MWC: Operators vye for 5G glory, but Huawei focuses on 4.5G February 19 2016

In last week’s edition, we looked at how the major OEMs will need to tread a careful balance, at this year’s Mobile World Congress, between being ahead of the pack on the 5G roadmap, and injecting plenty of life into that nearer term source of revenues, LTE-Advanced – in particular, the last full 3GPP 4G releases, 13 and 14, known as LTE-Advanced Pro.

Huawei has been calling these ‘4.5G’ for some time, and for once this is not just a marketing slogan but a real summary of how the Chinese vendor – and much of the industry – sees LTE-A Pro. A stepping stone to 5G, yes, but one which will continue to evolve in parallel with the new generation, and with significant overlap. Operators will not tolerate a complete step upgrade again, and even if new air interface technologies are introduced alongside the current OFDM-based ones (especially for the IoT), they will look to virtualization and software-defined networking to enable them to evolve their platforms gradually, in line with real customer need, and to support multiple technologies at once.

All of which makes 4.5G quite a meaningful label, for once. Huawei, the last of the big OEMs to preview its major MWC announcements, said it believed more than 60 commercial 4.5G networks would be deployed this year, ushering in a “golden five-year period” for Releases 13 and 14. “4.5G is the natural evolution of 4G and necessary transition to the 5G,” said Ryan Ding, president of products and solutions. “It can effectively protect operators’ investments and enable them to provide faster services and better user experience on the basis of existing infrastructures.”

Huawei’s definition of 4.5G, which it unveiled over a year ago, includes gigabit download speeds – which are supported in Qualcomm’s latest modem, the X16 – and sub-10ms latency. In particular, the new releases will make LTE – initially designed almost exclusively for faster mobile broadband – more suited to the Internet of Things, with new specifications like Category-M and NB-IoT, and the ability to support up to 100,000 connections per cell (the latter another of Huawei’s 4.5G criteria).

Huawei said it had already demonstrated or tested 4.5G technology with more than 20 operators in nine countries (Canada, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Norway, Singapore, Turkey and the UAE.). It added that operators in China, Hong Kong and Singapore had all achieved gigabit transmissions using pre-standard Huawei 4.5G kit. In addition, it added that Korea and the UK had started building LTE integrated trunked radio networks, and MNOs in Korea and China had launched commercial trials of NB-IoT.

By 2020, Huawei predicts the average mobile customer will be using about 5GB of data per month and there will be around 3bn “connected things” on cellular networks. “The answer to this vision now is 4.5G,” it says.

It also said it was engaged in 5G trials with some operators, but refused to follow Ericsson in putting a number on it this (the Swedish firm claims “nearly 20”). “We will have to wait for five years or even longer for 5G,” said William Xu, Huawei’s chief marketing strategy officer. “That is why Huawei has proposed 4.5G.”

Among the actual products to support 4.5G, Huawei unveiled a new family called GigaRadio. The first members are a blade remote radio unit (RRU) and an active antenna unit. The former is 20% smaller and 50% faster than other products targeting the same space, Huawei claimed, and can support gigabit speeds.

The OEM was not only reiterating its 4.5G mantra at its pre-announcements, even though its label is coming into line with the wider LTE platform with the appearance of LTE-A Pro on the horizon. It also set out a five-point plan to address the future needs of telecoms operators undergoing the transformation to digital. The five are Big Video or video everywhere; Big IT; Big Operations, mainly focused on agility; Big Architecture, or elastic networks; and Big Pipe for ubiquitous connectivity.
The big message was clear – for digital transformation, telcos need to rethink their platforms from end to end, and only very few vendors can address every link in the chain (Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson/Cisco). And as many observers pointed out, there was a clear overlap between Huawei’s five initiatives and the key areas Ericsson identified as growth drivers in 2014. The Swedish firm saw those growth areas – video and media, cloud platforms, IP, OSS/BSS and ‘industry and society’ – growing their revenues by 20% to total $5.3bn in 2015.

To achieve similar results from its new five-point plan, Huawei said it would invest $1bn over five years in a “developer enablement program” to expand the ecosystem around its framework, and says it already has 600 partners in its 10 open labs in China, Europe and other regions.

Meanwhile, other vendors were far less coy about overusing the ‘5G’ term than Huawei. The head of Samsung’s Network business unit, Youngky Kim, previewed the Korean firm’s own MWC infrastructure plans, including what it said were key enablers of 5G such as “multilink connectivity technology, centralized radio, IoT and mmWave radio access solutions”. Kim said: “5G technology will offer us a new level of experience, which is immersive, tactile and ubiquitous. Thanks to seamless mobility, higher throughput and low latency of 5G technology, new services like hologram calls, virtual reality broadcasting of live football games and self-driving cars will enrich our lives.”

