Vendors duke it out ahead of MWC, hurling cloud and AI platforms at 5G

The biggest RAN vendors have got into the habit of starting their Mobile World Congress (MWC) battles a couple of weeks in advance, offering previews of their main launches and messages in the hope of winning some hearts and minds even before the mega-show in Barcelona kicks off. Last week saw Huawei holding its pre-MWC event in London, while on the same day, Ericsson announced a series of enhancements to its 5G-ready portfolio.

Of course, 5G will be the dominant theme for these vendors and their rivals, now that the first set of standards has been finalized and the first working network deployed (for the Korean Winter Olympics). Ericsson has been promising simple upgrades from 4G kit, and general 5G readiness, for a couple of years now, and now it gets to unveil 5G-specific, standards-based products.

The priorities for the new range reflect some of the differences between likely 5G deployment patterns and those of 3G and 4G. One is the importance of midband spectrum, which supports high capacity but limited range, meaning that macrocells will continue to shrink (as they have been since 2G days). While most LTE roll-outs started with a low-band coverage layer, many MNOs will implement 5G initially to boost capacity in selected areas, or support specific new use cases, while continuing to rely on their LTE networks for broad coverage, for years to come in many cases. This pattern will be particularly true for any operator which chooses to implement the first 5G New Radio (NR) standard, Non-Standalone, which still requires a 4G core.

To address the relatively small cells of midrange spectrum such as the C-Bands (3.4 GHz to 4.2 GHz – the most important new 5G bands in the early years), Ericsson has announced Street Macro, which it describes as creating a new layer between the macro and the small cell. The radios are light and small enough to be mounted on city furniture or walls, but have macro-class coverage and capacity, and the ability to evolve towards key 5G enablers such as Massive MIMO in future.

There are three models in the family – the 6701, the AIR 4455 and the AIR 1281 – all of them about 50 centimeters high with radiated power (EIRP including antenna gain) of 55 dBm. The 6701 is a 5G, fully integrated product with Massive MIMO support (128T/128R) for high bands. The 4455 has a smaller form factor and supports 4T4R MIMO at 4x40W.

“This is a new layer in the network, between macro level on the roof tops and micro level on the ground. Radio products for this layer will typically be located below the roof top levels in city environments on positions that are higher than where micro products are installed,” said Ericsson. “Radio products for this Street Macro layer will combine the high output power levels of macro radios with the ease of site build that micro products have.”

Street Macro is similar to Nokia’s ‘mini-macro’ product, and both will be targeted at some of the expected early drivers for 5G deployment – smart cities; fast video and other mobile broadband services in areas of high urban usage; roadside cells for connected car applications. All these will be supported by midband spectrum and the ability to deploy relatively large numbers of cells simply, even where the operator does not yet need to embark on full small cell densification. Much of that move to hyperdensity will take place indoors, and there, Ericsson has already recently announced a 5G version of its Radio Dot distributed radio system for in-building small cell systems.

Some of Ericsson’s most constant messages since it started showing off 5G-ready products have been around ease of migration and software upgradeability. These are themes at the start of every new network generation, designed to encourage operators to invest in equipment now, with the reassurance they can upgrade easily later, rather than delay their capex until the new standard is fully commercialized, creating the dreaded end-of-generation purchasing hiatus which hit a lot of vendors in the dying years of new 2G roll-outs.

Just how simple these software upgrades prove to be is variable – one of the factors in WiMAX’s failure to eat significantly into LTE’s position as the key 4G standard was that the industry promised software migration between two generations of the platform, but then failed to deliver that.

But Ericsson promises to do better than that for 5G NR, and is now pledging that all installed base stations in its Ericsson Radio System (ERS) range, delivered since 2015, will be able to be upgraded to 5G NR via a remote software update. The vendor says this applies to more than 150 different radio variants in its portfolio, which are active in over 190 networks around the world, as well as microcells and Radio Dot.

Vendors know that, this time around, MNOs will not countenance a rip-and-replace culture and that they will require a long period of coexistence between 4G and 5G, so they can continue to squeeze performance and value out of 4G, and only spend on the new platform when its ROI can be assured. At least a decade of LTE enhancement awaits for most operators, even those which plan to be in the vanguard of 5G roll-out, like Japan’s NTT Docomo and KDDI.

“We have a long history of strong backwards compatibility and our products and software are built for evolution – with Ericsson, there is no need to rip and replace,” said Fredrik Jejdling, head of Ericsson’s Business Area Networks. “Investments in Ericsson Radio System since 2015 will continue to bring operators value when the time is right to transition to 5G. Operators who want to be early with 5G now have the essential pieces for launching 5G networks already this year.”

