5G Standalone – European Demand & Expectations (Part I).

By the end of 2020, according with Ericsson, it was estimated that there where ca. 7.6 million 5G subscriptions in Western Europe (~ 1%). Compare this to North America’s ca. 14 million (~4%) and 190 million (~11%) North East Asia (e.g, China, South Korea, Japan, …).

Maybe Western Europe is not doing that great, when it comes to 5G penetration, in comparison with other big regional markets around the world. To some extend the reason may be that 4G network’s across most of Western Europe are performing very well and to an extend more than servicing consumers demand. For example, in The Netherlands, consumers on T-Mobile’s 4G gets, on average, a download speed of 100+ Mbps. About 5× the speed you on average would get in USA with 4G.

From the October 2021 statistics of the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), 180 operators worldwide (across 72 countries) have already launched 5G. With 37% of those operators actively marketing 5G-based Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) to consumers and businesses. There are two main 5G deployment flavors; (a) non-standalone (NSA) deployment piggybacking on top of 4G. This is currently the most common deployment model, and (b) as standalone (SA) deployment, independently from legacy 4G. The 5G SA deployment model is to be expected to become the most common over the next couple of years. As of October 2021, 15 operators have launched 5G SA. It should be noted that, operators with 5G SA launched are also likely to support 5G in NSA mode as well, to provide 5G to all customers with a 5G capable handset (e.g., at the moment only 58% of commercial 5G devices supports 5G SA). Only reason for not supporting both NSA and SA would be for a greenfield operator or that the operator don’t have any 4G network (none of that type comes to my mind tbh). Another 25 operators globally are expected to be near launching standalone 5G.

It should be evident, also from the illustration below, that mobile customers globally got or will get a lot of additional download speed with the introduction of 5G. As operators introduce 5G, in their mobile networks, they will leapfrog their available capacity, speed and quality for their customers. For Europe in 2021 you would, with 5G, get an average downlink (DL) speed of 154 ± 90 Mbps compared to 2019 4G DL speed of 26 ± 8 Mbps. Thus, with 5G, in Europe, we have gained a whooping 6× in DL speed transitioning from 4G to 5G. In Asia Pacific, the quality gain is even more impressive with a 10× in DL speed and somewhat less in North America with 4× in DL speed. In general, for 5G speeds exceeding 200 Mbps on average may imply that operators have deployed 5G in the C-band band (e.g., with the C-band covering 3.3 to 5.0 GHz).

The above DL speed benchmark (by Opensignal) gives a good teaser for what to come and to expect from 5G download speed, once a 5G network is near you. There is of course much more to 5G than downlink (and uplink) speed. Some caution should be taken in the above comparison between 4G (2019) and 5G (2021) speed measurements. There are still a fair amount of networks around the world without 5G or only started upgrading their networks to 5G. I would expect the 5G average speed to reduce a bit and the speed variance to narrow as well (i.e., performance becoming more consistent).

In a previous blog I describe what to realistically expect from 5G and criticized some of the visionary aspects of the the original 5G white paper paper published back in February 2015. Of course, the tech-world doesn’t stand still and since the original 5G visionary paper by El Hattachi and Erfanian. 5G has become a lot more tangible as operators deploy it or is near deployment. More and more operators have launched 5G on-top of their 4G networks and in the configuration we define as non-standalone (i.e., 5G NSA). Within the next couple of years, coinciding with the access to higher frequencies (>2.1 GHz) with substantial (unused or underutilized) spectrum bandwidths of 50+ MHz, 5G standalone (SA) will be launched. Already today many high-end handsets support 5G SA ensuring a leapfrog in customer experience above and beyond shear mobile broadband speeds.

The below chart illustrates what to expect from 5G SA, what we already have in the “pocket” with 5G NSA, and how that may compare to existing 4G network capabilities.

