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25 October 2022

NEPs will retain power if they can make 5G Release 18 truly meaningful

The Nordic network equipment providers (NEPs), Ericsson and Nokia, may have some cause for complacency, despite the encroachment of Samsung on their RAN turf – but with an estimated global RAN market share below 5%, the Korean vendor is easier to deal with than Huawei.

However, they are showing increasing awareness, at least in public statements, that they need to continue to stay well ahead of the challengers that may be enabled by Open RAN in future. That may mean embracing some open interfaces, as Nokia and Samsung have done to a certain extent. But more importantly, it means continuing to lead in performance and in support for emerging capabilities – which will help them to retain their market share even in a more multivendor world.

Of course, Nokia and Ericsson – like Huawei in the markets where it is still supported – have huge R&D budgets compared to most Open RAN challengers except Samsung. And these are increasingly being focused on the next 3GPP releases, collectively called 5G-Advanced, and on the beginnings of 6G (see separate item above).

The 5G-Advanced standards (Releases 18-20) are likely to merge into the start of 6G in the later years of the decade. But they are important to operators in the nearer term because they promise, belatedly, to deliver 5G networks that can support significantly more use cases than enhanced mobile broadband. That should enable the long-awaited new revenue streams that will be essential to justify most 5G build-outs, especially migrations to 5G Standalone and the 5G core.

The non-eMBB use cases identified at the start of the 5G journey – ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC) and massive machine-type communications (mMTC) – were better served in Releases 16 and 17 than in the initial Release 15, but there are many other improvements required to meet the most demanding industrial and enterprise requirements.

This is why Releases 18-20 are also very important for large vendors as well as for MNOs, because they should, if well implemented to meet the needs of new use cases, help the advanced suppliers to differentiate themselves more clearly from the challengers than they can do in eMBB. The first generation of 5G networks have not been significantly different from 4G, and this has provided limited opportunity for individual suppliers to show off their specific strengths, or to enable a real difference for an operator’s commercial performance.

Recent 3GPP releases included enhancements for time-sensitive communication (TSC), and expansion of the 5G ecosystem with enhanced MIMO, small data transmission (SDT), and user equipment energy-saving. These releases are also bringing network slicing, edge computing, and support for non-terrestrial networks (NTN).

The currently evolving Release 18 will usher in 5G-Advanced, bringing further enhancements for convergence with NTNs, support for improved positioning with sub-10cm accuracy, time synchronization as a service, benefits for various use cases such as smart power grid control, and incorporation of techniques under the headings of AI and ML for energy saving and improved operational control. There will also be more advanced dynamic spectrum sharing than has been possible to date, and NR-Light evolution to support applications that require only a subset of capabilities.

Release 18 is scheduled for final coding freeze in March 2024 ahead of commercial implementation.

Stefan Pongratz, head of Dell’Oro’s mobile RAN and telecom capex research, wrote in a recent blog that Release 18 “will take 5G to the next level, creating a foundation for more demanding applications and a broader set of use cases” while enabling the next generation of AR/VR and ‘metaverse’ services.