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5G Explained

Part One: Technology and Infrastructure

PUBLISHED: JAN. 22, 2020
UPDATED: FEB. 24, 2020

The discussion surrounding the ongoing development of the fifth generation of cellular networks, or “5G,” has invoked intense anticipation, deep-seated fear, and general confusion. 5G has the power to be a transformative technology, but it is widely misunderstood. Barclays’ polling found that only 28 percent of businesses know what 5G is and what it could do. This gap creates a competitive advantage for companies that are better able to understand 5G and craft effective 5G strategies. In our 5G series, FP Analytics analyzes three distinct aspects of 5G: Technology and Infrastructure, The Global Competitive Landscape, and National Security, which are essential to fully understanding the evolving industry and the range of commercial and geopolitical implications.


Strictly speaking, 5G is a set of technical ground rules that will define the workings of that cellular network, including the radio frequencies used and how various components like computer chips and antennas will handle radio signals and exchange data. However, the full scope of 5G networks will encompass governments, telecom providers, telecom equipment manufactures, and regulatory bodies. Rebuilding cellular networks to the 5G standard will increase speeds and reduce latency, enabling the “Internet of Things,” including Internet-connected household appliances, self-driving cars, smart infrastructure, and other devices that rely on high-speed Internet connectivity to operate and communicate. In short, it will further enable and accelerate the digitalization of economies globally.

While innovations on 4G networks were largely dominated by the U.S. and other Western countries, since 2012, China has made a coordinated effort to lead in building out 5G networks and setting operating standards around the world. Chinese omnipresence in 5G infrastructure rollout, embodied in its national telecom leader, Huawei, has raised security concerns for Western and other countries and has moved the 5G debate from the technical realm into geopolitics.

Despite popular rhetoric, the development of 5G technology is not a race that will have one clear winner. Instead, there will be a wide range of benefits and risks that will be distributed across companies, governments, and individuals. With the increasing digitalization of our economies, societies, and defense systems, the stakes could not be higher. To mitigate risks and capitalize on emerging opportunities, stakeholders need to understand the distinct components, the scope of 5G’s global impact, the potential roadblocks that may impede 5G’s development, and when and where it is strategic to engage. The key and nuanced elements of these issues are broken down in our series.

Laying the Groundwork: Foundational Aspects of 5G Technology and Infrastructure Equipment

Building 5G networks requires extensive physical infrastructure, both new and upgraded, that is currently being built, but there are only a small number of companies globally that are able to supply the necessary equipment to build these networks.

Key Takeaways

5G networks will increase data transmission speeds by up to 100x that of 4G networks

Construction of 5G networks will require an estimated investment of over $2.7 trillion globally in 2020 alone

  • Need for Speed

    5G networks stand to increase data transmission speeds by up to 100x that of 4G, requiring a vastly more extensive physical radio access network (RAN) infrastructure than previous generations used. In order to reliably transmit data over high-frequency radio waves, 5G requires broad-based construction of small cell towers to be placed within 500 feet of each other, requiring capital investment from mobile providers across all network domains, including spectrum, RAN, transmission, and core telecommunications networks.

  • Near-Term Investment Requirements Immense

    Building this network will require an estimated investment of over $2.7 trillion globally in 2020, which is expected to increase infrastructure capex by 20 to 50 percent per year, with costs varying considerably by market. These costs will be borne by telecom providers and governments seeking to capitalize on the digitalization of global economies it promises to enable.

  • What’s at Stake

    Seeking a first-mover advantage, telecom providers are scrambling to be the first to lay the foundation for fully operational 5G networks and lock in market share. Global profits from 5G network infrastructure are forecast to be $4.2 billion in 2020 alone, according to Gartner. The potential to capitalize on these profits and influence subsequent operation on the system has led to an intense competition among global telecom equipment providers, the outcome of which will determine which companies and countries capture the greatest benefits and profits from 5G.

The Breakdown
How 5G Networks Function
How 5G Networks Function
5G networks are complex ecosystems that will span the entire globe.
Click to see how they work

The infrastructure for wireless networks is constructed through two forms of physical infrastructure: a core network and a radio access network (RAN). The core network transports data and connects the various parts of the radio access network. Then, the radio access network connects wireless or satellite devices to the core network, acting as an in-between transmitter for data and end-user devices such as mobile phones and computers. While core networks are built in fixed facilities, RANs need to cover expansive geographic areas.

