5G: Is 2021 the year for Germany to shine?

  • Adriano Giaquinta Avatar
  • Thomas Martin Avatar
By Adriano Giaquinta, M. Sc., Telecoms Strategist
and Dr. Thomas Martin, Chief Technology Officer
Updated on April 13, 2021

In this article, we explain how Berlin might have just boosted the development of 5G in Germany by tacitly allowing Chinese-owned Huawei to finally embed itself in domestic telecom networks.

5G download speeds in Germany are currently slower than in other technologically advanced countries.

5G in Germany is still a work in progress. Technology enthusiasts will have to wait at least one more year to experience the breakneck speeds and super-low latencies that we were promised with the advent of the fifth generation of mobile broadband technology. Being dubbed by many as “wireless fiber” for its fixed broadband - like expected performance, 5G was supposed to deliver speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) – that is a hundred times faster than 4G. And while this has happened to some extent – real-world results have shown that the deployment of the new technology has been significantly slower than expected and uneven across the globe. Some countries have done better than others. Germany did well but not enough when compared with other technologically advanced countries. The current median download speed for 5G across the country is 121Mbps, that is almost four times slower than, for instance, South Korea.

Despite its comparatively slower speeds, Germany's 5G is 5.6 times faster than its 4G infrastructure.

While Germany lags behind other countries in the 5G race (e.g., South Korea, Taiwan, UK, and Japan), the data collected from 1 November 2020 to 31 January 2021 by our speed test, which measures the quality of internet connections on millions of devices yearly, shows that 5G connections in Germany are 5.6 times faster than 4G (which compares with 2.7x in the US, where 4G speeds are similar to Germany). As is usually the case with new technologies, these results vary among the three major operators.

Deutsche Telekom proved to have the fastest 5G network, with median download speeds of 149Mbps, that is 16% higher than the nationwide figure, perhaps due to the operator having recently added new spectrum on its 2.1GHz band to the 3.6GHz band used for its initial 5G launch in September 2019. Today, Deutsche Telekom claims to provide 5G coverage to 68% of the German population, with the target to reach 80% by the end of this year, which makes it the operator with the widest 5G network in the country by far.

Telefónica / O2 offered its 5G users a median speed of 139Mbps, competing head-to-head with Deutsche Telekom to win the technological race in the country. Surprisingly, Telefónica / O2 did not offer 5G in Germany until October 2020, when its network was activated in ten cities to start out with. Since then, the operator has expanded its 5G network to five other major German cities, aiming at covering more than 30% of Germany’s population by the end of this year. Telefónica/ O2 currently operates its 5G over the 3.6GHz frequency band, which offers a great combination of good coverage and high-speed connections.

Vodafone, quite astonishingly, delivered a median speed for 5G of only 61Mbps despite claiming to be the first operator in Germany to have deployed a 5G network back in 2019. The operator claims that its 5G technology is currently available to more than 20 million people across Germany (24% of the population), with the target to serve 30 million by the end of this year. Vodafone relies on a mix of mid-band frequencies (3.5 GHz) for city coverage, and low-band frequencies (700 MHz) in rural areas. Low-frequency signals such as 700MHz travel far but deliver slower speeds, which might explain why Vodafone’s 5G network is the slowest across the country when we look at nationwide data.

The imminent 3G shutdown will likely improve 5G performance, as operators plan to repurpose their spectrum.

5G spectrum is still a scarce resource for many operators, including in Germany. Considering that 3G users account for a very tiny percentage of the total mobile subscribers (Vodafone recently announced that 3G makes up for only 2.5% of mobile data traffic in its German network), the three major operators have set plans to repurpose their 3G spectrum and deploy additional capacity to support the increasing demand on 4G and 5G networks.

But the real boost to 5G in Germany might have just come from Berlin.

After two years of deliberation, at the end of last year, Germany released the IT Security Law 2.0, which tacitly allows Chinese-owned Huawei to finally embed itself in domestic telecom networks. Huawei’s 5G equipment is considered to be generally more advanced and budget-friendly than that of its competitors (for example, Ericsson and Nokia). Although the IT Security Law 2.0 is still in draft form, Berlin seems to have no desire to ban any equipment supplier from Germany’s 5G networks. However, domestic operators will have to take significant risk if they were to incorporate Huawei equipment into their 5G networks, as the current draft of the law still makes it possible for Berlin to ban Chinese equipment altogether. Such political uncertainty might have caused some 5G deployments to be put on hold, as German operators are cognizant of what happened, for instance, in the US, where the Government forced some operators to replace their network-equipment suppliers when it deemed Huawei a national security risk. German operators are well aware that replacements are costly in terms of both time and money.

2021 could be the year for Germany to shine in 5G, as operators have set the course for more powerful networks, perhaps on the back of the long-awaited IT Security Law 2.0.

All of Germany’s major operators have announced plans to improve their 5G by moving from Non-Stand-Alone (NSA) to Stand-Alone (SA) networks, which are said to support latencies of just a few milliseconds. Currently, all the 5G networks in Germany run on non-standalone architectures, which means that a 4G-LTE cell must always be used as an anchor for 5G. Here is why NSA networks could be (and have been) a problem in some instances in Germany. Major operators like Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone operate their 4G and 5G on frequency bands that are close to one another, for example the mid-band, requiring the end devices that want to connect to their LTE-anchored 5G networks to bundle these frequency bands. Recently, it turned out that some devices such as the iPhone 12 cannot bundle frequency ranges that are close to one another, making it impossible for them to access 5G. And the Apple iPhone 12 models do not seem to be the only smartphones that are affected by the anchor strap problem. It has been reported that the new Galaxy S20 FE and the One Plus 8 or 8 Pro have experienced similar issues. The good news is that new standalone 5G networks have started to be implemented in Germany, with some operators leveraging the IT Security Law [2.0] to embed Huawei into their networks. SA architectures will open up new opportunities for ultra-reliable and low latency communications for mission critical applications such as autonomous vehicles and factory automation.

Germany has the opportunity to achieve 5G leadership worldwide, but is the political cost worth the technological reward?

With Berlin refusing to ban Huawei from its 5G networks, domestic operators in Germany are among the few in Europe to be allowed to purchase Chinese technological solutions. For example, countries such as France, Sweden, and the UK have blocked [Chinese] Huawei from their domestic rollouts. But now that Germany is about to forge its own path with Huawei, what is going to happen to cross-border initiatives and alliances, which Berlin supports, that aim at reducing China’s dominance in 5G and tech infrastructure? With the latest draft of the IT Security Law 2.0, Germany seems to have favored technological leadership over international relations, at least on the 5G matter!

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