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22 February 2019

Viavi predicts 55 MNO 5G launches in 2019, but confusion reigns

Viavi Solutions has released its ‘State of 5G Deployments’ document, expecting 55 live networks to have been deployed by the end of 2019. We spoke to Li-Ke Huang, VP Wireless Technology in Viavi’s Wireless Business Unit, and Owen O’Donnell, Marketing Manager at Viavi Solutions, to get a bit of background ahead of MWC.

The report itself notes that 5G is ahead of schedule, as it was initially thought that the technology would make its debut in 2020. It found that 13 commercial 5G networks were launched in 2018, across mobile and fixed-wireless, and anticipates 42 additional launches this year. Europe will take first place, with 21, and the Middle East will hold second with 14, followed by 10 in Asia, 8 in the Americas, and 2 in Australasia. But of course, there’s a whole lot of buzz and hype in the sector, and so it sometimes needs a bit more of a deep dive – especially as the technology could well fundamentally alter the MNO landscape.

Our conversation kicked off with Huang saying there was a bit of game-theory going on between the MNOs that want more open network hardware and the vendors that would prefer things remain proprietary (thank you very much). Huang said that the industry was moving towards the white-box hardware approach, via initiatives like the ORAN Alliance, where the network is treated as a distributed data center, such that equipment from different vendors can be mixed together in arbitrary fashion.

Huang believes that these vendors will eventually realize that they should be competing elsewhere in the stack, rather than on proprietary hardware, especially as new models like Rakuten’s virtualized network that it is deploying as Japan’s fourth operator license.

We asked if this pressure might bring about a shift to a wholesale model, where the entire RAN would be aggregated as a single network that served all customers. Huang said that it was not a technical issue that was preventing such an outcome, rather it was a case of business or politics.

We pressed further, asking if it was likely that the internet model would get applied to the cellular industry, where all packets can be routed across the web according to the IP protocol, not subject to network divisions. Huang said it seemed like such a move was inevitable in time, but noted that the 3GPP would be considering defining the business case there – looking at adding the use cases to match vertical deployments. It would be such a major shift that the industry would probably have to rely on the 3GPP to try and steer the ship.

But the 3GPP is currently working on Release 16, the specification update that adds new 5G features and capabilities. Work on Release 15 was started in 2017, with Huang explaining that this had matured in 2018. In particular, this will see improvements made to Enhanced Mobile Broadband (EMBB), which was part of Release 15 and likened to ‘LTE on steroids, for human users,’ by Huang.

In parallel to the EMBB improvements, Huang said there was considerable work being done on the Machine-Type Communications (MTC) and Critical Communications, in Release 16, which will include some V2X developments. On the lattermost point, Huang pointed out that there is going to be some overlap between the 4G and 5G variants of V2X, with China being particularly invested in the 4G versions and so will support these much earlier than the rest of the market.

Huang disagreed with our depiction of the V2X market as a mess, instead calling it a diversification. The IEEE’s 802.11p approach, often called DSRC because of its use in the DSRC 5.9GHz communication band, seems most focused on North America, whereas the C-V2X implementations more popular in the cellular community are more global in scope. Huang said that it might be a bit chaotic, but that accommodating them is not so difficult.

The conversation turned towards the Industrial IoT (IIoT), which Huang said was a different beast to the automotive V2X concerns. In the IIoT, there is an opportunity to come together for a single global approach for the air interface (the RAN), and in turn, the computing elements in the network edge or cloud can be the proprietary parts on which vendors can compete. The IIoT environment is quite different to the MNO one, and so a slightly different approach is required for the architecture.

For instance, deployments are going to much more dense than conventional networks are accustomed to, especially if the world moves towards warehouses filled with 4/5G-enabled assets that are beaming location and sensor information back to the warehouse operator. These environments pose a different challenge for the microcell network, as well as from the data processing perspective, where such a deployment very quickly strays into the Big Data realm, thanks to the plethora of data that can be collected en masse.

Again, this caused us to pose our question about an open RAN world, where the MNOs become dumb pipes over which packets travel to reach their destination. Sure there is an opportunity to move higher up the stack, into providing services rather than just connectivity, but there’s also the risk that in such deployments, the MNOs become something of an afterthought – much like how applications pay no mind to the likes of Century Link or Cogent, and simply trust that they will carry the required IP packets.

Huang reiterated that he was unsure, and that this concern is exactly why MNOs are so interested in providing vertical applications. Moving to white-box hardware and network functions that are augmented by AI-based processes would help alleviate network operating costs, and so speed up the transition to providing such applications, he added.

Similarly, in the IIoT question, there’s a need for the operators to get in there early, to avoid losing out to an internally-deployed private LTE network – a concept that has been cropping up in a lot of press releases, which would completely sideline the MNOs. Such networks would effectively be an advanced WiFi network, to the IIoT user, but for the MNO, every device deployed in a private LTE network running on unlicensed spectrum is a lost opportunity – and given the potential scale of the IIoT, that’s not something the MNOs can really afford to lose out on. Huang said that it is still not clear how those concerns are going to shake out in the marketplace.

Huang also added that confusion from the pending 5G deployments is not going to help. He pointed out the conflict between 5G Standalone (5GSA) and 5G Non Standalone (5GNSA), where the latter can be deployed on the evolved core networks used in LTE, but the former will require a completely new core network – the pipes in the backend that carry communications through the labyrinth. Viavi is involved in testing the new 5G core network functions, including the Control and User Plane Separation (CUPS), which is a bit of a reading rabbit hole that you can fall down (be warned).

O’Donnell added that it is hard to see how operators will decide to deploy 5GSA versus 5GNSA, saying that you won’t know until they announced it. Viavi imagines that the early deployments will be NSA, as elements of SA are not yet commercially available. To that end, this is good news for the likes of Viavi, as it means there’s money to be made selling testing services to the vendors and operators.