There cannot be much doubt that with the introduction of the 5G Core (5GC) enabling 5G SA, we will enrich our capability and service-enabler landscape. Whether all of this cool new-ish “stuff” we get with 5G SA will make much top-line sense for operators and convenience for consumers at large is a different story for a near-future blog (so stay tuned). Also, there should not be too much doubt that 5G NSA already provide most of what the majority of our consumers are looking for (more speed).

Overall, 5G SA brings benefits, above and beyond NSA, on (a) round-trip delay (latency) which will be substantially lower in SA, as 5G does not piggyback on the slower 4G, enabling the low latency in ultra-reliable low latency communications (uRLLC), (b) a factor of 250× improvement device density (1 Million devices per km2) that can be handled supporting massive machine type communication scenarios (mMTC), (c) supports communications services at higher vehicular speeds, (d) in theory should result in low device power consumption than 5G NSA, and (e) enables new and possible less costly ways to achieve higher network (and connection) availability (e.g., with uRLLC).

Compared to 4G, 5G SA brings with it a more flexible, scalable and richer set of quality of service enablers. A 5G user equipment (UE) can have up to 1,024 so called QoS flows versus a 4G UE that can support up to 8 QoS classes (tied into the evolved packet core bearer). The advantage of moving to 5G SA is a significant reduction of QoS driven signaling load and management processing overhead, in comparison to what is the case in a 4G network. In 4G, it has been clear that the QoS enablers did not really match the requirements of many present day applications (i.e., brutal truth maybe is that the 4G QoS was outdated before it went live). This changes with the introduction of 5G SA.

So, when is it a good idea to implement 5G Standalone for mobile operators?

There are maybe three main events that should trigger operators to prepare for and launch 5G SA;

  1. Economical demand for what 5G SA offers.
  2. Critical mass of 5G consumers.
  3. Want to claim being the first to offer 5G SA.

with the 3rd point being the least serious but certainly not an unlikely factor in deploying 5G SA. Apart from potentially enriching consumers experience, there are several operational advantages of transitioning to a 5GC, such as more mature IT-like cloudification of our telecommunications networks (i.e., going telco-cloud native) leading to (if designed properly) a higher degree of automation and autonomous network operations. Further, it may also allow the braver parts of telco-land to move a larger part of its network infrastructure capabilities into the public-cloud domain operated by hyperscalers or network-cloud consortia’s (if such entities will appear). Another element of the 5G SA cloud nativification (a new word?) that is frequently not well considered, is that it will allow operators to start out (very) small and scale up as business and consumer demand increases. I would expect that particular with hyperscalers and of course the-not-so-unusual-telco-supplier-suspects (e.g., Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei, Samsung, etc…), operators could launch fairly economical minimum viable products based on a minimum set of 5G SA capabilities sufficient to provide new and cost-efficient services. This will allow early entry for business-to-business new types of QoS and (or) slice-based services based on our new 5G SA capabilities.

Western Europe mobile market expectations – 5G technology share.

By end of 2021, it is expected that Western Europe would have in the order of 36 Million 5G connections, around a 5% 5G penetration. Increasing to 80 Million (11%) by end of 2022. By 2024 to 2025, it is expected that 50% of all mobile connections would be 5G based. As of October 2021 ca. 58% of commercial available mobile devices supports already 5G SA. This SA share is anticipated to grow rapidly over the next couple of years making 5G NSA increasingly unimportant.

Approaching 50% of all connections being 5G appears a very good time to aim having 5G standalone implemented and launched for operators. Also as this may coincide with substantial efforts to re-farming existing frequency spectrum from 4G to 5G as 5G data traffic exceeds that of 4G.

For Western Europe 2021, ca. 18% of the total mobile connections are business related. This number is expected to steadily increase to about 22% by 2030. With the introduction of new 5G SA capabilities, as briefly summarized above, it is to be expected that the 5G business connection share quickly will increase to the current level and that business would be able to directly monetize uRLLC, mMTC and the underlying QoS and network slicing enablers. For consumers 5G SA will bring some additional benefits but maybe less obvious new monetization possibilities, beyond the proportion of consumers caring about latency (e.g., gamers). Though, it appears likely that the new capabilities could bring operators efficiency opportunities leading to improved margin earned on consumers (for another article).

