LatAm 5G networks: The current state of play and what's on the way
5G networks continue to spread across different markets in Latin America thanks to activations after spectrum auctions and frequency reordering processes or the use of existing spectrum.
The models also differ a little across the region.
Most countries still opt for the 5G non-standalone (NSA) format, which uses part of the network structure of previous technologies, such as 4G. As a result, performance, especially in terms of latency, is inferior to 5G standalone (SA) as the latter uses an entirely new network and spectrum dedicated to the technology.
Coverage in the region is also still limited to certain neighborhoods of major cities, but the service is growing strongly and even faster than 4G at the time of its launch in terms of many metrics.
Globally, the uptake of wireless 5G networks has doubled every year to reach 813mn connections at the end of June this year, according to data from Omdia and 5G Americas, with a forecast that global 5G connections will reach 1.1bn by the end of the year.
Latin America and the Caribbean are projected to have 22mn 5G connections by the end of 2022 and 398mn by 2027. The entity reports 26 deployments of 5G in Latin America as of August 15.
“5G deployment and adoption is progressing in Latin America. Governments will need to continue to work with the industry to streamline processes and provide more radio spectrum to operators in the region. Latin America is an industrial hub of global importance and 5G will provide economic and social benefits for all in the region,” said José Otero, VP of Caribbean and Latin America for 5G Americas.
BNamericas gives an update on the status of some of these deployments, as well as planned launches for the future.
Brazil’s “pure” 5G network – in the 3.5GHz and using a standalone network – is now available in 22 of the country’s state capitals and federal capital Brasilia.
Five state capitals are now about to receive the new mobile network: Belém, Macapá, Manaus, Porto Velho and Rio Branco.
Last November the country held the largest spectrum auction ever in Latin America in terms of the number and size of spectrum blocks, revenue collection and diversity of bands awarded (700MHz, 2.3GHz, 3.5GHz and 26GHz).
The activation deadline for 5G in the prime 3.5GHz band, starting with the state capitals, is now October 28.
The initial deadline was July, but was pushed back to September and then, following the guidelines of the band administration entity (EAF, by the Portuguese acronym), which is responsible for releasing the 3.5GHz band for use, regulator Anatel decided to change the deadline for the rest of the cities to October.
As of July, Brazil had 3.4mn 5G accesses, although mostly in the NSA format, with Claro, TIM and Telefônica, reported Anatel.
The networks, however, use parts of reordered existing frequencies in the 3.4GHz and 2.5GHz bands.
Mexican regulator (IFT) was planning to hold a 5G spectrum auction (the IFT-12 tender) this year, but it now seems likely that the process will take place in 2023. IFT is considering offering spectrum blocks in the 600MHz, 3.3GHz, and 3.5GHz bands, as well as in the L-band (1.5GHz).
Grappling with fierce competition from Telcel and high spectrum costs, Telefónica's Movistar, which recently concluded the migration of all its 3G and 4G traffic to AT&T's network, has not yet launched 5G.
The company is still studying the best strategy to do so, but it will probably use the mobile infrastructure of AT&T.
“We’re going to start tests with our alliances and begin work on a schedule of where to start, establishing our own 5G entry schedule,” Ana de Saracho, head of public affairs, regulation and wholesale at Telefónica México, told BNamericas in this recent interview.
The first country in Latin America to hold a 5G spectrum auction, in February 2021, most of the licensed operators in Chile now have “national” 5G coverage deployed in all 16 regions.
Within four months of launching the new technology, the country had 545,000 5G users, which 4G took 12 months to reach.
The country’s 5G auction generated more revenues than all the other spectrum auctions held in Chile combined. Regulator Subtel sold frequencies in the 700MHz, 3.5GHz and AWS bands to Entel, Claro and WOM.
Subtel reported that Entel had 212,888 lines with 5G connection as of the end of March, while WOM had 115,330.
Meanwhile, Movistar claimed to have over 300,000 customers using its recently deployed 5G network.
Last December, the Caribbean nation became the third market in Latin America, after Chile and Brazil, to hold a spectrum auction for 5G.
The network currently covers the main cities in the country, taking under a year to achieve coverage that was expected to take three years.
Leading operator Claro is said to have reached nearly a third of all the country’s localities with its 5G network.
The government is now considering tendering the 700MHz band, as well as 30MHz in AWS and another 20MHz left in 3.5GHz, possibly in 2023, as the head of regulator Indotel, Julissa Cruz, told BNamericas last month.
The 700MHz band was offered in the 5G tender in December, when the 3.5GHz band was also made available to operators, with Claro and Altice making the winning bids.
The government raised US$73mn from the auction, but no one made any offers for the 700MHz band.
The government is also moving forward with plans to review its telecommunications law with the goal of providing a legal framework to promote investment.
While Guatemala has not yet held a spectrum auction for 5G, operators there are launching the technology by taking advantage of their current spectrum holdings and 4G LTE infrastructure.
Last July, leading carriers Claro and Tigo announced 5G launches in the country; Claro with initial, selected coverage in all 22 of the country's departments, and Tigo with an initial rollout of 100 sites in Guatemala City.
“We’re going to continue the implementation of 5G, expanding to the rest of the country in the coming months,” Tigo postpaid manager Jacobo Lara told BNamericas in July.
The country is now planning to award around 120MHz of spectrum in the mid-2.5GHZ band (2.5GHz-2.6GHz range) for 4G services or higher by resuming an auction that has been stalled for several years.
Argentina has moved on with a spectrum reordering and clean-up process to pave the way for a 5G auction that could take place next year.
The 3.5GHz band is most appropriate for 5G due to its propagation and capacity. Regulator Enacom also identified the 1,500MHz, AWS-3, 2,300MHz, 28GHz and 38GHz bands as suitable for the technology.
However, a new frequency plan and radio spectrum regulations, both of which are crucial for the tender, have not yet been published.
Claro, Telecom Argentina and Movistar recently acquired 4G spectrum as part of a reordering tender, but only US$27mn was raised, much lower than could be expected for 5G. Newspaper La Nación reported that a 5G spectrum auction could raise some US$1.4bn, although in February it claimed the value could reach US$1.8bn.
In June, the country passed telecoms infrastructure installation legislation to streamline regulations across local governments and facilitate the deployment of antennas, with a view to 5G activations.
“Now we have a new regulation on the installation of telecommunications in public institutions. This is going to make it a lot easier for 5G,” deputy ICT minister Orlando Vega Quesada told BNamericas.
To help develop the market, the government is also supporting the creation of so-called 5G laboratories. The country, however, has no date for a 5G auction and no such process is expected to take place before 2024.
COLOMBIA AND PERU
According to Colombia’s new ICT minister, Sandra Milena Urrutia, the government wants to advance with a framework for the 5G network, but no specific schedule or spectrum assessment plan have yet been drawn up.
In Peru, some commercial 5G networks have been in operation since 2021 (Claro and Entel), but using 4G infrastructure. A spectrum auction is yet to be launched so the technology can be deployed more broadly.
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