RANs will account for the majority of the increase in infrastructure investment, jumping from an estimated 62 percent of global telecom providers’ capex in 2018 to 86 percent in 2025, predominantly due to the need for 5G networks to build additional radio towers.

4G RANs connect end-user devices to telecom core networks through macro cell radio towers, which transmit data across low-frequency radio waves covering areas ranging from 22 to 45 miles, while 5G networks will transmit orders of magnitude greater data on top of 4G networks and will incorporate a wider range of radio spectrum frequencies. Given that high-frequency radio waves cannot travel through walls and only cover an area of two to four city blocks, telecom companies still need to build out thousands of additional macro cell towers and tens of thousands of small cell towers. Despite widespread media coverage suggesting that 5G is here, the reality is that this build-out is in the very early stages in most markets and will take years to implement.

Core Network Infrastructure

The core network is the backbone of a telecommunications network. It routes and transports data and connects the different parts of the radio access network. In 4G networks, the core network routes data primarily through hardware systems. In 5G, the majority of the core networks routing functions will be moved into a cloud-based software system.

Radio Access Network (RAN)

RANs are systems of radio cell towers that connect mobile devices to the physical telecommunications network. The RAN in 4G consists of larger macro cell towers that carry signals over long distances. 5G networks will consist of a denser, more complex network of macro cell and small cell radio towers that will carry signals over a wider range of radio frequencies.

How Networks are Built - Process
The Process

The core network acts as the hub that directs data throughout the telecommunications network. The radio access network provides wide-ranging cellular coverage that allows devices to connect to the core network and allows data to be sent and received across the entire network.

How Networks are Built
Macro Cell Towers

Macro cell towers transmit lower-frequency radio waves. Lower-frequency waves can travel over long distances and through walls, allowing macro cell towers to be placed far apart from each other.

Small Cell Towers

Small cell towers transmit higher-frequency radio waves. Higher-frequency waves can only travel short distances and cannot penetrate walls. In order toreliably transmit data, small cell towers need to be placed in close proximity to each other.

Internet-Connected Devices

Devices such as smart phones, computers, and other smart devices (such as machinery, or household appliances) generate data that is then transmitted through the telecommunications network via the RAN.


Rights to Operate Are Defining the Playing Field—Private vs. State-Owned Telecoms

Depending on the country, telecom companies are either private or state-owned. The varying structure of telecom companies across countries creates distinct challenges for rolling out 5G networks within and across different markets.

Key Takeaways

  • Coordination is Key

    Operating telecom networks requires close coordination among governments, telecom network operators, telecom equipment providers, and regulatory bodies. These actors must work together, often times across national borders, to build functioning 5G networks. Due to the scope of actors involved and their conflicting interests, 5G has the potential to create wide-ranging tensions. Countries that are better able to coordinate among these stakeholders have a clear advantage.

  • Telecoms’ Operating Structures Matter

    Vastly different operating structures by country will largely determine the ability of key actors to coordinate. For state-owned telecoms, the directives and incentives are aligned by nature, while privately owned companies need to reconcile conflicting interests as they work toward 5G.

  • What’s at Stake

    The ability to secure exclusive rights to operate will determine the rate at which development will be achieved—carrying implications for whether, when, and how companies and their competitors can participate in development. In each market, both the scope of infrastructure needed and the pace will vary; for 5G stakeholders, this means navigating uneven landscapes across markets and requires a tailored strategy for engagement.

The Breakdown
Telecom Structure and Why It Matters
Telecom Structure and Why It Matters
The distinction between private and state-owned telecom operators is a key determinant for the speed at which a country can roll out its 5G networks.
Click to learn why

5G RANs require extensive infrastructure to operate, with the International Data Corporation (IDC) estimating that over 2 million small cell transmitters will need to be built by 2021 for 5G in the U.S. alone, compared to only 200,000 total cell towers for past generations. To build out physical network systems, a telecom company must first secure the rights to exclusively operate on a specific frequency of radio spectrum. At the national level, governments control the use and allocation of spectrum, with varying dynamics for private versus state-owned telecoms:

  • Privately Owned Telecoms: In countries with private telecom companies, governments set the rules and regulations for telecom operators. Then, they auction off spectrum rights to the highest bidder. In these markets, there is a degree of separation between the governments and the telecom providers, with telecom providers responsible for the security and maintenance of their networks.
  • State-Owned Telecoms: In the case of a state-owned telecom company, the government frees up the spectrum for it to operate and maintains a full or partial stake in the company’s ongoing activities.