In Barcelona, Samsung promises to “make 5G technology a reality” with a demonstration of millimeter wave radios, transmitting eight UHD 4K videos at once with latency below 1ms.

On the LTE-A Pro side, it will also launch solutions to support LTE in 5 GHz spectrum (LTE-U and LTE-LAA), plus MP-TCP (multipath transfer control protocol), Distributed-RAN Inter-site Carrier Aggregation and Samsung Smart Multi-Link. It names MP-TCP as one of its “key priorities”. The technology allows aggregation of two or more separate networks running different RATs, such as WiFi, 3G, 4G, 5G and LPWA. It does not just connect to them simultaneously, as in dual or multi-connectivity, but merges the data streams from each network at the IP layer, to make aggregation simpler and faster. The technology has already been commercialized in Korea.

Meanwhile, Smart Multi-Link is based on Samsung’s Unified Core architecture. This is designed to support backward and forward compatibility by supporting cellular networks from 2G to 5G, plus non-3GPP technologies, using NFV and SDN approaches to enable multiple distributed RANs to behave as a single pool of capacity around a single core.

Also on the virtualization front, it has upgraded its Cloud-RAN platform to version 2.0+, integrating new SON (self-optimizing network) and scheduler elements. Among the improvements are the ability for base stations to detect interference at the cell edge and control radio transmission power in real time, to boost data throughput by an average of 40-50%.

For the IoT, Samsung will show off a range of offerings including an IoT-optimized core, a specialized standalone base station for IoT, gateways, and support for the LPWA technology LoRa. It will also be offering a package of equipment, sensors and services for public safety IoT applications, claiming to be preparing “beyond standards” implementations to address mission critical use cases, as well as supporting Cat-0, Cat-1, Cat-M and NB-IoT.

The operators will be vying for 5G glory as enthusiastically as the vendors. Vodafone, AT&T, NTT Docomo, Telefonica and SK Telecom are among those which will demonstrate pre-5G technologies or announce major trials. Vodafone, has announced an extended set of partnerships – with Huawei, Nokia, Ericsson, Intel and Qualcomm – to research 5G technologies and prepare its networks for the transition, whatever that may involve in the real world.

Pre-standard operator trials are important because they help to define real requirements and shape the platforms in the direction of concrete business cases rather than technical wizardry. Vodafone aims to work with its partners to “define industry standards, establish technical guidelines and prepare product roadmaps”. It will evaluate the emerging 5G technologies to decide which it believes should be part of the standards; test hardware and software in its group Innovation Labs in the UK; conduct trials in global markets; and prioritize the benefits of 5G that can be brought to market by 2020.

CTO Johan Wibergh said: “The telecoms industry is still establishing what technology will deliver the benefits we expect from 5G, so it is important to establish dedicated research programmes with these leading global companies.”

Vodafone also chairs the NGMN (Next Generation Mobile Networks) 5G Requirements and Architecture group.

Over the pond, AT&T is working with Ericsson and Intel to launch a trial 5G network in Austin, Texas, in order to test emerging concepts like millimeter wave radios and virtualized RAN. Lab tests will take place in the second quarter of this year, and outdoor trials in the second half. By the end of this year, AT&T says it will provide real world connectivity to certain locations in Austin, using its selected ‘5G’ technologies, though these will initially be for fixed access only.

John Donovan, chief strategy officer and group president of technology and operations, said: “New experiences like virtual reality, self-driving cars, robotics, smart cities and more are about to test networks like never before. These technologies will be immersive, pervasive and responsive to customers. 5G will help make them a reality. 5G will reach its full potential because we will build it on a software-centric architecture that can adapt quickly to new demands and give customers more control of their network services. Our approach is simple – deliver a unified experience built with 5G, SDN, big data, security and open source software.”

Ericsson will also be showing off its 5G partnerships with Korea Telecom and NTT Docomo at MWC, demonstrating radio prototypes which support Multiuser MIMO, and beam tracking in millimeter wave bands, to boost throughput beyond 25Gbps.

Seizo Onoe, Docomo’s CTO, said in a statement: “Both companies are already conducting joint outdoor trials to understand how 5G will really perform in the field. This will enable us to plan for the new and enhanced services that we will be able to offer with 5G. We will be in a good position to highlight our commercial 5G capabilities in 2020.”