A Swiss 5G Adventure

Switzerland reaches new peaks with 5G speeds

Switzerland is currently one of the most advanced 5G markets in Europe, making it a good place to visit if you want to try some of the best 5G performance in the world using sub-6 GHz spectrum. Intense competition between two of the three networks, Sunrise and Swisscom, has sparked a race to roll out 5G services, which started in April 2019 when both operators turned on their next-generation 5G networks.

During my visit I was hosted by Swisscom, and this gave me a chance to test its network in the capital city, Bern, and in a rural location in the Emmental region.

Video production: Will Wood

Switzerland is a unique market. It has a relatively small geographic coverage, and a population of just 8.4 million people. Investments in fixed-line and mobile infrastructure mean that the population is extremely well connected. For example, 80% of homes enjoy fixed-line broadband speeds of over 100 Mbps, and Swisscom’s 4G LTE network already offers peak speeds of many hundreds of Mbps.

On this basis, to provide a differentiated 5G service Swiss operators need to deliver some of the fastest 5G speeds in Europe, something that was reflected in the tests during my visit. Like the recently announced unlimited data tariffs from Vodafone in the UK and Spain (see Vodafone Marries 5G Launch with Unlimited Data), Swisscom also tiers its tariffs by speed, with its most premium offering promising speeds of up to 1 Gbps on its 5G network.

To date, Swisscom has deployed 5G to more than 150 of its sites, giving it pretty substantial coverage across the country. It plans to offer 90% population coverage with 5G by the end of 2019. The advantage of Switzerland’s geography becomes clear when you consider its landmass is nearly six times smaller than that of the UK and the population is nearly eight times smaller. Swisscom also has the advantage that it uses a single supplier, Ericsson, for its network equipment, a similar approach to that taken by Telstra in Australia. These features have made 5G deployment more straightforward than for other networks in Europe, where a mixed base of infrastructure suppliers adds a layer of complexity to roll-outs, as it can be extremely difficult to get equipment from different suppliers to work together.

A challenge that’s characteristic of Switzerland is its fairly draconian restrictions about the power output of its cellular sites, primarily as a result of perceived health concerns about radio waves. In Europe, operators are typically allowed to transmit at 60 volts per metre, whereas in Switzerland they’re restricted to 5 volts per metre, translating to roughly 5 watts of output. This means that Swiss operators need to deploy a much denser network than some of their European rivals, and in order to get the best speeds, users need to be closer to a 5G site than they would in other countries. It also means that in-building 5G coverage is pretty much non-existent at present, and it will only come once dedicated in-building solutions are launched.

As I wrote in a previous blog (see A Promising Start for 5G), I believe that the optimal approach is to combine a decent 4G network with pockets of solid 5G coverage in congested areas such as city centres, train stations, airports, stadiums and other places where there’s a high density of mobile phone users. And this is what Swiss operators have been doing.

I started my 5G testing in Bern city centre, using an Oppo Reno 5G smartphone powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 chipset and X50 5G modem. Previously, the fastest 5G speed I achieved while testing in the UK was just over 800 Mbps. Immediately, I clocked astonishing speeds of over 1 Gbps, although that was with the main tower in Bern within line of sight. However, while walking around the town I consistently reached speeds of between 600 Mbps and 800 Mbps, which was a much higher average speed than I’ve seen during my testing in the UK to date.

Although fast 5G speeds in city centres aren’t that unusual, one aspect of my trip that did differ from trialling 5G in other markets was the access to 5G in rural locations. To test this, I ventured beyond Bern to Röthenbach im Emmental, a rural setting of rolling hills and fields just 30 minutes from Bern by car. We visited a large site shared by the three Swiss mobile operators. I was staggered when we immediately hit speeds beyond 1 Gbps and recorded a peak speed of 1.4 Gbps after briefly touching 1.5 Gbps during the speed test. This was particularly surprising when you take into account that this is one of the most rural 5G sites on the planet right now.

This performance in such a rural location is testament to the huge investment Swisscom has made in deploying a comprehensive fibre-backbone network in the country. Backhaul is one of the biggest challenges facing operators in other markets, creating a bottleneck to delivering fast 5G speeds.

The network might be lightning quick, but what does it all really mean for customers?

Well, it’s important to recognize that despite having probably a few thousand 5G subscribers, Swisscom’s 5G network is only lightly loaded. In Emmental, there’s little doubt that I was the only person using the 5G network at the time, so I had all the capacity to myself. However, this sort of high-quality, high-bandwidth capability will unquestionably make it possible to reliably get between 50 Mbps to 100 Mbps even once the network is loaded. That’s as fast, or faster than the fixed-line broadband connection most consumers in Europe currently have, and this is where 5G will count.

In my view, this means that people’s dependence on cloud-based services will only accelerate, be that for consumer applications such as Netflix or Spotify, or for corporate uses where reliance on cloud-based solutions is more important than ever. And that’s just for existing applications and solutions. History has shown that if you give people more bandwidth, they tend to use it. For innovators and developers, the arrival of reliable cellular speeds of 100 Mbps or more will open up new opportunities that will see exciting new services that we’ve not even thought of yet appear on the horizon.

I just can’t wait for the type of performance I got on the 5G network in Switzerland to become a more ubiquitous experience around the globe — even if it is through 5G “hot spots” in major cities. At that point 5G becomes a true game-changer.