Ericsson's chief executive told the audience at Mobile World Congress that the dawn of the 5G era is poised to place a renewed emphasis on telecom networks — and network operators.

The Swedish telecom equipment giant and its counterparts struggled in recent years as mobile carriers largely avoided major equipment purchases while awaiting 5G technology. Ericsson alone reported its fifth consecutive quarterly loss last month and shed about 17,000 jobs in 2017.

But Börje Ekholm said Tuesday that while 5G remained a "buzzword" at the previous MWC, this year's event follows the establishment of new standards, widespread field trials and Ericsson's first commercial contracts for next-generation equipment.

Börje Ekholm
CEO, Ericsson

Ericsson's president and CEO said the company and other equipment makers could share in up to $600 billion in potential 5G-related revenue for service providers — but only if the proper regulatory framework is in place.

He said the European Union, in particular, should consider deregulation, simplifying infrastructure permitting and increasing the length of spectrum licenses. Although Ekholm said he'd prefer "infinite" spectrum license terms, an expansion to 25 years would help provide companies with the certainty to invest in networks.

"I think it has to be longer than 15 to 17 years," Eklhom said.

He said that with the right conditions, next-generation networks could be deployed relatively quickly, although some regions will likely see urban communities receive 5G before those networks gradually expand to rural areas.

Ekholm also said free trade in the U.S. and Europe would help combat network growth in China, whose equipment makers have also hurt the likes of Ericsson and Finnish rival Nokia. But governments, he cautioned, need to consider telecom infrastructure as a "critical national resource."

"We need to start thinking about the industry in a different way," Eklhom said.

The company has been a frequent target of merger speculation, but Ekholm told the MWC audience that Ericsson possesses "the scale we need to be successful" and that a phone call from potential suitors "seems like a waste of time."

"If we help our customers succeed, then we know that will then be successful as well," Ekholm said.