Belarusian telecommunications operator A1 is accelerating its 5G journey with the recent launch of the first 5G SA test network in Belarus. A1's Senior Director for Technology Christian Laqué talked about this "key milestone" as well as the opportunities and challenges ahead.
Where does A1 stand in terms of technology development of networks?
A1, a group of advanced mobile operators (in seven markets), started preparing for the next generation of mobile networks many years ago. The first transformational step (in Belarus) was the switching of our "pre-existing" core network, with a "fully virtualized" core network, which utilizes the "OpenStack" cloud. In 2016, and within 9 months of starting the process, A1 had switched (in collaboration with ZTE) from the "pre-existing" core network to a "fully virtual" setup, making it the first "fully virtual" set-up in the world. This development initiative enabled A1 to ensure its transition towards 5G was extremely efficient, smooth and fast.
On top of these developments, in 2017, A1 tested the core network, slicing and switching to an SDR based RAN. This development allowed A1 to unify the equipment of our base stations (at the software level) for transmitting signals in several different ranges at a time. In 2016 & 2017, the introduction of U900 across the nation, combined with G900, was the first evidence of success. Today this approach, along with the experience A1 has accumulated can be used to deploy 5G networks. To further elaborate, the RAN is ready to be extended to 5G (in the existing frequency bands)—by implementing an SW upgrade and baseband extension. The IP network is the third component in the network, which was fully modernized with the newest technology, including SDN, thus allowing it to be 5G enabled.
A1 launched the 5G SA network. Could you elaborate a little bit more on that and what is your roadmap about then and beyond?
The launching of the autonomous 5G SA network (as a trial) is a key milestone in preparation for a nationwide rollout. As one of the first operators in our region to test end to end, introducing "ultimate 5G technology" is an important step. Working with the most advanced supplier in the market has been a great experience. A1 has already proved that the commercial technology is available, and it works in accordance with our expectations.
In the first phase, A1 is opting to go with the new spectrum of 100 MHz in the 3.5 GHz band (with TDD). A1 has installed outdoor macro and indoor systems and we are currently testing the interworking efficiencies. A1 has also completed the first steps on the road to realizing a fully commercial end-to-end product with VoNR and eSIM. A1 was the first company to conduct testing of the 5G SA technologies in Belarus, as well as undertake the first testing of an e-sports match for mobile games. Mobile gaming is absolutely phenomenal in 5G; it adds another dimension to the whole experience. This can be done using a standard smartphone (from our portfolio) and uses all the features of our mobile services. The next critical steps will be for A1 to manage handover scenarios with the legacy network provider. On top of this A1 will also assess the viability of the existing spectrum, on the existing infrastructure. Currently the 1800 MHz is the first candidate to be assessed and trialed.
What does that mean for the industry and the future trajectory?
The full ecosystem required to support real 5G in standalone mode is starting to become available—this will be finalized before all the stages are complete in Belarus, which is required prior to the official launch of the new technology. On a consumer level, the full "end to end" process required for enhanced mobile broadband is working. The customers are currently purchasing smartphones from our portfolio, which are fully capable of 5G. With this in mind, these consumers will be able to take full advantage of the new standard communication as soon as it is launched.
5G is not just about high-quality voice calls, high-speed mobile internet and a new level of entertainment services. Yes, these areas of increased functionality and performance will be a major step forward; however, there are some other exciting developments that this technology will open up, such as alignment with smart homes, smart cities and the internet of things (IoT). A1 is of course preparing (in-advance) for these implementations. When it comes to "the IoT", it is critical that work in this exciting field is "fast-tracked". To elaborate—giving access to a broad range of developers in the real field will enable us to move out of pure lab setups.
What monetization opportunities does A1 expect from 5G and why?