Once a telecom company has secured the exclusive rights to operate on a spectrum frequency, it then needs to transmit radio signals across the geographic area it wishes to cover. Telecom equipment providers such as Huawei, Nokia, and Ericsson provide telecom companies with the physical equipment they need to build out this network. Once networks are developed, third parties can send information through software code through those networks onto end-user devices such as cell phones, computers, and infrastructure sensors. Building 5G networks requires that telecom companies secure new higher-frequency spectrum to operate on, and then invest heavily in upgrading their physical network infrastructure to transmit data over this frequency.

In the case of private telecom companies, the company negotiates infrastructure contracts with telecom equipment providers such as Huawei, Nokia, and Ericsson on its own. For state-owned telecom companies, the government may negotiate these contracts for the company. The important difference is that countries with state-owned telecoms have a significant advantage in their ability to coordinate the key actors involved in building out 5G RANs. With state-owned telecoms, the government, the telecom provider, and regulators all act in coordination with a chosen telecom equipment provider with minimal pushback from any one actor. In countries where telecom providers are private, the key actors are often in competition with, or opposition to, one another.

Political and security concerns are impeding rollout across and within markets. In the U.S., despite the government’s ban on the domestic use of Huawei telecom equipment last May, rural telecom providers have already installed Huawei equipment across their 4G networks and are pushing to move forward with Huawei equipment largely based on price. The situation is similar in the UK, where telecom companies are moving forward with Huawei despite government reservations. Meanwhile, telecom companies in private markets are pouring money into lobbying for favorable regulation on a range of technical, financial, and governance issues to gain competitive advantages, which will influence not only the operating environment but also the pace of development. In 2018, U.S. telecom companies spent $80 million on lobbying. These tensions among actors in private telecom markets are delaying 5G rollouts, while state-owned telecom markets are moving ahead relatively unencumbered.

Where Do We Stand Today?

The U.S. has issued a ban on Huawei equipment being used in domestic 5G markets and has urged the rest of the world to follow suit. Despite the ban, there are many obstacles to the U.S. removing Huawei’s influence from 5G: small carriers in the U.S. already use Huawei equipment, U.S. companies rely on Huawei for large amounts of revenue, and the rest of the global community has largely stood by Huawei.

Key Takeaways

Banning U.S. suppliers from working with Huawei could result in an estimated $11 billion annual loss for these companies

  • The U.S. Cannot “Win” on 5G Infrastructure

    China’s Huawei is already the global leader in installed 5G infrastructure by a ratio of 2:1 and realistically won’t be removed from the majority of those markets, as installed infrastructure would literally need to be ripped out of the ground. Though the tension and distrust between the U.S. and China has created a global controversy around Huawei, the reality is that the U.S. does not have domestic competitors that provide equipment on par.

  • The Game Is Being Played Mostly Among Other Players

    The 5G infrastructure contest is truly among the national champions of China, Sweden, and Finland, with South Korea emerging as a potential player as well. While the U.S. government has led the backlash against Huawei, it is not strongly positioned to enforce this position globally. In addition to those countries’ sovereign decision-making, commercial realities make the dynamic more complex. U.S. suppliers are an integral part of Huawei’s supply chain—banning these suppliers from working with Huawei would mean an estimated $11 billion annual loss for U.S. companies and would risk alienating U.S. allies who are relying on Huawei to build out their 5G networks.

  • What’s at Stake

    The U.S.’s restrictive actions, including a ban on Huawei equipment and increasingly inflammatory rhetoric against Huawei on global 5G policy, have escalated tensions between the U.S. and China. However, in the absence of a coherent U.S. competitive strategy, Huawei is continuing to drive 5G infrastructure development globally. Its increasing global presence and the U.S.’s waning influence are resulting in global businesses developing on 5G networks using Huawei equipment with increasing speed. U.S. (and other countries’) efforts to restrict Huawei will carry implications for not only primary equipment competitors but also the myriad companies integrated in 5G infrastructure supply chains.