Recommendation:

  • Learn as much as possible from recent IT cloudification journeys (e.g., from monolithic to cloud, understand pros and cons with lift-and-shift strategies and the intricacies of operating cloud-native environments in public cloud domains).
  • Aim to have 5GC available for 5G SA launch latest by 2024.
  • Run 5GC minimum viable product poc’s with friendly (business) users prior to bigger launch.
  • As 5G is launched on C-band / 3.x GHz it may likewise be a good point in time to have 5G SA available. At least for B2B customers that may benefit from uRLLC, lower latency in general, mMTC, a much richer set of QoS, network slicing, etc…
  • Having a solid 4G to 5G spectrum re-farming strategy ready between now and 2024 (too late imo). This should map out 4G+NSA and SA supply dynamics as increasingly customers get 5G SA capabilities in their devices.

Western Europe mobile market expectations – traffic growth.

With the growth of 5G connections and the expectation that 5G would further boost the mobile data consumption, it is expected that by 2023 – 2024, 50% of all mobile data traffic in Western Europe would be attributed to 5G. This is particular driven by increased rollout of 3.x GHz across the Western European footprint and associated massive MiMo (mMiMo) antenna deployments with 32×32 seems to be the telco-lands choice. In blended mobile data consumption a CAGR of around 34% is expected between 2020 and 2030, with 2030 having about 26× more mobile data traffic than that of 2020. Though, I suspect that in Western Europe, aggressive fiberization of telecommunications consumer and business markets, over the same period, may ultimately slow the growth (and demand) on mobile networks.

A typical Western European operator would have between 80 – 100+ MHz of bandwidth available for 4G its downlink services. The bandwidth variation being determined by how much is required of residual 3G and 2G services and whether the operator have acquired 1500MHz SDL (supplementary downlink) spectrum. With an average 4G antenna configuration of 4×4 MiMo and effective spectral efficiency of 2.25 Mbps/MHz/sector one would expect an average 4G downlink speed of 300+ Mbps per sector (@ 90 MHz committed to 4G). For 5G SA scenario with 100 MHz of 3.x GHz and 2×10 MHz @ 700 MHz, we should expect an average downlink speed of 500+ Mbps per sector for a 32×32 massive MiMo deployment at same effective spectral efficiency as 4G. In this example, although naïve, quality of coverage is ignored. With 5G, we more than double the available throughput and capacity available to the operator. So the question is whether we remain naïve and don’t care too much about the coverage aspects of 3.x GHz, as beam-forming will save the day and all will remain cheesy for our customers (if something sounds too good to be true, it rarely is true).

In an urban environment it is anticipated that with beam-forming available in our mMiMo antenna solutions downlink coverage will be reasonably fine (i.e., on average) with 3.x GHz antennas over-layed on operators existing macro-cellular footprint with minor densification required (initially). In the situation that 3.x GHz uplink cannot reach the on-macro-site antenna, the uplink can be closed by 5G @ 700 MHz, or other lower cellular frequencies available to the operator and assigned to 5G (if in standalone mode). Some concerns have been expressed in literature that present advanced higher order antenna’s (e.g., 16×16 and above ) will on average provide a poorer average coverage quality over a macro cellular area than what consumers would be used to with lower order antennas (e.g., 4×4 or lower) and that the only practical (at least with today’s state of antennas) solution would be sectorization to make up for beam forming shortfalls. In rural and sub-urban areas advanced antennas would be more suitable although the demand would be a lot less than in a busy urban environment. Of course closing the 3.x GHz with existing rural macro-cellular footprint may be a bigger challenge than in an urban clutter. Thus, massive MiMo deployments in rural areas may be much less economical and business case friendly to deploy. As more and more operators deploy 3.x GHz higher-order mMiMo more field experience will become available. So stay tuned to this topic. Although I would reserve a lot more CapEx in my near-future budget plans for substantial more sectorization in urban clutter than what I am sure is currently in most operators plans. Maybe in rural and suburban areas the need for sectorizations would be much smaller but then densification may be needed in order to provide a decent 3.x GHz coverage in general.