The bandwidth demand in the mobile industry is rapidly growing. In Belarus we are in a very special and unique situation. LTE was introduced very late on, and via a single wholesale model. Therefore, for us to "fast-track" to the new technology (of 5G) in the standalone mode will provide mobile bandwidth more efficiently than ever before. The trial case with eSports has already shown how thrilling the new performance could be for consumers. The work associated with "the IoT" has the lowest latency and a massive amount of sensors. We are in a very early phase with this. We are living in exciting times of extremely fast development cycles. The car industry is on a fast-track towards autonomous driving and fully electric vehicles. The collection of data everywhere at any time is key for all digitization. We are not talking about the transformation of access; we are adding a new dimension of capabilities to work with data.
How will A1 balance and prioritize 2G/3G/4G/5G investment in the medium to long term?
Over two years ago, A1 decided to stop investments into 2G. Given that 3G was the technology that would bring mobile broadband to the masses, this decision was relatively straight forward. In Belarus, 3G coverage has been provided almost everywhere; in fact across 98% of the country. It is now just a case of adding increased capacity and overcoming coverage issues as they arise—this is mainly to overcome accessibility issues in areas of new construction. As for 4G in Belarus—it is provided by a single wholesale company to all mobile operators. This greatly limits the opportunities available to us to develop our own 4G network. We have and will not abandon plans to further search for possible options and ways to work in this direction; however our future sits squarely in our efforts to embrace 5G technology. To further emphasize our focus on 5G, A1 is throwing a lot of preparation into the rolling out of this new and hugely exciting network. Providing the demand is apparent from our subscribers, and as soon as the license is made available to A1, this will be rolled out.
What are the major challenges in the path towards next-generation 5G networks in Belarus and how these can be addressed?
The current challenge is to get the license. The process of awarding the license has not currently been decided. On top of this, sadly, the timeline is also not entirely clear. A1 in Belarus along with the entire A1 Telekom Austria Group has been doing everything they can to help facilitate constructive dialogue with the Belarusian Government in the sphere of 5G implementation.
A1 Telekom Austria Group has a successful track record of implementing 5G in different countries and regions; and as a Group we are ready to share our experiences to assist as required. But for now, we, like other market players, have to wait for the official decision concerning the issue of licensing and allocation of the frequency range. The mobile industry in Belarus is preparing itself for the launch of this new network technology. The main direction is clearly to go directly to 5G SA and skip the NSA add-on to LTE.
Other macro-economic considerations cannot be ignored, such as COVID-19. Luckily, in spite of this global challenge, which has a huge impact on other sectors, such as the oil industry, property, retail (amongst others), the demand for mobile communications, especially mobile data, is resilient and growing further. The crisis is also accelerating digitization in all industries. Belarus with its huge IT development industry should be able to harvest exponential growth with 5G as enabler for digitization.
How has the partnership with ZTE worked out over the past few years and what do you expect for the future?
ZTE and A1 have developed their relationship from one supplier/customer towards being trusted partners. With any partnership, challenges do present themselves. However, overcoming these challenges "together" will strengthen the relationship and prepare you adequately for tough times that lie ahead—this has been the case with ZTE and A1. During the past five years it is worth reflecting on the fact that the partnership has developed from that of supplying several radios to becoming a major network supplier, across mobile and fixed—covering core, transport and access.
There is always pressure on costs and for legacy. A reduction of power consumption is important in order for us to have space for innovation. The road of open platforms is proven and disaggregation based on open standards will be key to keep up with the pace of developments.
There are a lot of opportunities to become more successful. We have to be agile and focus on long-term outperformance.
About A1 Belarus
A1 Belarus, part of the A1 Telekom Austria Group, is the largest private telecom, ICT & content service provider in Belarus. The company provides GSM 900/1800, UMTS (WCDMA/HSDPA/HSUPA/HSPA+) and 4G services (via beCloud infrastructure operator). A1 Belarus is the second-largest mobile network operator in Belarus. A1 Belarus also provides ADSL, Ethernet and GPON Internet access services in all regional centers of Belarus, and IPTV digital television services under the VOKA brand. Until August 2019, the company conducted operations under the brand name velcom. In 2019, A1 Belarus reported turnover of EUR 426.1 million and EBITDA of EUR 190.9 million.