The Breakdown
How We Got Here and the Current Balance of Power
How We Got Here and the Current Balance of Power
The U.S. and China are facing off over 5G infrastructure, but the playing field is currently tilted in China’s favor.
Click to find out how

Huawei is by far the current market leader in 5G infrastructure network equipment. With 29 percent of the telecom equipment market, it controls nearly as much market share as its two closest competitors—Nokia and Ericsson—combined. Concerned about the security implications of allowing a Chinese company to build out this critical infrastructure, President Trump signed an executive order banning Huawei and ZTE—China’s other telecom equipment manufacturer—from accessing U.S. supply chains in May of 2019. With significant, long-running concerns over Huawei and intellectual property theft, U.S. lawmakers released a 52-page report as far back as 2012 urging U.S. companies to exclude Huawei equipment from their networks. However, the U.S. does not have a direct domestic competitor to Huawei, and for nearly the last decade, many smaller wireless providers in the U.S. have installed and relied on Huawei equipment to operate their existing networks, thus embedding Huawei equipment across the U.S.

Amid heightened concern under the Trump administration, bipartisan legislation was drafted in September of 2019 that would authorize $1 billion for small wireless carriers to replace Huawei equipment. While this cost covers replacing Huawei equipment, it does not include the costs in lost revenue while services are down. Colorado telecom provider Viaero estimated that it would lose an additional $50 million in revenues, which the current cost estimates do not take into account. Small and rural wireless providers rely extensively on low-cost equipment from Huawei, and even with subsidies, the costs of ripping out Huawei equipment may be too high for some of these carriers to continue to be profitable. Additionally, the U.S. government has not convinced most rural providers that removing Huawei equipment will make their networks more secure.

Further, there are upward of 290 U.S. firms that rely on Huawei for large parts of their revenue streams, and the Huawei ban blocked them from doing business with the company. The Trump administration has since partially capitulated to these suppliers’ requests to continue contracting with Huawei. In November of 2019, the U.S. government sent approval and denial letters to companies wishing to continue to do business with Huawei. So far, roughly half of the processed requests for special licenses to sell equipment to Huawei have been approved by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The U.S. is now pivoting toward relying on European and South Korean companies as alternative equipment providers and is urging other countries to follow suit, but it may be too little, too late. While the U.S. government pushes to decrease Huawei’s global influence, other countries have broadly accepted Huawei. In late 2018, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and New Zealand banned Huawei equipment from their telecom networks. However, they were the only countries outside the U.S. to do so. Since then, 54 countries have accepted Huawei’s presence, with another 48 likely to do so in the coming months.

Full Timeline of U.S. Huawei Ban

January 2003

Cisco sues Huawei

Cisco filed a lawsuit against Huawei alleging that the latter had unlawfully copied intellectual property from the American networking infrastructure firm. It claimed that this theft related to the unlawful copying of Cisco IOS software, which included source code as well as documentation and other materials, plus infringements of Cisco patents. Read more

March 2013

Obama bans Huawei from working with the U.S. government

The Obama administration ordered several major government departments, including NASA and the Departments of Justice and Commerce, to seek approval from federal law enforcement officials before purchasing IT equipment from all Chinese vendors. Read more

December 1, 2018

Canada arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the request of the United States

The U.S. brought sweeping charges against her and Huawei, portraying the company as a threat to U.S. national security. Read more

May 15, 2019

Huawei banned by executive decree

The Trump administration added Huawei to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Entity List via executive order, thereby blacklisting the company as far as U.S. corporations are concerned. Read more

May 20, 2019

U.S. signed 90-day reprieve

The Trump administration’s Department of Commerce issued a temporary license that will allow Huawei to maintain its current products (for existing customers). Read more

May 23, 2019

Trump open to dealing with “very dangerous” Huawei

President Trump has called Huawei “very dangerous,” but said the U.S. is open to including the company as part of a future trade agreement between the U.S. and China. Read more

May 27, 2019

Huawei claimed it wouldn’t support bans of American companies

Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei told Bloomberg that he would protest a Chinese ban against Apple, calling the Cupertino company his “teacher.” Read more

