As carriers race to build out their 5G networks, options for buying the gear they need are fewer in the U.S. than in other countries thanks to federal pressure, which could be slowing deployments.
China-based Huawei and ZTE were both banned from providing equipment to the government itself in the Defense Authorisation Act of 2018, and a general import ban followed shortly thereafter. That has changed the competitive landscape considerably, and raises questions about how the shape of 5G in America could change as a consequence.
Michael Porowski, a Gartner analyst, said it’s possible, though not completely clear, that the restriction on where carriers can buy their 5G equipment is slowing deployment.
“There’s still an ample number of suppliers – Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung,” he said. Both ZTE and Huawei are more economical options, he said, and “if they were available, you might see a bit faster adoption.”
There’s a sense in the industry that Huawei equipment is both sophisticated and priced to move, according to Christian Renaud, research director at 451 Research, but there’s also no clear alternative that carriers will gravitate to in the absence of Huawei.
“Here, you’ll have carriers that have standardised on Nokia or Ericsson,” he said. “[And] it’s too soon to tell who’s most sophisticated because deployments are so limited.”
That contention is borne out by coverage maps from the carriers themselves. While they have been quick to trumpet the presence of 5G service in many U.S. markets, the actual geographic coverage is mostly restricted to public spaces in the urban cores of major cities. The lion’s share of 5G deployment, in short, is yet to come.
There are good reasons for slow deployment. 5G access points have to be deployed far more densely than earlier generation wireless technology, making the process more involved and time-consuming. There’s also the issue that the number of currently available 5G user devices is vanishingly small.
“It’s like saying ‘I’ve got this eight-lane superhighway,’ before someone has invented cars,” said Renaud.
Part of the current goal for equipment vendors is demonstrating the potentials of 5G through private deployments that use the technology for backhaul, supporting Internet of Things (IoT) and other link use cases specific to a single enterprise.
“[The equipment vendors] are all pushing hard on the private piece, and then they can use that to say, ‘Look, I’m working the Brooklyn dockyards or something in a private 5G network, so … if I can do that I can run people’s YouTube connections,’” Renaud said.
An unfortunate result of the China ban might be a splintering of the specifications that vendors follow to meet 5G requirements. If non-China vendors have to make one version for markets where Huawei and ZTE are allowed and a different version for places they are not, it could create a new headache for them, according to Renaud.
“That’ll shift the burden of costs to the device makers to try to support the different carrier implementations," he said. “We’ll have created nontechnical barriers.” And those, in turn, could cause customer experience to suffer.
But 5G has embraced a move toward greater interoperability with open radio access network technology that standardises the software interfaces between layers of the 5G stack. The push is embraced by carriers and equipment vendors alike, making interoperability more likely, which could draw in even more players in the future.
Of course, even with pervasive interoperability, equipment makers will still try to build customer dependency.
“There’s always going to be a tug of war between vendors trying to lock in customers and customers trying to stay vendor-neutral,” he said. “That’s not going to change a lot. [But] we’ve obviously seen a move toward trying to be more open.”