Western Europe mobile market expectations – 5G RAN Capex.

That brings us to another important aspect of 5G deployment, the Radio Access Network (RAN) capital expenditures (CapEx). Using my own high-level (EU-based) forecast model based on technology deployment scenario per Western European country that in general considers 1 – 3% growth in new sites per anno until 2024, then from 2025 onwards, I assuming 2 – 5% growth due to densifications needs of 5G, driven by traffic growth and before mentioned coverage limitations of 3.x GHz. Exact timing and growth percentages depends on initial 5G commercial launch, timing of 3.x GHz deployment, traffic density (per site), and site density considering a country’s surface area.

According with Statista, Western Europe had in 2018 a cellular site base of 421 thousands. Further, Statista expected this base will grow with 2% per anno in the years after 2018. This gives an estimated number of cellular sites of 438k in 2020 that has been assumed as a starting point for 2020. The model estimates that by 2030, over the next 10 years, an additional 185k (+42%) sites will have been built in Western Europe to support 5G demand. 65% (120+k) of the site growth, over the next 10 years, will be in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and UK. All countries with relative larger geographical areas that are underserved with mobile broadband services today. Countries with incumbent mobile networks, originally based on 900 MHz GSM grids (of course densified since the good old GSM days), and thus having coarser cellular grids with higher degree of mismatching the higher 5G cellular frequencies (i.e., ≥ 2.5 GHz). In the model, I have not accounted for an increased demand of sectorizations to keep coverage quality upon higher order mMiMO deployments. This, may introduce some uncertainty in the Capex assessment. However, I anticipate that sectorization uncertainty may be covered in the accelerated site demand the last 5 years of the period.

In the illustration above, the RAN capital investment assumes all sites will eventually be fiberized by 2025. That may however be an optimistic assumption and for some countries, even in Western Europe, unrealistic and possibly highly uneconomical. New sites, in my model, are always fiberized (again possibly too optimistic). Miscellaneous (Misc.) accounts for any investments needed to support the RAN and Fiber investments (e.g., Core, Transport, Cap. Labor, etc..).

In the economical estimation price erosion has been taken into account. This erosion is a blended figure accounting for annual price reduction on equipment and increases in labor cost. I am assuming a 5-year replacement cycle with an associated 10% average price increase every 5 years (on the previous year’s eroded unit price). This accounts for higher capability equipment being deployed to support the increased traffic and service demand. The economical justification for the increase unit price being that otherwise even more new sites would be required than assumed in this model. In my RAN CapEx projection model, I am assuming rational deployment, that is demand driven deployment. Thus, operators investments are primarily demand driven, e.g., only deploying infrastructure required within a given financial recovery period (e.g., depreciation period). Thus, if an operator’s demand model indicate that it will need a given antenna configuration within the financial recovery period, it deploys that. Not a smaller configuration. Not a bigger configuration. Only the one required by demand within the financial recovery period. Of course, there may be operators with other deployment incentives than pure demand driven. Though on average I suspect this would have a neglectable effect on the scale of Western Europe (i.e., on average Western Europe Telco-land is assumed to be reasonable economically rational).

All in all, demand over the next 8 years leads to an 80+ Billion Euro RAN capital expenditure, required between 2022 and 2030. This, equivalent to a annual RAN investment level of a bit under 10 Billion Euro. The average RAN CapEx to Mobile Revenue over this period would be ca. 6.3%, which is not a shockingly high level (tbh), over a period that will see an intense rollout of 5G at increasingly higher frequencies and increasingly capable antenna configurations as demand picks up. Biggest threat to capital expenditures is poor demand models (or no demand models) and planning processes investing too much too early, ultimately resulting in buyers regret and cycled in-efficient investment levels over the next 10 years. And for the reader still awake and sharp, please do note that I have not mentioned the huge elephant in the room … The associated incremental operational expense (OpEx) that such investments will incur.

