As telecommunications companies continue along the nearly decade-long process to develop and implement 5G technologies, the perfect testing ground for the new mobile data systems may already exist.
Several factors make Finland a potential sandbox for 5G developers: The average person in Finland used about 20 gigabytes (GB) of mobile data in December 2017, a dramatic rise from the 2016 average of 11 gigabytes per month—more than any other country in the world on a per capita basis. (Mobile subscribers in Latvia, who come in second, used 8.2 GB per month in 2016, while U.S. subscribers ranked 13th at 2.67 GB per month.)
Such high usage in Finland, contrasted with severe competition among the nation’s data providers, has resulted in almost 100 percent coverage of high-speed networks across the entire country.
“Coverage is 100 percent, even if you go inside buildings and elevators and metros,” says Eetu Prieur, the head of mobile network technology at Elisa Finland, one of the major carriers companies in the region. “You could be in the forest, you have coverage there. Because coverage is so good, people want to use it. That increases their monthly data usage.”
Prieur clarifies that mobile coverage doesn’t blanket the entire nation, but does cover 100 percent of the population thanks to a major investment in base stations.
And since some Finnish carriers such as Elisa sell only unlimited data plans, high usage is not only cheap, it’s encouraged—many carriers make money by selling data plans with faster maximum speeds rather than greater allocations of data, as one might find in other countries.
Aside from expansive coverage, competition among network providers coupled with forward-thinking regulators in the Finnish government has long made Finland a front-runner with new network technologies, explains Prieur.
Elisa, the company for which Prieur works, was the first to hit speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mb/s) with 3G technology, and the company was also the second in the world to begin broadcasting 4G signals at a frequency of 1800 megahertz (MHz). That frequency is now the most commonly used for mobile data. Finland is also the only European country to have commercially available signals at 700 MHz, which provides more expansive coverage than higher frequencies.
Prieur is confident that Finland will be one of the first countries to roll out 5G and, in the meantime, be able to conduct tests better than other regions. He argues that because Finland is often among the first to allocate certain frequencies for mobile usage, the country has a leg up on others that haven’t adopted the new frequencies as quickly or as effectively.
Right now, Finland offers mobile data on six frequencies: 700, 800, 900, 1800, 2100 and 2600 MHz. Finnish mobile companies are waiting on two new 5G frequencies, which are expected to be 3500 MHz and 26 gigahertz (GHz).
Finland’s 5G coverage has the potential to be superior to other regions because of the combination of those unique, low frequencies and new, higher frequencies for 5G.
These higher frequencies will be able to handle more devices and provide enhanced network features, while the lower frequencies, which can better penetrate buildings and provide more expansive coverage, continue to deliver baseline service.
With 5G scheduled to become commercially available in 2020, several factors still need to be ironed out, and standards must still be agreed upon by telecommunications companies. 5G tests in Finland began in August 2016, when Elisa and Nokia conducted a lab test that reached speeds of 5 gigabits per second. Prieur says Finland plans to continue testing new 5G technologies as they emerge.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on 23 January to list the correct frequencies Finland uses for mobile service and to fix an error in a reference to Finland’s unlimited data plans.