CTIA: Study shows China with narrow lead over U.S. in race to 5G

The U.S. is losing out to China in the race to overall 5G readiness, but CTIA is sounding the horn that the U.S. can still do something to change the situation if policymakers act in 2018 to reform local zoning rules and unlock access to midband spectrum.

The association that works on behalf of big wireless carriers and other ecosystem partners enlisted the expertise of Analysys Mason to examine the worldwide race to 5G. The analysts looked at the U.S. and compared it to Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea and the U.K.

The study compared what’s happening in the U.S. with these other markets in terms of 5G readiness, with a focus on two key governmental areas: spectrum availability, licensing and deployment plans; and proposals aimed at streamlining planning processes for 5G infrastructure, including favorable mobile siting and licensing policies.

The analysts noted that all major Chinese providers have committed to specific launch dates and the government has committed to at least 100 MHz of midband spectrum and 2,000 MHz of high-band spectrum for each wireless provider.

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“Our research shows China with a slight lead in 5G readiness, with South Korea and the U.S. close behind,” said David Abecassis, partner in Analysys Mason, in a press release. “The U.S. led the world in 4G, and the U.S. wireless industry is leading global 5G research and development with aggressive commercial 5G deployment plans that will benefit U.S. consumers.”

With infrastructure reform teed up at the FCC and in Congress, the U.S. can still pull ahead but it’s got to act fast. “It’s a tight race,” said CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker. China and South Korea have a slight edge, but “we can leapfrog them and win this race. I feel confident that we will win the race.”

U.S. industry is pulling its weight and more, but the Chinese government, which subsidizes the carriers in China, released a lot of spectrum, and “that’s exactly what we need,” she told FierceWirelessTech, noting the FCC acted extraordinarily fast on releasing high-band spectrum. Now the focus is on midband spectrum and CTIA is hoping that by as early as this summer, a compromise will be reached on the geographic license size and the 3.5 GHz rules will be finalized.

The standards for 5G were finished two years early, and the start of commercial rollouts are happening in the U.S. this year. The communities that are welcoming small cells are going to be the first to reap the benefits, and the more that welcome new rules, the faster carriers can roll out the new networks, she said.

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CTIA also commissioned Recon Analytics to conduct a historical analysis of how winning and losing wireless leadership affects the economies of the U.S. and other nations.

“When countries lose global leadership in a generation of wireless, jobs are shed and technology innovation gets exported overseas,” said Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics, in a statement. “Conversely, leading the world in wireless brings significant economic benefits, as the U.S. has seen with its 4G leadership. These are the serious stakes that face American policymakers in the escalating global race to 5G.”

The research should provide fodder for discussions this week. CTIA is hosting a Race to 5G Summit on Thursday, April 19, in Washington, D.C., bringing together policymakers and technology and wireless industry executives.

Dimitris Mavrakis, research director at ABI Research who was not part of the study that was done for CTIA, told FierceWirelessTech that the China central government is pushing aggressively for the next wave of industrial evolution and 5G is a core component of this. All mobile service providers are also owned by the government and China Mobile has more than 700 million subscribers, the largest mobile operator in the world, by far. 

U.S. operators have announced they will focus on fixed wireless access to start with (although AT&T has made a few mobile 5G announcements), leaving China as the biggest market and if you consider that the government will likely push forand subsidize5G, then this means 5G will likely be initially deployed in China.

“At the end of the day, it will not matter whether someone wins in the 5G race as Chinese operators do not compete with U.S. ones, as they operate in different territories,” Mavrakis said. “The media are obsessed with the U.S. vs. China narrative at the moment, but whoever deploys first will provide learnings for the rest of the global operator community.”