The world has long waited for 2020 to see the new network generation 5G finally commercially deployed globally. However, best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray.

With the rise of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, these plans winded down. In France, the auctions scheduled for mid-April to decide between French operators on part of the frequency bands needed to launch the latest generation of mobile networks, known as 5G, will be postponed, announced the French Telecommunications Regulation Authority, Arcep.

No new timetable has yet been defined, a spokeswoman said, justifying this decision by “operational reasons”, mainly because of “the impossibility of carrying out simulations during this period of containment”.

Thomas Reynaud, CEO of Iliad, parent company of the operator Free, had earlier stated that he had “included a possible postponement” of the tender in this procedure, in the margin of the presentation of the group's results. However, Reynaud said that he still expected these 5G commercial offers to be launched by the end of the year.

The four French operators (Bouygues Telecom, Free, Orange and SFR) have applied for the allocation of the first 5G frequencies in France, in the 3.5 Gigahertz (GHz) band.

Normally, the phase determining the frequency allocation for the 5G network should be carried out in two stages. The first, essential step should allow each operator to acquire a 50 MHz lot. This is part of the 3.5 GHz band. The price for each of these blocks has been set at EUR 350 million. Conversely, the second stage is to take place in the form of an auction. Thus, lots of 10 MHz must be offered, starting from a minimum of 70 million euros each. At this level, the participants can then offer the price they want. However, this is on condition that the 110 MHz limit is not exceeded.

The State hopes to obtain at least €2.17 billion from the allocation process, but the amount could ultimately be much higher, depending on the competition during the auction phase. However, the procedure is subject of multiple appeals from a trade union which accuses it of not having any obligations in terms of employment, but above all from associations concerned about the impact of 5G on health and the environment.

Seized by these associations, the Council of State had refused to suspend the procedure as a matter of urgency but is due to give a decision on the merits by the summer.

The presence of the Chinese equipment manufacturer Huawei – at the heart of the Sino-American trade war and being suspected of spying by Washington for the benefit of Beijing – within the French network of certain operators must also be decided by the State.

To what concerns China, the massive investment from Chinese state-owned mobile operators and growing enthusiasm from consumers and companies have all helped the country maintain its global leadership in next-generation 5G wireless networks, according to a report published by GSMA, a trade body for mobile operators worldwide. Mobile operators in China launched initial commercial 5G services last year and are leading the way in diversifying their offerings for both consumers and enterprises, GSMA added in the release.

“China is leading in the early adoption in 5G and has already built more than 160,000 5G base stations covering more than 50 cities as operators aim to expand standalone 5G network coverage and capacity,” said Sihan Bo Chen, Head of Greater China at GSMA.

The rollout of 5G networks and big data centers are considered fundamental elements of China’s digital infrastructure, aimed at driving greater connectivity for consumers and businesses across the country. Doubts have been raised in recent months though that China’s aggressive timetable for installing 5G base stations could be threatened by the coronavirus outbreak, which has seen large parts of the country locked down.

Nonetheless, China’s three largest telecoms operators – China Telecom, China Unicom and China Mobile – have been told by Beijing to accelerate the roll-out of 5G networks to support the digital transformation of the world’s second-largest economy.

“Unlocking the benefits of these next-generation networks, flexible policies, including for spectrum and infrastructure, are strategically important to support China’s ongoing transformation into a fully-fledged digital economy,” Sihan Bo Chen said.

GSMA also estimates that by 2025, 5G will account for almost half of the country’s mobile connections, representing an adoption rate on par with other leading 5G markets such as Japan, South Korea and the US. In addition, 80 per cent of 5G network construction was on track in China as of the end of February, marking strong progress even in the face of the coronavirus threat, said state broadcaster CCTV in early March.

Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump declared that the “race to 5G is on and America must win.”

U.S. mobile carriers such as Verizon and AT&T have already begun rolling out their 5G networks across the country, but today, Verizon is gearing up for the impact of the coronavirus, which includes more telecommuting and online learning, by increasing its capital guidance range.

In order to speed up its 5G deployment and to help support the economy during the coronavirus pandemic, Verizon announced that it has increased its capital guidance range from $17 billion-$17.5 billion to $17.5 billion-$18 billion in 2020. Despite an increasing number of businesses, schools and other organizations asking students and employees to work from home, Verizon said it hasn't seen a measurable increase of data usage since the emergence of the coronavirus. The company is keeping its finger on the pulse of network traffic and said it would prioritize its network for first responders and public safety officials. Plus, Verizon offered up a range of tips on its website for businesses that are now faced with larger remote workforces.

While Verizon flaunted its network readiness, AT&T was the first major ISP to lift its broadband data caps due to the coronavirus. “Many of our AT&T Internet customers already have unlimited home internet access, and we are waiving internet data overage for the remaining customers,” AT&T said on its website. "Additionally, through Access from AT&T we’ll continue to offer internet data to qualifying limited income households for $10 a month.”


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