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Saudi Telecom achieves multivendor 5G network ahead of early launch

Multivendor 5G networks are a key goal of many operators, but far fewer expect to be able to achieve it, in the early days of their 5G deployments. In a survey of over 80 operators round the world in the last quarter of 2018, Rethink Technology Research found that 82% placed multivendor networks in their top three objectives for their next generation deployments, but 72%, in reality, expected to go with a single vendor for their first wave of RAN and core roll-out.

A few powerful MNOs have broken the pattern, such as NTT Docomo of Japan and SK Telecom of Korea, with their virtualized 5G cores that combine virtual network functions from different suppliers. AT&T and Verizon plan to introduce a wider range of hardware and software suppliers as their access and core networks disaggregate and diversify.  Newcomers like Rakuten of Japan are taking a lead on open architectures with multiple suppliers, and many telcos are putting weight behind open RAN initiatives like Telecom Infra Project’s (TIP’s) Open vRAN. Vodafone and Telefónica are trialling systems supporting these specifications, though these are mainly focused on small cells.

But the most common limit of multivendor is still to have two RAN suppliers, each supplying a separate geographical zone, and perhaps a third party providing the packet core.

However, some are starting to push beyond that boundary. Saudi Arabia’s STC, which plans to launch its first commercial 5G services during this quarter in major cities, has announced that it will combine cores from two suppliers with RAN from two more. It has been working on what it calls Multivendor Integration Verification for 5G, blending Huawei and Cisco cores with RANs from Ericsson and Nokia.

It first started to deploy this network last year and says that working with multiple vendors has made its roll-out faster and easier. Eng. Khaled I. Al Dharrab, VP of STC’s infrastructure sector, said: “5G network is developing at a very high rate. A well-integrated 5G network with full interoperability will deliver endless possibilities and opportunities for our deserving customers. This will also facilitate the road towards meeting the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] National 2030 Vision.”

Another cheerleader for implementing multivendor equipment in the mainstream macro network and core is SK Telecom of Korea. Late last year, it announced successful tests of a 5G Non-Standalone (NSA) Core, developed by Samsung, with 5G base stations from Nokia and Ericsson.

The test took place at the company’s 5G testbed, in its Bundang offices. The MNO is in the vanguard of industry efforts to ensure there are fewer vendor lock-ins in the 5G era. It has worked with other operators, such as Orange and AT&T, to develop standard interfaces within 3GPP and NGMN processes. It is also engaged with some of the newer open initiatives, such as TIP, which are seeking to define uniform interfaces to allow any vendor’s gear to interoperate with that of another.

The hope is that such efforts will drive more price competition, and enable MNOs to swap equipment in and out, or mix virtual and physical systems from different vendors, to achieve best-of-breed networks at affordable cost.

SK Telecom recently selected Samsung, Ericsson and Nokia as its preferred bidders for 5G equipment tenders, and since then has stepped up its efforts to apply and test the standard interfaces to ensure it can support multivendor interoperability from the start of its aggressive 5G roll-out timeframe.

The 5G NSA Core used for the trial was co-developed by SK Telecom and Samsung. The NSA standards – the first wave to be finalized – help to accelerate 5G deployment by enabling a 5G RAN to be implemented with an existing 4G evolved packet core. Some 5G features can then be added to that LTE core (turning it into a 5G NSA Core), the idea being to improve quality of service and add some functionality before the operator needs to make the far bigger and more disruptive investment in a fully 5G core.

“SK Telecom continues to lead the industry in 5G by successfully achieving multivendor equipment interoperability based on 3GPP standard,” said Park Jin-hyo, head of the operator’s ICT R&D Center. “We will continue to make efforts to launch commercial 5G network that offers the highest quality and stability.”

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