmanship and spectrum auctions aside, what Ben Timmons, senior director for business development at Qualcomm , sees as the really critical part of making 5G a reality is now in progress in Europe -- that is, taking test devices into the infrastructure labs to check for and ensure interoperability, to see if all the devices, networks and infrastructure work properly with each other.

"Real phone manufacturers are making 5G connections now," he said in a media briefing in late September. He expressed confidence that phone makers would be launching 5G-capable devices using Qualcomm's X50 5G chip in the first half of next year.

Qualcomm's first 5G modem chip, which will let phones talk to 5G networks, now is working in prototype form.

Qualcomm's first 5G modem chip, which will let phones talk to 5G networks, will be built into some of the first 5G phones.


Mobile World Congress 2019, which will take place in February in Barcelona, is likely to play host to a slew of 5G handset announcements from the main carriers, although European consumers shouldn't necessarily read this as a sign they'll have a fully functioning 5G phone in their pocket by the end of next year. Before you can use 5G speeds, you need a 5G network to deliver them.

"There's nothing to stop people launching 5G smartphones in Europe at the same time as they launch pretty much everywhere else in the world," said Qualcomm's Timmons. But, he warned: "It may be that the networks are not there."

It could also be the case that the introduction of 5G in Europe causes a big shakeup in which phone manufacturers that dominate the region are outpaced by scrappier upstarts eager to gain a foothold in a competitive market.

The Chinese phone makers that are newer to Europe, including OnePlus, Xiaomi (which arrives in the UK next week), Oppo and Vivo have already been publicly talking about, and in some cases showing off, how they're incorporating the X50 chip into their handsets. OnePlus , Huawei and LG are all promising 5G in the first half of next year, whereas established leaders Apple and Samsung remain quiet on their plans for now.

This doesn't necessarily mean Chinese phone makers are further along in their development of 5G handsets than the bigger phone brands, but the fact that they're willing to talk about it now shows their 5G ambitions, as well as their more general ambitions to get ahead.

"It has always been the case that technology transitions lead to changes in the leading suppliers," said Timmons. "Quite how isn't really clear yet, and I don't think it will become clear until it's actually happened."

Europe is also behind the US when it comes to fixed wireless access -- a wireless alternative to fiber and other fixed-line broadband services -- using 5G spectrum.

"In Europe we haven't put so much emphasis on that," said Timmons. "People are much more interested in smartphones ... and we're going to get those about the same time as everyone else in the world."

The battle goes on, but the war is already lost

Whether Europe gets 5G phones one month or five months after the US, and whether it can offer widespread, fully functional commercial 5G networks by 2019, 2020 or 2021, the region has effectively already lost this fight, at least for now.

Now it's just a case of playing catch-up as much as possible -- something many European countries at least appear to be doing effectively.

The likelihood is that most consumers, many of whom are probably on and will continue to be on fixed 24-month contracts with 4G devices and 4G data speeds for now, will be unaffected by the specifics of when 5G becomes available. But being behind does impact individual countries, economies and the European tech industry as a whole.

Pretty much all of the 5G strategies from European governments, including the UK, highlight the technology's importance for attracting investment and the development of related innovation -- driverless cars, for example. There's also the benefit that, while other markets are still trying to get the right infrastructure in place, you can learn from mistakes early and quickly and course-correct.

Schiavoni's counterargument is that 5G is so huge that there's room for new, smaller players to bring new services and offerings to the market. Taking a slightly slower approach to adopting the technology allows these new possibilities to be more carefully considered and incorporated, something he can see potentially happening in Europe.

"It is clear that in the United States they have found a vision and they are going for it," he said. "It is important to be a leader in 5G, [and for Europe] it is indeed a missed opportunity."

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