MWC Shanghai: Chinese power play will make it leading 5G market in 2025

Last week’s Mobile World Congress Shanghai was a powerful showcase, given its location, for the progress Chinese operators and vendors are making towards 5G. Indeed, it was hard for other players to get a look-in, but that did not take away from some genuinely interesting demonstrations by the local giants.

There were the inevitable events centered on the 5G New Radio in various spectrum bands, but some of the more significant demoes were focused on the surrounding architecture which will be, arguably, more important than the radio itself in delivering the promises of 5G convergence and diversity.

For instance, China Mobile and Huawei showcased the world’s first 5G core network prototype using the early 3GPP specs for a 5G service-based architecture (SBA) standard. With an SBA, core network functions are loosely coupled, and can be arranged in various combinations according to the use case, and then flexibly scheduled based on a standard interface protocol. All the elements are self-contained, reusable and able to be independently managed.

Functions of the 5G SBA prototype include service registration, discovery and authorization, as well as service operations, and service-oriented business processes such as device registration, and connection establishment and release. All this is being designed from the ground up for a cloud-based, virtualized architecture – cloud native, rather than some of the LTE solutions which are being retrofitted for the cloud.

“The service-based architecture shows that 5G is a truly Cloud Native design. It makes carrier networks more agile, flexible, scalable, and open,” Yang Zhiqiang, general manager of the China Mobile Research Institute, said. “We will work to reduce its complexity, and look forward to working with all industry players to accelerate completion of international standards and product R&D. Our goal is to quickly put SBA into large scale commercial use and enable 5G operations.”

The companies added that the demonstration of the 5G SBA prototype provides a foundation for the IMT-2020 Promotion Group’s 5G core network testing.

China Mobile spread its favors in Shanghai, conducting demonstrations with most of the major vendors. With Nokia, it was focusing on the potential of network slicing to inject new flexibility into operators’ business models, service delivery and resource management, as well as their ability to target vertical markets more effectively. The two firms demonstrated a slicing system in an emergency services scenario. Using Nokia’s 5G FIRST solution, the demo simulated communications between ambulance and hospital staff as an emergency patient is being transported. The demonstration included the transmission of images such as patient X-rays as well as video.

Back with Huawei, China Mobile demonstrated 5G-based remote driving with a smart car, the iGS from SAIC Motor. This demo used the C-band (3.7-4.2 GHz downlink and 5.9-6.4 Ghz uplink), with the driver located over 30km from the vehicle. HD video cameras installed in the vehicle sent multiple real time HD video feeds to the driver, providing him with a 240-degree view of the vehicle’s surroundings over 5G.

The giant operator also worked with ZTE to showcase a live field test in Guangdong, at the Guangzhou University Town, which demonstrated 5G over 3.5 GHz, seen as key midband spectrum for 5G in China (and elsewhere). ZTE achieved single user download speeds of 2Gbps using 100 MHz of spectrum. The partners will shortly commence multi-site networking pilots to test wireless coverage, throughput, mobility, delay and other 5G network indicators.

“A multitude of key technologies, solutions, and network models will be verified on the pilot network,” said Bai Yanmin, general manager of ZTE’s TDD and 5G products. “Through detailed field tests, we can discover and solve the potential problems, and gather more experience for the large-scale commercial use of 5G in the future.”

Meanwhile, ZTE was claiming an integrated 5G solution spanning access, core and bearer networks, which it said would reduce time to deploy for early adopters. It uses a cloud-based architecture with a network slicing function to support a variety of service and application requirements.

ZTE said that its platform uses a DevOps-based closed-loop app development and operation system to accelerate the time to release new services. Its Cloud ServCore core network is based on cloud-native architecture. And the 5G Flexhaul bearer network uses software-defined networking to enable flexible capacity and dynamic network resources allocation.

All this activity will make China a hotbed of 5G activity once commercial launches begin, and especially once the three main operators embark on large-scale deployments (as opposed to a few showcase city or venue networks) after 2020. The investments are ramping up, though these are weighted towards vendors rather than actual operator contracts at this stage. ZTE, for instance, said it plans to double its R&D expenditure on 5G from this year to reach CNY2bn ($295m), up from CNY1bn in 2016.

Total spending on 5G development in China is estimated to rise to CNY1.65 trillion by 2025, a recent research paper by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in China said. Huawei has said it has spent $600m since embarking on 5G R&D in 2009.

As for the operators, all three plan to launch commercial 5G networks by 2020, even if those are limited in scale at first, but by 2025 China will be the world’s largest 5G market, according to a report from GSMA Intelligence and the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT). By contrast with 3G and 4G, China is determined not to be a follower this time around, and to drive standards from the front, rather than adopting technology devised by others (or trying to go its own way as it did with 3G TD-SCDMA).

The report estimates that 5G connections in China will reach 428m by 2025, accounting for 39% of the 1.1bn global 5G connections expected by that date.

However, the rate of 5G roll-out and adoption in China is expected to be slower than it was for 4G, with investment spread over a longer timeframe, from 2018 to 2025. Capex will not account for more than 25% of operator revenue prior to commercial launch, says the report.