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27 October 2020

ZTE claims world first for Unicom, integrating 5G, WiFi and TV in one box

ZTE is claiming a world first, supplying China Unicom with a single box to provide customers with 5G-based in-home broadband, a WiFi access point, and a set-top box for video services. The new hardware is being used by Unicom in regions where it is cost-prohibitive to connect homes with fiber – chiefly in coastal and mountainous markets.

There is limited detail about the technology or commercial arrangement. Support for AVS2 is mentioned, meaning that this should support the Chinese implementation of UHD. The Audio Video Coding Standard (AVS) has some international ambitions, backed by Huawei, TCL and Skyworth, but is mainly being adopted in China.

A “high performance chip” is as much detail we get about the guts of the device, and there is also talk of mesh WiFi, presumably to connect the whole home with multiple access points linked to a ZTE hub.

Gigabit connections are mentioned, meaning that China Unicom isn’t pulling punches with the offering. While historically rural offerings have been leagues behind what is available in urban markets, this appears not to be the case in the Unicom pitch.

The box’s connections are to the TV, the WiFi-powered WAN, HDMI, USB and 5G, while Bluetooth will enable remote controls via mobile phones, and likely audio playback too. USB will probably be used to connect external storage for local media playback, a popular use case in China.

It seems that Android TV support is a safe bet – ZTE’s most recent set-tops, unveiled last month, run Android TV, and are powered by a quad-core ARM Cortex-A55 processor – supporting AOMedia’s AV1 codec.

At the recent virtual IBC 2020 launch event, ZTE also showed off the Far-Field 4K AI Soundbar STB 3000, an interesting form factor as it consists of a soundbar with an integrated set-top, running Android TV. And three weeks ago, ZTE announced that it had partnered with Netflix to support the latter’s Hailstorm Hybrid Program – a pre-integration scheme to make it easier to get Netflix on set-tops.

In September, with China Mobile and Migu Video, ZTE showed off 5G network slicing for 8K VR applications. It also ran a demo with the UHD Video Production Technology Collaboration Center in Beijing, which showed what ZTE claims is the first end-to-end 5G NR broadcast of HD video – using 30 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum, and supporting multiple HD and UHD channels in a free-to-air mode that seems positioned to replace conventional terrestrial RF broadcasting.

At last year’s Broadband World Forum, ZTE showed off its H339X home gateway, which it was billing as the first 5G+VDSL2 system that could help operators evolve from copper-based services and into the gigabit realm. At the time, it looked like something of a stopgap, letting operators buy the boxes now to support their copper networks, before eventually migrating to a full 5G-based access network for in-home services.

The H339X supported 4×4 WiFi 6 and 10G Ethernet, which is certainly overkill for VDSL2, and an X-shaped form factor that helped ensure that the 5G and WiFi antenna arrays didn’t interfere with each other. That design seems absent from the new China Unicom CPE, however.