Earlier this month, Chinese telecommunications group Huawei claimed at its fifth Innovation Asia Day in Chengdu that it has shipped 200,000 5G-enabled base stations globally.

Huawei added it had received 50 commercial contracts to date for 5G base stations.

The most recent number claimed by Huawei shows further progress from what the company announced at the Mobile World Congress held in Shenzhen three months ago. The Chinese telecom equipment giant said then it had delivered to operators globally 150,000 such base stations, and that it would rapidly increase production so that it can ship half a million 5G-enabled base stations by the end of this year.

As we see a host of claims and counter claims made by Huawei and its rival telecom gear vendors, it’s time for a reality check: How exactly is the global 5G market expanding?

First, let’s look into Huawei’s numbers.

Given the limited role Huawei has been forced to play in the global 5G market, the Chinese company’s most recent "5G shipment" claim — 200,000 5G base stations — seems aggressive, even if not inflated.

Huawei, for one, has been barred from the lucrative United States market. Similarly, Huawei is also shunned from some key European countries such as the UK and Germany, due to on-going (but often changing) security considerations. Huawei has of course flatly denied allegations that its 5G gear may incorporate ‘back doors’, deliberate security flaws that could allow Chinese agencies to eavesdrop on — or attack and destabilize — phone networks.

Overcoming hurdles

So, how is Huawei manoeuvring all these hurdles?

It’s important to note that the majority of Huawei’s base stations shipped are for deployment in the 3.5 GHz band. That band makes extensive use of emerging massive MIMO technology for 5G coverage. The beamforming benefits of massive MIMO gear allows this frequency range to match the coverage of 1.8/2.1 GHz, although this will require new antennas in addition to those already being used for 3G and 4G coverage.

Huawei might be creating another way — novel and unprecedented — that it could help the company overcome the hurdles created by some countries not accepting Huawei’s 5G gear. In an interview with The Economist, Ren Zhenfei, the company’s founder and CEO, revealed he was willing to share with potential buyers almost all of Huawei’s 5G related technology, including IP, licenses, code technical blueprints and production know-how.

All for an (unspecified) one-off fee.

According to the report, Huawei would allow the buyer to modify the source code, thus overcoming the main concern that the Chinese group could somehow control any of its 5G infrastructure gear. Huawei would also be free to develop its technology in whatever direction it chose.

The proceeds from the deal, which could run into billions of dollars, would allow Huawei “to make great strides forward”, Ren told The Economist.

Huawei did not give any further details of how this bold initative might move forward, however. Presumably, some companies might be interested in buying Huawei’s huge portfolio of 5G technology. Others might comment on whether such a deal would placate the security concerns of countries — such as America and Australia — that have banned Huawei gear for 5G networks.

Battle heats up in Asia-Pac region

At its Innovation Day in Chengdu, Huawei also claimed that the Asia-Pacific region, notably China and South Korea, is leading the global developments in and commercial deployment of 5G networks. It stressed that since the launch of services in April, South Korea now boasts 2 million 5G users, and that the country has established itself as “the global 5G commercial benchmark.”

The ESM China’s report noted that Xu Wenwei, a director of Huawei, said that two-thirds of all base stations shipped globally to date were supplied by the Chinese company.

That figure is difficult to corroborate, though most analysts concur that Huawei is ahead of long-term rivals in the infrastructure sector Nokia of Finland and Sweden’s Ericsson.

The Nordic duo is more bashful about just how many similar base stations they have shipped to date. Back in July, Nokia said it had secured 45 commercial contracts for similar 5G gear, while Ericsson is believed to have secured 24 such operator contracts. Many of these are with US and European operators.

And it is certainly true that new-ish kid on the block Samsung Networks is powering ahead, mainly on the back of its home territory’s success in 5G commercialisation.

Samsung is also wary about releasing too much data, but this April announced it had shipped 53,000 base stations to South Korea’s three leading operators — SK Telecom, KT Corporation and LG UPlus. Samsung also deploys the company’s version of Massive MIMO Base Station Units, also operating in the 3.5 GHz frequency band.

Nokia has also supplied gear for the Korean operators, that went live according to schedule. This was good news for the company, as a few customers have suggested they experienced delays in commissioning some of Nokia’s 5G base stations.

The Finnish group admitted it had encountered software issues in some of the equipment it supplied to Sprint for 5G services in several US cities but noted it had now solved the problems.

Other Sprint regions that were supplied by Samsung and Ericsson are said to have fared better and launched as scheduled.

Samsung still has ground to make up on the on the big four in the global wireless infrastructure sector — Huawei, Nokia, Ericson and ZTE — but analysts suggest the South Korean behemoth has a great opportunity in many other markets, notably elsewhere in Asia and in the US, where ZTE and Huawei are barred and where operators are seeking credible alternatives to the Nordic duo.

Samsung’s 5G RAN gear and base station portfolio is said to be competitive and well advanced, but the company still lacks the crucial local network support and footprint, and the breadth of the portfolio of the others, to compete in many global markets. But with its background, and R&D and manufacturing resources, few doubt Samsung will emerge as a global player in this sector.

And time is certainly on its side, with the 5G roll-out very much at the start of its journey, in terms of applications and potential services, not to mention political and regulatory upheavals.

Current claims and counter-claims regarding contract wins amongst the leading players — bitter competitors of course — are likely to count for little in the long term.

Report card on 5G

As a reality check, the August “report card on 5G” from the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) noted that despite “continued progress,” so far just 39 global operators have announced 3GPP-compatible commercial 5G services. The most recent ones include three operators in Kuwait, one in Bahrain, T-Mobile and Vodafone in Germany, Vodafone in the UK – and the prominent operator in the Maldives.

Ten of these operators are only offering fixed-wireless 5G, and 15 mobile-only services, according to the ‘report card.’