May 28, 2019

Huawei sued, saying the ban is unconstitutional

Huawei filed a legal motion claiming the ban on the company working with other U.S.-based companies violates the U.S. Constitution. In its argument, Huawei said that the ban violates a constitutional law stating that Congress cannot make laws against specific individuals. Read more

May 31, 2019

China threatened to create its own “Entity List” to include American firms

According to a spokesman for China’s commerce industry, China will create an Entity List of its own. Even though the spokesman didn’t call out the U.S. or U.S.-based companies, the implication is that China’s Entity List will include U.S.-based companies. Read more

June 6, 2019

Huawei CFO announced intention to fight the U.S. to stay in Canada

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou is currently under house arrest in Canada. In early 2020, she will go on trial and face extradition to the U.S. where she would be charged with fraud. However, she will fight to stay in Canada and avoid extradition. Read more

June 21st, 2019

Huawei filed lawsuit against U.S. Department of Commerce

In an expected move, Huawei officially filed a suit against the United States related to the Huawei ban. The company is suing the agency over telecommunications equipment seized by American officials. Read more

June 29, 2019

U.S. companies allowed to work with Huawei again

President Trump announced in a news conference. On the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Trump said “U.S. companies can sell their equipment to Huawei,” without going into detail. Read more

July 3, 2019

Commerce Department still blacklisting Huawei

Although President Trump said that at least some aspects of the Huawei ban would be lifted, an internal memo in the U.S. Department of Commerce suggests that the company is still getting the blacklist treatment. Read more

July 22, 2019

Huawei involvement with North Korea is exposed

A new report from the Washington Post suggests that Huawei worked closely with North Korea to build out that country’s internal wireless network. If true, this would be in direct violation of multiple international laws and treaties. Read more

August 19, 2019

Huawei’s 90-day reprieve extended by another 90 days

The U.S. gave Huawei a 90-day reprieve following the trade ban against the manufacturer in May. The trade ban, which allows U.S. companies to maintain business ties with Huawei, expired August 19. Read more

August 30, 2019

US reportedly received 130 license requests to sell to Huawei, none granted

The White House made an abrupt turnaround of sorts in June when President Donald Trump announced that some U.S. companies would be allowed to deal with Huawei. The Commerce Department stated at the time that licenses would be granted to U.S. companies wanting to deal with Huawei, as long as there were no security risks involved. Since then, Reuters reported that the department has received 130 license applications to sell goods and services to Huawei, none of which has been granted. Read more

September 18, 2019

Huawei still leads 5G deployment

According to Huawei, shipments for its 5G-enabled base stations appear to be generally unaffected by the trade ban. Huawei reported a 33 percent boost in sales between July and September, bringing the company’s total global shipments to 200,000 units. Read more

September 27, 2019

Huawei shipped 5G base stations without U.S. components

Despite the trade ban, Huawei still maintains its status as king of the 5G hill. On top of that, the company announced that it is producing its 5G-enabled base stations without U.S. parts, and it will double its current production rate in 2020. Read more

November 19, 2019

Huawei granted another 90-day reprieve from the U.S. government

The U.S. government has extended the temporary general license that allows U.S. firms to do business with Huawei by another 90 days. This means devices released or licensed before Huawei was placed on the U.S. Entity List will be able to receive essential software and security updates until at least March 2020. Read more

November 20, 2019

US government has made decisions on Huawei licenses

The United States government finally began sending out approval and denial letters to some of the 290 U.S.-based firms that requested special permission to work with Huawei, according to Reuters. We do not know which companies are approved or denied yet, but the very fact that licenses are going out at all is significant news, as companies have been waiting months for this to happen. Read more

December 5, 2019

Huawei sues the FCC

Huawei announced that it is suing the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), filing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Huawei is challenging a recently passed FCC order barring rural American carriers from using federal subsidies to purchase equipment from Huawei and ZTE. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai defends the agency’s decision, stating that the two companies pose a security threat to the U.S.’s communications networks and communications supply chain. Read more

Current Power Positions Among the Key Players

Five main companies are competing to build 5G infrastructure globally: Huawei, ZTE, Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung. Huawei has emerged as the market leader in this space, but while it is embroiled in controversy, and with the majority of the world’s 5G infrastructure still needing to be built, the field is incredibly competitive.

