Countries that want to stay competitive in the global economy are adapting to 5G technology at an increasingly rapid pace. The race to see which country will have the best 5G network has begun in earnest. Communication service providers around the world are battling one another to build-out, validate, and deploy commercial 5G networks.

What's at stake in the 5G race? According to estimates published in an Informa Tech research paper, 5G technology could be responsible for 22.3 million jobs and $13.2 trillion of global economic output by 2035. Here we review the progress several countries have made in adapting to 5G technology.

Key Takeaways

  • South Korea, China, and the United States are the countries that lead the world in building and deploying 5G technology.
  • Telecommunications operators around the world—including AT&T Inc., KT Corp, and China Mobile—have been racing to build the fifth-generation (5G) of wireless technology. 
  • As more devices connect to the Internet, the need for high-speed 5G networks becomes more critical.
  • Even smaller countries like Sweden, Turkey, and Estonia have taken significant steps to make 5G networks commercially available to their citizens.

The United States

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Spectrum Frontiers Order laid the groundwork for the use of 5G technology in the United States. The next generation of technology provides a greater amount of spectrum for wireless communication, smaller sizes of wireless cells, and more modulation schemes, letting greater numbers of wireless users share the spectrum. 5G technology offers at least one gigabit per second for connection speeds, shorter delays than 4G technology, and millimeter-wave (mmW) bands for supporting applications requiring large capacity.

In July 2016, the FCC began creating rules for 5G technology, making the United States the first country opening a high-band spectrum for the technology. Because the spectrum bands are available for licensed, unlicensed, and shared users, more than four times the amount of spectrum is available for flexible use than in previous years. Also, 15 times more unlicensed spectrum is available for users than in previous years.

U.S. carriers AT&T Inc. (T), Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ), Sprint Corp. (S), and T-Mobile US Inc. (TMUS) are actively developing, testing, and deploying 5G components. As of Jan. 2020, 5G had been deployed in 50 cities in the United States. Sprint has rolled out mobile 5G in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Phoenix, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, D.C. AT&T has made its mobile 5G+ network live for consumers in parts of 35 cities and 190 markets.

As of Jan. 2020, commercial 5G networks have been deployed in 378 cities across 34 countries.

South Korea

South Korea is ahead of other countries in 5G deployment. The country has rolled out 5G to 85 cities as of Jan. 2020. Government officials estimate 90% of Korea's mobile users will be on a 5G network by 2026. The key to South Korea's success seems to stem from the collaboration of three carriers that have worked on 5G deployment: SK Telecom, LG Uplus, and KT Corp.

KT Corp (ADR) (KT) completed a successful trial of a system from NEC Corp. using extremely high frequencies for transmitting data at up to 3.2 Gbps (gigabits per second) in the Taebaek Mountains. NEC’s iPasolink EX ultra-compact microwave system links between LTE (long-term evolution) base stations to enable telecommunication, which is much easier than laying fiber for the links. The microwave system conveys data at frequencies of 70 to 80 GHz, which keeps more signal going through the air than other systems and uses a form of encoding that lets more data be transmitted.

Sweden and Estonia

Swedish-Finnish operator Telia Company AB and Swedish provider Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson (ERIC) reported that Stockholm, Sweden, and Tallinn, Estonia went live with their 5G test network on Dec. 20, 2018. It's projected both Estonia and Sweden will have a commercially available 5G network in 2020, although it's likely to take several years before most people have access.

Digitalization of industries and the Internet of Things (IoT) will mostly benefit technology companies at first, but ultimately the technology will benefit the public through new services and applications.

For example, 5G technology will control self-driving cars and robots working in mines, which are two areas that current infrastructure cannot support. Also, citizens living in rural areas will have higher bandwidth and better communication capabilities.

Turkey

Turkey’s 5GTR Forum, consisting of mobile network companies, Turkish public institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and domestic producers, is facilitating a faster transition to 5G technology. Through working together, the organizations share information and ideas to help Turkey implement the technology and keep its citizens informed on its progress. Once implemented, 5G technology will connect people, transportation, objects, and cities at higher speeds and with fewer delays, using the same infrastructure.

Turkey’s goal in implementing 5G technology is providing affordable technology services to its citizens and increasing domestic production through research and development (R&D). Turkish organizations are required to participate in R&D studies and help establish infrastructure as part of utilizing the technology. Additionally, the Ministry of Science, Industry, and Technology is studying ways the country may use domestic hardware, software, and other mobile communication products. Because Turkey is still in the trial phases of implementing 5G technology and building out the required infrastructure, it's unclear when 5G access will be available commercially.

Japan

Japan has met its goal to launch 5G mobile service by 2020. Japan’s largest wireless carrier, NTT DOCOMO, began its quest for 5G in 2010 with initial experiments. In Sept. 2019, the company rolled out pre-commercial 5G services. The test phase went well, and NTT DOCOMO began offering consumer 5G services on March 25, 2020.

The country’s communication ministry had a hand in the country's success. Early on, the ministry met with Japan’s three biggest carriers—NTT DOCOMO Inc., KDDI Corp., and SoftBank Group Corp—as well as private-sector manufacturers of handset and base stations, such as Panasonic Corp, Fujitsu Ltd, and Sharp Corporation to promote the research and development of 5G technology.

Japan’s communication ministry states that 5G technology will be close to 100 times faster than LTE, which is used most often throughout the country, and ten times faster than 4G technology. Implementing 5G technology will help integrate high-resolution-video services streaming in 4K and 8K, which need substantial amounts of bandwidth.

China

After South Korea, China ranks second as the country with the most cities in which 5G is available. As of Jan. 2020, China had deployed 5G technology in 57 cities.

In Oct. 2019, three major wireless carriers in China launched 5G networks: China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom. While coverage is limited in some areas, Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen are the cities with the best coverage thus far.

Because Chinese authorities control the implementation of the technology, some experts wonder if the 5G rollout process throughout the vast nation will be slow. The implementation of 4G technology did not occur until late 2013, many years after South Korea, Japan, the United States, and other nations had 4G technology.

However, China's top telecommunications companies seem determined to not replicate earlier 4G mistakes and have done an impressive amount of testing and infrastructure build-out of the 5G network. The Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA) projects China will have 460 million 5G connections by 2025.