As mobile revenues are not expected to increase over the period 2022 to 2030, this leaves 5G investments main purpose to maintaining current business level dominated by consumer demand. I hope this scenario will not materialize. Given how much extra quality and service potential 5G will deliver over the next 10 years, it seems rather pessimistic to assume that our customers would not be willing to pay more for that service enhancement that 5G will brings with it. Alas, time will show.

Acknowledgement.

I greatly acknowledge my wife Eva Varadi for her support, patience and understanding during the creative process of writing this Blog. Petr Ledl, head of DTAG’s Research & Trials, and his team’s work has been a continuous inspiration to me (thank you so much for always picking up on that phone call Petr!). Also many of my Deutsche Telekom AG, T-Mobile NL & Industry colleagues in general have in countless of ways contributed to my thinking and ideas leading to this little Blog. Thank you!

Further readings.

Kim Kyllesbech Larsen, “5G Standalone Will Deliver! – But What?”, Keynote presentation at Day 2 Telecoms Europe 5G Conference, (November 2021). A YouTube voice over is given here on the presentation.

Kim Kyllesbech Larsen, “5G Economics – The Numbers (Appendix X).”, Techneconomyblog.com, (July 2017).

Kim Kyllesbech Larsen, “5G Economics – An Introduction (Chapter 1)”, Techneconomyblog.com, (December 2016).

Peter Boyland, “The State of Mobile Network Experience – Benchmarking mobile on the eve of the 5G revolution”, OpenSignal, (May 2019).

Ian Fogg, “Benchmarking the Global 5G Experience”, OpenSignal, (November 2021).

Rachid El Hattachi & Javan Erfanian , “5G White Paper”, NGMN Alliance, (February 2015). See also “5G White Paper 2” by Nick Sampson (Orange), Javan Erfanian (Bell Canada) and Nan Hu (China Mobile).

Global Mobile Frequencies Database. (last update, 25 May 2021). I recommend very much to subscribe to this database (€595,. single user license). Provides a wealth of information on spectrum portfolios across the world.

Thomas Alsop, “Number of telecom tower sites in Europe by country in 2018 (in 1,000s)”, Statista Telecommunications, (July 2020).

Jia Shen, Zhongda Du, & Zhi Zhang, “5G NR and enhancements, from R15 to R16”, Elsevier Science, (2021). Provides a really good overview of what to expect from 5G standalone. Particular, very good comparison with what is provided with 4G and the differences with 5G (SA and NSA).

Ali Zaidi, Fredrik Athley, Jonas Medbo, Ulf Gustavsson, Giuseppe Durisi, & Xiaoming Chen, “5G Physical Layer Principles, Models and Technology Components”, Elsevier Science, (2018). The physical layer will always pose a performance limitation on a wireless network. Fundamentally, the amount of information that can be transferred between two locations will be limited by the availability of spectrum, the laws of electromagnetic propagation, and the principles of information theory. This book provides a good description of the 5G NR physical layer including its benefits and limitations. It provides a good foundation for modelling and simulation of 5G NR.

Thomas L. Marzetta, Erik G. Larsson, Hong Yang, Hien Quoc Ngo, “Fundamentals of Massive MIMO”, Cambridge University Press, (2016). Excellent account of the workings of advanced antenna systems such as massive MiMo. 

Western Europe: Western Europe has a bit of a fluid definition (I have found), here Western Europe includes the following countries comprising a population of ca. 425 Million people (in 2021); Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland United Kingdom, Andorra, Cyprus, Faeroe Islands, Greenland, Guernsey, Jersey, Malta, Luxembourg, Monaco, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Gibraltar.

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