Key Takeaways

  • Huawei the Clear Market Leader

    Ericsson and Nokia have been market leaders in the telecom equipment space for decades, but since 2010, Huawei has rapidly increased its market share and revenue through extensive research and development (R&D) funding, government grants and subsidies, and exclusive access to the massive domestic Chinese telecom market. In 2018, Huawei emerged as the market leader in the telecom equipment space. However, the recent U.S.-led effort against Huawei has opened opportunities for Nokia and Ericsson to regain some market share. Despite Ericsson and Nokia gaining ground on Huawei by way of 5G contracts, the nature of Huawei’s contracts is more impactful in terms of market power. Huawei provides end-to-end 5G solutions and signs many of its contracts with national governments in countries that have state-owned telecoms. Thus, Huawei’s contracts generally cover a larger scope of services and equipment including entire countries.

  • Huawei’s Position Cannot Easily Be Diminished

    Huawei’s 2018 revenue was 4x greater than Nokia or Ericsson, and it owns more patents on essential telecom technology than any of its competitors. Further, Huawei played an essential role in the development of 4G networks globally and has its equipment and services already deployed in 170 countries. While Huawei’s close ties to the Chinese Communist Party have raised concerns over security and competitive practices in the U.S., Huawei’s position is firmly entrenched in the 5G space globally.

  • What’s at Stake

    Huawei’s rise positions China to capture the majority of the revenue from 5G infrastructure spending globally, expected to rise to $26 billion in 2022. Its 5G infrastructure contracts, many of which are with governments in the developing world, are enabling China to strengthen political and commercial ties in those regions, and its influence over future economic development in those countries.

Huawei's Global Expansion

Huawei is steadily securing its presence in markets around the world.

Huawei status map

Existing Huawei contract

Government not considering banning Huawei Government not considering banning Huawei
Government still deliberating on a full or partial ban on Huawei Government still deliberating on a full or partial ban on Huawei

Memorandum of understanding

MoU in place, government not considering banning Huawei MoU in place, government not considering banning Huawei
MoU in place, government still deliberating on a full or partial ban on Huawei participation in 5G MoU in place, government still deliberating on a full or partial ban on Huawei participation in 5G

No MoU or contract in place

Huawei allowed to participate in 5G tests Huawei allowed to participate in 5G tests
Government still considering full or partial ban on Huawei Government still considering full or partial ban on Huawei
Government still considering full or partial ban on Huawei Huawei not currently participating in 5G development

Full ban in place

Huawei excluded from participation in 5G networks Huawei excluded from participation in 5G networks
The Breakdown
Competitor Profiles and Power Positions
Competitor Profiles and Power Positions
Huawei is dominating market share in the telecom equipment space.
Click to see how Huawei’s competition stacks up
Huawei (China)

Founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, a former military technologist for the People’s Liberation Army. Huawei’s breakthrough came when the Chinese government awarded it contracts in data center building and telecommunications construction contracts for 4G networks in China. Despite modest origins, Huawei has grown to be the largest telecom equipment company in China and among the largest globally.

Huawei is the market leader in RAN equipment and has the second largest market share in core network infrastructure products after Ericsson. In Q2 of 2019, Huawei was the telecom equipment market leader, controlling 29 percent of the market. Its rise in market share has corresponded with a 289 percent increase in revenue since 2010. Huawei’s rapid rise since 2010, moving from third place in market share, behind Nokia and Ericsson, to first place, has been driven by R&D spending, subsidies, and grants from the Chinese government. In 2018, Huawei invested over $15 billion in R&D, the fourth most of any tech company in the world. Between 2010 and 2018, Huawei increased its R&D budget by 513 percent, while Ericsson’s spending increased by 23 percent, and Nokia’s declined by 21 percent.

ZTE (China)

Founded in 1985 by Hou Weigui. ZTE is China’s second-largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer competing in the 5G space. ZTE is particularly competitive in the mobile device market and formerly held a 12 percent share of the mobile phone market in the U.S. However, the U.S. implemented an import ban on ZTE in March of 2017 due to ZTE pleading guilty of illegally exporting U.S. technology to Iran and North Korea in violation of trade sanctions. After ZTE failed to adequately reprimand employees involved in the scandal, the U.S. Department of Commerce banned U.S. companies from providing exports to ZTE for seven years in April of 2018.