The long term coexistence of 4G and 5G will require more than simple colocation or overlaying, as in the past. Operators want full integration, and flexible allocation of tasks to the two radios as required by different traffic patterns or services. A virtualized, software-driven network will be key to that flexibility, as will a more dynamic approach to how spectrum is used.

One of Ericsson’s most interesting pre-MWC discussions was around its Dynamic Spectrum Sharing, which will boost its proposition in an area where Huawei appeared to be standing alone, with its CloudAIR offering (see Wireless Watch February 6 2018). Like CloudAIR, the Ericsson offering allows MNOs to run multiple RATs (radio access technologies), including 4G and 5G, in the same band with the same radio and baseband, and to share the spectrum with side-by-side carriers in the same band, and even overlapping carriers.

This is a valuable addition to the 5G Platform, which Ericsson first unveiled at 2017’s MWC and enhanced in the fall. Like Huawei’s Cloud range (CloudRAN, CloudAIR, CloudCore and so on), it covers 5G RAN, core and backhaul elements, as well as OSS/BSS (or their 5G replacements – see item below), network services and security. Ericsson didn’t just add 5G NR software support to the Platform, but also expanded its 5G Core System and its Distributed Cloud. The new capabilities will be available in the fourth quarter.

The Distributed Cloud offering has been enhanced to support cloud application deployment across multiple sites, whether they are centralized, distributed or right at the network edge. This is an example of the wider platform that needs to surround the 5G RAT, to enable the operator to gain the full potential benefits of that radio upgrade. Improvements include end-to-end orchestration, virtualization and automation, as well as a flexible cloud system that can allocate resources where they are most needed – at the edge for a very low latency application, for instance, or within a corporate building for a highly secure one. Distributed Cloud is also designed to enable operators to turn their networks into open cloud platforms for all kinds of workloads, delivering new applications for consumers and enterprises.

As part of the Distributed Cloud, Ericsson says it will support rapid multivendor hardware deployments, using telco-grade open software to operate the systems remotely, and extending software-defined infrastructure (SDI) to the edge. It has also added support for containers in this platform, to increase the efficiency of deployment of cloud native applications.

“Reduced latency, improved throughput, better security, reliability and regulatory compliance are all critical capabilities that operators must deliver for 5G use cases such as augmented reality, assisted factory and autonomous driving vehicles,” said Roberto Kompany, senior analyst at Analysys Mason. “A distributed cloud capability that enables cloud computing, storage and networking to be placed flexibly in central, regional and edge locations and which can be managed seamlessly, end-to-end, is an important component of a 5G platform.”

Among the operators lined up to endorse the new platform was China Mobile, whose Tongxu Zhang, head of the MNO’s Research Institute, said in the press release: “China Mobile designs its future network, so called ‘NovoNet’, to be constructed with multi-layer Telecom Integrated Cloud (TIC). The Ericsson Distributed Cloud is aligned with the edge TIC solution with the vision to create a unified cloud solution for fast application innovations, leveraging full scale orchestration, automation, and multi-cloud enablement.”

Adding significant value to the operator’s business by enabling it to slash costs and support new services is essential for the large vendors. As Rethink’s latest report, ‘MNO Choices in 5G’ indicates, 5G will follow a very different pattern to that of 3G and 4G in terms of architecture and regional patterns. It will not be a capex windfall for the vendors – operators will prioritise coexistence with 4G and architecture to prolong the life of existing investments. That means vendors have urgently to identify other areas, beyond equipment sales and implementation, where they can increase revenues and keep their strategic position with operators, despite the challenges from new rivals from the open source and cloud worlds.

For Huawei, the transition has been particularly challenging – from the 3G era when it was largely regarded as a low cost option with the ability to throw large numbers of engineers at any problem; to the 5G era in which it is the largest filer of mobile patents and an undoubted technology leader in several areas. As the costs of its famously large teams of engineers rise, it has to increase on advanced technology, added value and services.

In general, it has adapted to its new role very effectively, as its quarterly results usually show. Its growth and margins are falling gradually, but remain far better than those of its European rivals, even without the ability to sell significantly into the US, still the world’s second largest market, and one of the biggest early 5G opportunities.

That gives it greater leeway to invest in putting even more blue water between itself and its rivals, both old and new. Nokia warned on its last earnings call that its investments in 5G technology would hit its profits this year (with operating margin forecast to be between 9% and 11%, down from 15.1% in the fourth quarter of 2017). Huawei may suffer some of the same effect, but it is still able to invest far more heavily in new technology than the others. It said at its London pre-MWC event that it planned to invest $800m in 5G R&D this year, a hefty slice of a total spend of between $10bn and $20bn per year going forward. In 2017, it spent a total of $12bn on R&D.

