Lockdown measures caused by Covid-19 (coronavirus) drastically slowed global commerce and the mobile industry has been no exception, with most 5G plans pushed back.

A number of 5G spectrum auctions in Europe were delayed: Spain’s government last week postponed a planned sale of 5G-suitable 700MHz spectrum, following delays in France, Austria and Portugal.

Flying in the face of this, however, China is actually accelerating its nationwide rollout and transitioning to the standalone (SA) version of the technology.

On its 2019 earnings call, Huawei rotating chairman Eric Xu said 5G rollouts in Europe would certainly be delayed.

Matthew Iji, a senior manager at GSMA Intelligence, expects lower-than-hoped global 5G adoption over the next two years, with most markets having to wait longer to see extensive deployments.

Business as usual
In China, where factories started to resume normal operations in late February and retail outlets reopened in March, local media said the country’s three major operators brought forward their non-standalone (NSA) deployment targets from the close of 2020 to the third quarter.

With the pandemic mostly under control in the mainland, operators are making up for lost time after several infrastructure tenders reportedly were held back and installation of base stations in some cities was slowed as workers weren’t allowed access to buildings.

China’s three major operators earmarked some CNY335 billion ($47.4 billion) in total capex for 2020, a double-digit hike from 2019, with the goal of having 600,000 5G base stations in service by end-September.

The government is pitching 5G as a key catalyst for reigniting the country’s stalled economy and also sees the heavy infrastructure investment as a necessary stimulus, thus its push to accelerate rollouts.

China Mobile recently prepared to start the second phase of its 5G rollout, naming Huawei, ZTE, Ericsson and China Information Communication Technologies as suppliers to deploy more than 232,000 base stations across 28 provinces and autonomous regions. The entire contract is valued at CNY37.1 billion.

At the end of February, operators had deployed more than 160,000 5G base stations in about 50 cities, up from 130,000 at end-2019. China Mobile claimed 15.4 million subscribers and China Telecom 10.7 million, while number three China Unicom hasn’t released 5G figures.

Phil Marshall, chief research officer at Tolaga Research, told Mobile World Live (MWL) when 5G is seen as strategic and of national interest, in an environment where there is much closer cooperation between enterprises and the government, it’s no surprise things can be accelerated since operators are not really working under regular market conditions.

“I see China continuing to push harder as it wants to get ahead of the curve in terms of where 5G takes you beyond enhanced mobile broadband,” he said.

Huawei’s 5G business certainly doesn’t appear to be slowing. It secured 21 new contracts globally in the first two months of the year, taking its total to 91, with more than 600,000 5G base stations shipped.

SA push
With all the noise about building scale, Chinese operators haven’t recently disclosed their SA plans. In 2019, China Mobile announced it would move to commercial SA in Q4 2020, but has yet to add detail to the target.

China Broadcast Network, the state-owned national cable TV operator, plans to go straight to SA using the 700MHz and 4.9GHz bands (it does not have a legacy mobile network). It will invest CNY250 million to deploy 5G services in 16 cities, but so far is running limited trials in a few cities.

The company was granted a commercial 5G licence in June 2019 together with the country’s three major mobile operators.

Incumbent operators in the US, which already rolled out NSA 5G, also outlined plans in 2019 to move to SA this year (again no updates); and SK Telecom in South Korea, which earlier in the year said it would launch SA in H1, conspicuously didn’t mention any such move last week when it highlighted its 5G plans as it approached the first anniversary of the launch of commercial services.

Figures from Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT showed the country’s three mobile operators had nearly 109,000 5G base stations at end-February, putting it second globally behind China.

Marc Einstein, chief analyst at Japan-based research company ITR, noted AT&T and Verizon are mostly rolling out SA in clusters where there is a need for advanced services like network slicing, and doesn’t see that changing. He told MWL he believes a 5G iPhone is key to any nationwide plans in the US.

Vendors including Huawei and ZTE, not surprisingly, are touting the need for SA, claiming existing 5G networks cannot meet specialised industrial applications requiring network slicing and customisation capabilities.

Einstein said China Mobile, as the world’s largest operator and global 4G leader, is under tremendous pressure from the government to take the lead in SA, which will give the country’s entire mobile ecosystem an edge from the semiconductor sector upwards, and believes it will hit its target.

Marshall noted while the pandemic is generally slowing 5G deployments, in some markets it may actually accelerate SA in order to support digital use cases which circumvent the impact of social distancing and lockdown initiatives, so there is a possible silver lining.