Presence of Competitors Worldwide Based on Publicly Announced 5G Contracts
Huawei Ericsson Nokia Samsung
Huawei contracts Ericsson contracts Nokia contracts Samsung contracts
Ericsson (Sweden)

Founded in 1876. Ericsson was the leader in the wireless equipment market space from the early 2000s, before being surpassed by Huawei in 2016. Both Ericsson and Nokia stand to gain from the U.S. government ban on Huawei and ZTE equipment and would significantly benefit if the EU were to follow suit. An EU ban of Huawei equipment would greatly boost Nokia’s and Ericsson’s competitive positions, as Europe, the Middle East, and Africa are Huawei’s biggest overseas markets, accounting for $29.8 billion in revenue (28.4 percent of total revenue) in 2018. However, Huawei has 28 commercial 5G equipment contracts already signed with European telecom providers, making it unlikely that Huawei’s future presence will be limited in Europe.

Nokia (Finland)

Founded in 1865, Nokia is one of the oldest telecom companies in the world. Nokia, along with Ericsson, dominated market share in the era of 3G and 4G. Nokia in particular found success in the mobile phone market, controlling a 51 percent share at its peak in 2007. Critically, Nokia and Ericsson both rely on China for sensitive equipment within their supply chains. In light of the U.S. ban on Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson are now working on moving their supply chains away from reliance on China.

Samsung (South Korea)

Founded in 1938, Samsung is South Korea’s largest chaebol (i.e., Korean conglomerate controlled by one Korean owner or family). Samsung is the only company besides Huawei that provides total end-to-end 5G solutions, including chip sets, base stations, and smartphones. Telecom equipment has traditionally been a small part of Samsung’s business, which has been primarily based around memory chips and mobile phones. With the U.S. ban on Huawei, and other countries potentially following suit, a window of opportunity has opened for Samsung to increase its market share in the 5G equipment space.

Key Stats on 5G Competitors
Company Current Market Position 5G Contracts Global Presence Standard Essential Patents
 Huawei In Q2 of 2019, Huawei was the telecom equipment market leader, controlling 29 percent of the market. 50+ contracts; 45 memoranda of understanding; 150,000+ 5G base stations shipped. 170 countries across Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. 1,554
 ZTE In Q2 of 2019, ZTE was in fourth place in the overall telecom equipment market share with 10 percent. 35 commercial 5G contracts. ZTE has sales in 140 countries. 1,208
 Ericsson In Q2 of 2019, Ericsson was third in telecom equipment market share with 13 percent of the overall market. 78 commercial deals, 31 publicly announced contracts. Ericsson does business in 180 countries globally. 819
 Nokia In Q2 of 2019, Nokia was second in telecom equipment market share with 16 percent of the overall market. 61 commercial deals, 33 publicly announced contracts, 18 live 5G networks. Nokia does business in over 130 countries globally. 1,427
 Samsung In 2018, Samsung held 6.6 percent of the global telecom equipment market share. 7 publicly announced contracts, 100,000 base stations shipped. Samsung has sales networks in 80 countries globally. 1,316
Revenue (USD Millions)

Since 2010, Huawei has seen a 274 percent ($76.8 billion) rise in annual revenue, while Ericsson and Nokia's annual revenues have both decreased.

By Annual Total By % Change
  • Huawei
  • ZTE
  • Ericsson
  • Nokia
  • Samsung
Research & Development Spending (USD Millions)

Since 2010, Huawei's R&D spending increased 488 percent ($12.25 billion), while Ericsson and Nokia's R&D spending both decreased

By Annual Total By % Change
  • Huawei
  • ZTE
  • Ericsson
  • Nokia
  • Samsung

Risks and Opportunities for Insiders and Stakeholders Anticipating 5G

Completing 5G infrastructure and rolling out fully operational 5G telecom networks is a process that will take years to complete. Along the way, there are still significant potential roadblocks and developments that stakeholders in 5G should continue to monitor carefully to understand the implications for their business.

Key Takeaways

  • Foundational 5G Infrastructure Will Take Years to Complete

    Despite the hype, construction and rollout will happen at considerably different paces across different markets. Initially, 5G speeds will vary greatly, even within countries, depending on the stage of the rollout. The majority of the infrastructure for 5G still needs to be built, with prospective delays based on market structures, regulations, and the ongoing trade and political tensions between China and the U.S. affecting equipment access.

