To say that the buzz about 5G has created excitement in the telecoms world would be an understatement. After the first commercial networks switched on in North America and Asia, Europe is also catching up quickly. More recently, four 5G licences were awarded in China, the world's largest mobile market, well ahead of the schedule that has been broadly anticipated. But the world has only seen the beginning of the true 5G, with much more excitement to come in the next few years. I used my recent interview by Telecoms.com to explain why.
There is no doubt that 5G rollout is accelerating. However, the commercial networks switched on so far have only offered enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) services and used data speed as the key selling point. Isn't that a disappointment? How do you see the industry move from here?
No, it's by no means a disappointment. As a matter of fact, I see in the 5G services being offered now the beginning of a long exciting time for the telecom industry. We all know 5G can offer much more than broadband access, but to start with broadband access has its advantages.
To start with, in addition to the fact that broadband access is easier for consumers to understand, it is also a good way for the telecom industry to gain experience. 5G is a watershed opportunity for the telecom industry to directly participate in the digitalisation of other industries. Telecom operators will find in offering high-speed internet access a valuable and reassuring starting point to deepen their understanding of other vertical industries.
Another advantage of starting with enhanced broadband access is that the eMBB scenarios for all Option modes have been frozen in the R19 Late Drop version of Q1 in 2019. Therefore, with a more mature technology, despite its being new too, the success rate will be higher. In comparison, although the technologies are ready for other 5G use case implementations, including low latency and massive IoT, the standardisation for ultra reliable low latency communications (URLLC) will only be finalised in March 2020 with Release 16, and the standards of massive machine type communications (mMTC) for NR won’t be frozen until Release 17. 3GPP schedule for Release 17 is still open though we expect it to be completed in the first half of 2021.
That explains why some operators choose to launch 5G early by adopting the NSA mode, some would rather wait till the technologies are more mature and go directly to SA mode. What would be your advice to the operators on their options?
Technologically, the 5G base stations can handle both NSA and SA modes, but the key difference is in the core. NSA Option 3 is built on LTE evolved packet core (EPC), but SA Option 2 is built on the new 5G core that is organised around services, i.e. using service-based architecture (SBA). Therefore, to unleash the full potential of 5G, especially the B2B potential, going for NSA mode will make more sense. This is also meaningful in a business sense for the telecom operators who would expect to generate more value from 5G service offerings to business customers.
A fundamental difference between serving consumers and serving business customers is that, consumers are generally more price sensitive, and tend to treat personalised offers as a bonus, while business customers are much more demanding in time to market (TTM) and customisation capabilities. Some current hotspot technologies, including network slicing and virtualization, integration with the cloud, edge computing, and full adoption of AI, machine learning and automation, can be better implemented in a 5G environment.
However, this doesn't have to be an "either-or" choice. Operators may choose to adopt the NSA mode now, so that they don't have to wait till all the standards are frozen or SA mode devices are broadly available. They can then transit to the SA mode at their choice of time. Technologies from companies like ZTE are making the transition straightforward and cost-efficient, because we are facilitating the convergence of different technologies and business operations.
This leads me to the next question. We have heard industry professionals talk about convergence for many years. What is so unique about the convergence in 5G era? And what is ZTE's answer to it?
One of our technology answers to the convergence demand is the industry's first Common Core. This architecture level innovation serves networks from 2G to 5G and, in the case of 5G, it is equipped with NSA and SA dual-stack capability. Therefore, operators using the Common Core can choose to deploy SA, or NSA, or even SA/NSA dual-mode networks based on their own business needs. The architecture is modular, so it does not only save resources and cost, but also vastly simplifies the network architecture, and fully supports the strong demand for edge computing and low latency in an end-to-end 5G environment.
What we offer are clearly welcomed by our customers. That's why, so far, ZTE has cooperated with more than 40 operators worldwide in the 5G field. As we speak, we are testing and demonstrating end-to-end 5G services, including automatic cars, real-time robotics, and hologram video calls, in partnership with Telefonica and Orange in Spain. These use cases are driving more excitement for 5G, which has just started by the live 5G networks switched on.