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Network vendors need something far more real than ‘5G’

The all-IP, gigabit dream is within reach... just buy our kit

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MWC 2015 The big infrastructure vendors all made significant announcements in advance of Mobile World Congress, holding their beauty parades before the distractions of the event itself. While there was a lot of the inevitable "5G" vision-making on show, the main focus was on something more real: new platforms which could be deployed in a one-to-two-year rather than a five-year timeframe.

The idea is to persuade even those carriers which are completing their LTE upgrades to invest in yet more kit, to get them closer to the all-IP, gigabit dream.

Hence Huawei enlarged on its "4.5G" theme, while Ericsson’s slogan was "Digital Telco". But the biggest change of all is one that may progressively make the "G" leaps irrelevant – the shift to virtualisation and software-defined networks (SDN). Once the elephant in the room, SDN is now fully embraced by the hardware vendors whose business models it threatens, even as they twist and turn in search of a way to turn it into profits and the protection of their customer and ecosystem control.

Last week we looked at Nokia’s pre-MWC announcements, particularly its updated Radio Cloud portfolio, with the emphasis heavily on the twin ‘pre-5G’ themes for the whole industry – radical new RAN architectures and virtualization throughout the network.

These ideas were echoed by the other four majors, though each had its particular twist, depending on the key strengths it has to surround the central RAN platform.

So Huawei and ZTE had end-to-end messages, since they still offer everything from devices to base stations to the IP core. AlcatelLucent is increasingly reliant for growth on its IP router business and this will feature heavily in its MWC showcase, along with its traditional enthusiasm for deconstructed RAN architectures like small cells and Cloud-RAN. And Ericsson positions the RAN as just one element in a dazzling array of equipment, software and services for all kinds of operators, not just the cellcos – broadening the reach of its platform far and wide.

Huawei’s MWC preview event in London had one retro element about it, amid all the talk of 2020 architectures and virtual reality.

Like Ericsson, Nokia and Alcatel in their 2G infrastructure heydays, the Chinese giant was not just talking about base stations and virtualised cores, but the devices these would enable, including a "4.5G" smartband. The western suppliers have all divested their handset activities and can no longer tout their old message of end-to-end systems and the ability to optimize the end user experience by controlling the network.

Huawei pulls back from 5G, focuses on two-year timeframe

It is now left to Huawei and ZTE to pick up that holistic message, and the former was doing it very effectively at its jamboree, demonstrating the performance of its next generation equipment via a wealth of new gadgets and experiences, not just by talking carrier aggregation and cell site capacity. Those included the first LTE smartband, plus smart meters, virtual reality devices and the almost ubiquitous drones.

Last year, Huawei was the first to lay claim to the inevitable "4.G" term, positioning itself to launch networks which would deliver a leap forward from current LTE and first-wave LTE-Advanced implementations, but would be available long before 5G (and provide a stepping stone towards it, when the industry knows what it is going to be). It’s mainly marketing speak – most of "4.5G" is based on implementing more items from the long LTE-Advanced menu of standards (the huge Release 11 and its 2014 update, Release 12), rather than doing anything radically new, while looking ahead to what will be frozen this year in Release 13 (and eventually emerge in Release 14).

However, at least Huawei is pulling back somewhat from the industry’s hype about as-yet undefined 5G, despite its many "pre- 5G" trials and R&D activities. Its new technologies will be rolled out over the next year or so and are genuinely trying to move the debate on from mere capacity and speed, to the bigger challenge of building an LTE network so flexible that it can support many different behaviours, from massive video downloads and 4K streaming, to the constant, tiny updates of a smart meter.

The latter was prominent in its announcements, and explains its acquisition of IoT connectivity chip start-up Neul last year. The LTE smartband features a chip designed by the smaller firm, which supports the emerging LTE-M technology – a variant of LTE optimised for ultra-low power internet of things (IoT) services.

So the smartband was symbolic because it highlighted that the industry is moving on from smartphone obsession to a host of new devices, and the networks need to be ready. LTE was the network that had to be developed to support the smartphone once that had appeared with all its data greed and inefficient radio usage.

Release 13, and its pre-standard ‘4.5G’ implementations, will be, as Huawei’s president of products and solutions, Ryan Ding, put it, a network that is focused not just on people and their smartphones, but on “people and things”.

Huawei expects 4.5G to be deployed commercially by 2016 though it is already working on trials with operators such as Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone. It sees the platform as a five-year evolution leading smoothly to 5G, whatever that may be.

And its promises were not all about the IoT. There were more traditional applications for mobile broadband on show, such as the ability to support 4K and ultra-HD video services with no buffering or pixellation. The goal of gigabit mobile speeds will be achieved with various enablers, most of them standardised – carrier aggregation including LTE-LAA, massive MIMO, 256QAM modulation, ultra-low latency and smart antennas.

Huawei announced its High Throughput Routing (HTR) to "pave the way to ultra-high definition video”. This consists of video optimization algorithms deployed at aggregation points or in edge routers, which allocate bandwidth depending on the needs of the video service, and the status of the connection, in order to manage capacity right down to individual user level. The vendor claims these advances can triple throughput and will be in field trials later this year.

Ericsson fills gaps in its carrier toolkit

In terms of enabling business opportunities for operators, Huawei was heavily focused on support for new devices and user experiences, while Ericsson placed more weight on back end services. A combination of hardware and software with integration services, its new and updated offerings emphasise the broad-reaching nature of Ericsson’s business model, at a time when its European rivals are becoming more specialised – ALU increasingly reliant on its router business, Nokia drilling down on mobile broadband.

Overall, the message is that Ericsson has the toolkit to help a carrier transform itself into a digital telco, which in the Swedish firm’s definition is one that provides a consistent and high quality user experience, including near-real time service delivery, via all kinds of media, connections and end devices (and so may not be a traditional mobile or fixed-line carrier).

Paolo Colella, head of consulting and systems integration, said: “Many operators are aware of the pressing need to transform themselves into digital telcos, but few are aware of the steps required to get there. Only a holistic approach that reinvents the telco operating model can ensure operators avoid major business model disruptions and realize their digital telco vision.”

One ingredient in the Ericsson recipe for this transformation is to integrate the various elements of BSS and OSS software increasingly tightly so that, for instance, network performance data can be used to trigger customer experience management decisions. This is a common theme among large providers, as telcos start the painful process of converging IT-based back office systems such as customer relationship management, with network activities.

In that transition, it is vital that Ericsson maintains a key role despite the entry of powerful players from the IT side, both telco specialists like Amdocs and enterprise giants like Oracle or IBM.

Two of the new launches highlight the convergence theme. First, Ericsson Expert Analytics 15.0 tracks customer satisfaction and, because it is pre-integrated with the OSS/BSS portfolio, it can automatically trigger actions to improve user experience, based on criteria set by the operator. “By pre-integrating analytics with our broad OSS and BSS portfolio, we are enabling operators to automate a wide variety of use cases, driven by analytics insights,” said Elisabetta Romano, head of OSS and service enablement.

Second, App Experience Optimization extends such activities beyond network performance to the applications themselves. An important area of business expansion for Ericsson in recent years has been to provide media platforms for IP service providers of all kinds, not just its traditional mobile customers. However, its latest offering in this area is primarily designed to help those mobile operators compete in the world of massive video consumption, particularly as usage shifts towards wireless connections.

Ericsson calculates that video represents 45% of mobile traffic and will grow eightfold by 2020. The new Media Delivery Network promises to “turn this costly demand on their networks into sustainable business growth”, said Ove Anebygd, head of the media solution area.

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