  • Timing Investment Is Key

    Capitalizing on 5G will require stakeholders to craft coherent and flexible 5G strategies, which takes into account both the upside of investing in 5G technology as well as an accurate timetable for when it will be available to consumers and businesses. 5G strategies should be tailored toward the key markets a business operates in, understanding that each market will present unique opportunities and challenges, and requiring ongoing monitoring of developments in target markets.

  • What’s at Stake

    5G will be a disruptive, transformative technology, but it will initially be costly, and the benefits for businesses will be uneven and will take time to materialize. There will be opportunities to gain competitive advantage, but the development path is not linear, and keen attention will need to be paid to ongoing developments in companies’ target markets to more fully understand when and where to engage.

Timeline of Critical Events and What to Watch

December 12, 2019–Q1 2020

UK National Vote—UK final decision on Huawei delayed for decision by new government

Update: On January 28, 2020 Britain announced that it would not ban Huawei equipment from being used in its 5G wireless network. However, Britain maintained that it would limit Huawei's equipment to "less-critical" parts of its network (excluding Huawei equipment from its core network). The decision is a major victory for Huawei, as Britain is the most important American ally to accept Huawei's 5G equipment so far.

January 30, 2020

Meeting of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission

Next opportunity for Chairman Pai and the Commission to take action with respect to spectrum auction of the C-band for 5G, which to date has been delayed by nearly a year due to back-and-forth among the Trump administration, Chairman Pai, and private licensees.

March 2020

5G Expo Global 2020 in London

Equipment providers have a chance to showcase technology, and a large gathering of 5G players and experts will help to gain clarity on where the global race for 5G currently stands.

April–June 2020

India is set to hold its first spectrum sale since 2016; it will determine who may operate on its 5G airwaves

India has ended its holdout on Huawei technology and will allow Huawei to participate in 5G trials. The spectrum sale will signal one of the first major developments in 5G progress in the country, and once telecom companies have the rights to operate on the spectrum, they will begin moving forward with contracts involving outside telecom equipment providers.

June 2020

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a standards organization that develops protocols for mobile telephony, will finalize its second stage of network standards for 5G

Global standards will help determine how networks can connect with each other, which frequencies can be used, and the structure of how networks can be built. Network standards are one area in which the U.S. can seek to limit China’s influence in 5G.

October 2020

Deadline for the detailed specification submission to the International Mobile Telecommunications-2020, the International Telecommunication Union’s standards framework for 5G in 2020

The ITU is a specialized agency of the UN and the organization with the most impact in setting communication technology standards. The 5G standards set in the ITU will be the most definitive framework for 5G technology on the global scale.

November 2020

U.S. presidential election

Potential for a new administration to change direction on the Trump administration’s stance on Huawei and China.

Throughout 2020

Release of decisions on which companies may sell equipment to Huawei

The U.S. Department of Commerce has processed over half of the requests from U.S. companies to sell equipment to Huawei. Roughly half of the requests have been approved so far, but the details of which companies have been approved and denied are not public. Throughout 2020, firms will be announcing whether they will resume doing business with Huawei.

Next in Our 5G Power Map Series: The Global Competitive Landscape

Huawei’s presence in 5G infrastructure has become ubiquitous and entrenched. This rise has been facilitated through generous funding from the Chinese government and exclusive access to the domestic Chinese market. In the next installment of FP’s 5G Power Map, we will examine the potential effects of Huawei’s rise on global competitiveness and will dive deeper into the implications of the ongoing trade tensions between the U.S. and China. As both the U.S. and China threaten export controls and more tariffs, we will illustrate the potential ramifications along the entire 5G supply chain and what this could mean for the development of 5G networks globally. Crucially, we will examine how the competitive landscape in 5G exemplifies the diverging business models of Western and Chinese companies, and we will lay out what businesses outside of the telecom industry need to know to navigate this evolving environment.

Written by Christian Perez. Edited by Allison Carlson. Copyedited by David Johnstone. Design and development by Andrew Baughman. Art direction by Adam Griffiths. Graphics by Colin Hayes for Foreign Policy. Photos by Getty Images.

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