At its briefing, Huawei took a broader approach than Ericsson, setting 5G announcements in the wider context of telco cloud architectures and zero-touch networks, including the inevitable references to artificial intelligence. Ryan Ding, president of the Carrier Business Group, was particularly upbeat about AI, saying it would be embedded “into our services, into our networks, to provide more flexible services, and also improve our operations experience”.

Huawei’s big play in this area is Atlas, which was launched last September and billed as an “intelligent cloud platform”, though in the London event it was relabelled a “heterogeneous computing solution”. Whatever its moniker, it has significant AI components, using the technology to shape and power high performance computing scenarios for specific industries or services. Increasingly, that will be integrated with smart connectivity, and the allocation of 5G resources where they can best work alongside compute resources, anywhere from the central cloud to the edge.

Atlas uses heterogeneous resource pooling and intelligent orchestration, which allow the hardware to behave in a more flexible manner and adapt to ever-changing conditions. This is also the aim of virtualized, software-driven carrier networks, and put together, the two platforms can support full multi-domain, end-to-end slicing of network and compute resources.

This approach also reduces cost, by targeting resources where they are actually needed and by slashing power consumption. Huawei says Atlas can deliver more than 50% better resource use efficiency, and can boost performance by over 10 times compared to a traditional x86 cloud hardware platform, for applications from Cloud-RANs to smart city systems.

“As the AI era is approaching, traditional hardware cannot meet the requirements on development of AI and cloud technologies,” said Huawei, while Ding elaborated on that, saying AI had become a “general purpose technology” which was integrated into Huawei’s solutions and “greatly improved the efficiency of live networks”. He gave the example that, in a 4G network, there are 200 parameters which need to be configured end-to-end, but with 5G, this will be closer to 10,000, making AI and automation essential.

Peter Zhou, CMO of Huawei’s wireless network unit, promised more specific 5G launches in Barcelona, while the London event was largely focused on broader messages. He said Huawei had been working for more than 10 years for 5G, and at MWC would “announce end-to-end 5G products, from core network, transmission, radio and terminal – we are getting ready to turn on 5G”.

He added: “Today, we have started to build 5G networks in 10 cities, so this year you will see a lot of commercial 5G news from those cities and even more. 5G is now: we just opened a door from enhanced mobile broadband, to a fully digitally connected society.” Huawei said it has recruited over 300 5G experts to lead its developments in this area.

It was not all about 5G – Huawei is also focused on NB-IoT, the 4G-based variant for low power wide area networks, and says it will deliver 100 of these systems this year, supporting about 150m connections worldwide.

Zhou went on: “Carriers are serving more and more industries, and the requirements are becoming more and more diversified. A much broader ecosystem has already become a must. So Huawei’s goal is to build a multi-level ecosystem that integrates business solutions and infrastructure. This will enable the telecom industry to continue to grow and succeed.”

One of the areas where Huawei has stepped ahead of its competition (with the possible exception of compatriot ZTE) is Massive MIMO. It has worked closely with Chinese operators and with Softbank in Japan to commercialize this important technology for 4G, rather than waiting for 5G, and last autumn saw Ericsson somewhat belatedly responding with its own first FDD Massive MIMO offering. Huawei says it has shipped over 20,000 Massive MIMO units for 40 LTE networks round the world to date. The Chinese vendors have benefited from the fact that in their home country, there are large numbers of TDD 4G networks (in unpaired spectrum), and Massive MIMO was originally developed for this type of system. Now, however, the antenna array technology has been adapted for FDD-LTE too.

Nokia has also made some pre-MWC announcements and statements, though without a big event, and – like Huawei – promising more to come in Barcelona.

Most significantly for operators considering early deployments of 5G, Nokia announced the results of interoperability testing of 5G New Radio (NR) equipment in the 3.5 GHz and 28 GHz bands – expected to be the earliest new spectrum options to see commercial deployments of 5G. The tests were conducted at Nokia’s 5G centre of excellence in Oulu, Finland, and will provide the basis for field trials with operators this year.

Working with Qualcomm prototypes and Nokia’s commercial AirScale base station, Nokia said the tests meant “we can look forward to commencing standards-based, over-the-air 5G NR trials with operators”. Marc Rouanne, president of mobile networks at Nokia, said: “Importantly, they demonstrate how we have quickly applied the 3GPP Release 15 specifications that were set in December, using our AirScale base station together with a prototype Qualcomm Technologies UE.” He said that several operators – BT/EE, Deutsche Telekom, Elisa, KT, LGU+, NTT Docomo, Optus, SK Telecom, Telia and Vodafone Group – have all committed to working with Nokia and Qualcomm in verifying and trialling 5G NR.

“The successful completion of an end-to-end interoperable connection based on the global 5G NR standard is a significant step on the path to launching 5G NR commercial networks and devices starting in 2019,” said Cristiano Amon, president of Qualcomm.