Although we track wireless network capex and opex, we don’t track the market share of network infrastructure vendors at GSMA Intelligence (yet). It’s a tricky business. That’s why many vendors source this type of data from multiple companies in order to triangulate the truth. Of course, where the data is being sourced in order to support a marketing claim, (for example, “we’re number one”) it only takes one company to say what you want to hear.

For Samsung, that happened recently when it was flagged as moving into the number four market position for RAN gear during the first half of 2018, taking the spot once held by ZTE. Now, fourth place may not sound like a major accomplishment, but it’s nothing to scoff at. It points to significantly growing RAN revenue for Samsung along with the spending going on in markets including the US, where Samsung has had recent success.

More broadly, it also comes with a number of other implications and caveats, particularly as 5G commercialisation begins to take hold.

It doesn’t imply broader infrastructure success. Even if they might get used interchangeably in places, mobile infrastructure and RAN gear are not the same thing. Put another way, you can’t build a wireless network from base stations alone. You need routers and backhaul, OSS/BSS software and mobile core infrastructure. You need security and content filtering solutions and IMS if you’re looking to roll out VoLTE. You need network deployment and management services. You need a bunch of other things too. Samsung supplies much of this. Regardless, taking fourth place in the RAN infrastructure space is not the same as being the fourth-placed wireless networking vendor. That doesn’t mean Samsung can’t make progress at getting there. It does mean that a focus on end-to-end networking capabilities and prowess could well get more and more marketing attention from competitors.

End-to-end is about more than infrastructure. If you can’t equate RAN infrastructure with mobile infrastructure, then you definitely can’t (or shouldn’t) confuse end-to-end solutions with more narrow end-to-end infrastructure. In the same way RAN assets aren’t sufficient for building a wireless network, the networks alone aren’t sufficient for delivering holistic wireless services. And that’s where a vendor like Samsung could benefit. You saw this when the vendor played up approval from US regulator the Federal Communications Commission for an end-to-end 5G offer including its router. More recently, this was clear subtext for Samsung’s announcement of the Exynos Modem 5100, a 3GPP Release 15-compliant 5G NR modem. Of course, if this benefits Samsung it will benefit others too; think Huawei and ZTE (given their device and silicon businesses); and potentially even Nokia (with its device brand).

It is good news for disruptors. For all the discussion above about end-to-end solutions, you would think that is the main story here. It’s not. The main story is about disruption. Samsung has been trying to break into the top echelon of wireless networking vendors for a while. And while you might credit its recent success to perseverance, you will also want to credit the coming of 5G. New technologies present carriers with the opportunity to introduce new vendors into their networks; companies can bring supplier diversity and innovations larger infrastructure providers have ignored (or otherwise failed to develop). At the very least, this is something that myriad start-ups in the wireless networking space are hoping for. Samsung’s success gives them one more reason to believe.

Ultimately, it might not matter at all. Remember when I said tracking the wireless infrastructure market share was tough? In part, that is because the numbers can change quickly: success over one quarter may not carry over to the next based on the timing of operator spending patterns. Samsung’s success in early 2018, then, may not mean much. It could be an anomaly fuelled by success in a select few, 5G-forward markets. It could be derailed as 5G momentum lifts the fortunes of vendors in markets where Samsung has a more marginal presence.

Only time will tell whether Samsung’s RAN momentum in early 2018 can translate into long-term success. But, as 4G gives way to 5G, there is no shortage of carriers who may be looking at it as an opportunity to broaden their roster of network vendors, particularly in the face of potential Chinese vendor bans. At the same time, there is no shortage of technology disruption opportunities for start-ups and larger vendors to address: virtual RAN, high-altitude platform stations (HAPS), edge platforms and management, the 5G core, et cetera.

If 5G does nothing else but usher in a new era of vendor diversity, it will be the disruptive force it promises to be.

– Peter Jarich, head of GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.