China Mobile-led initiative delivers slew of 5G devices

We noted in last week’s edition that mobile devices do not bring the same challenges for the early deployers of a new technology – but nor do they attract the same levels of excitement when they are launched.

There is little doubt that there will be a reasonable variety of 5G smartphones available whenever operators go live with mobile services. As well as the big-ticket launches by Samsung and Huawei, there are other, lower-priced models in the near-term pipeline from those vendors and others. Of course, more than any mobile generation before this one, the 5G ecosystem will be weighted towards Chinese suppliers (and Chinese users, with the country now having the largest mobile base in the world, and with its operators planning 5G launches in about a year’s time).

The Chinese operators are skilled at leveraging their weight to get advanced and well-priced devices out of the local ecosystem. For 5G, there is a specific group led by China Mobile, the 5G Device Forerunner Initiative, which has been working on smartphones and other products to suit the giant MNO’s requirements.

The first few were unveiled at Mobile World Congress, and included the Forerunner One, a mobile smart hub developed by China Mobile itself. Designs created by the Initiative will be open to any approved vendor to use as the basis of commercial products, a process which will help reduce time to market for new models and drive scale into the ecosystem.

And while some of the Chinese handset makers are increasingly succeeding in selling devices to foreign markets, the operator-driven alliance means that China Mobile will have first call on any attractive products that emerge.

Forerunner One supports connections in sub-6 GHz 5G spectrum bands, including 2.6 GHz, which has been used widely for LTE but, in China, will be refarmed rapidly for 5G where there is spare capacity. The hub supports WiFi and WiGig devices, backhauling them with the 5G line, and can be used as a home device, or a personal hotspot.

It comes pre-installed with Android 9.0 and an AI-enabled voice assistant, and will be available commercially before mid-year – even before there are commercial 5G services in China. This is a well-tested way to seed the market ahead of full-scale service launch, encouraging consumers to buy the device from day one to improve their WiFi performance, even before they are ready to upgrade to a 5G smartphone.

The Initiative also announced more 5G devices which conform to its outline specs – handsets, personal hotspots and other products from Huawei, Vivo, Oppo, ZTE and Xiaomi, and from one non-Chinese OEM, Samsung. Four chip providers have worked with the Initiative and the new devices are based on a variety of compliant silicon, from Qualcomm, Huawei, Mediatek and Unisoc.

One challenge for this group is China Mobile’s plan to be the only major MNO to launch the Standalone version of 5G New Radio, which requires a full 5G core, from day one. Nearly all operators are first deploying Non-Standalone, which works with the LTE core, as an interim step. The Initiative, then, has had to develop Standalone and NSA products. The former variant will have a more limited international market for the first few years of 5G, but if China Mobile sticks to its ambitious schedules, it will drive significant scale into the market by itself from 2020.

The Initiative was established a year ago during the GTI Summit in Barcelona. So far, 36 companies from across the device value chain have participated in the initiative.