“Standalone architecture enables an operator to have the full richness of 5G features,” says Christian Laque, Senior Director for Technology, A1 Belarus, in an interview focusing mainly on how A1 Belarus is preparing its network for the 5G era and why it has chosen the SA mode. A1 Belarus has already launched the first 5G SA?test network in Belarus.
Belarus as well as other Eurasian countries is still facing the situation wherein 5G frequencies have not been allocated yet. Nevertheless, vendors and operators are doing their best to be fully prepared when this significant event comes. A1 started to build a 5G-ready network back in 2016. Could you elaborate on how A1 is preparing its network for the 5G era?
Being a member of the telecommunications industry, especially as a mobile operator, we are facing an endless increase in demand for bandwidth and number of devices. This is a trend we cannot stop but to embrace. Nowadays, technology is evolving extremely fast, and we have to prepare our network in advance. It comes in waves: you are investing and then you are embracing the next step.
In 2016, together with our partner ZTE, we started to virtualize the entire core network, which helped us really go to the next generation and understand it. We were the first to do this, not only in Belarus, but also worldwide. It enabled A1 to do the next step—to go fully cloud, and implementing new services became much easier than ever before.
In radio network we faced another challenge. We replaced all the equipment with a software defined technology, which helped us add new technologies just by software, no longer replacing the old hardware. We've shown this first in the area of 900 MHz, adding it to GSM, UMTS, even narrow-band IoT, just with some software on top of it. And this was all planned for 1800 MHz—to do it with LTE, and now we will be ready to do it with 5G.
Between the radio and the core network parts, there is the element of transmission and transport, which was quite underestimated in the early days of mobile networks. Today it plays a key role, because it has to transport the hugely increased amount of data. On the other hand, it is one of the elements that enable reduced latency. Here we need high automation and high scalability. Hopefully, in the next step we will have artificial intelligence to really make it happen.
For the 5G-ready virtual core network project, ZTE and A1 were even shortlisted for the Best Network Software Breakthrough award at the Mobile World Congress 2018. That technology made it possible to seamless evolve to micro service-based network slicing and open API architecture to meet the diversified service requirements of 5G. In addition, A1 implemented ZTE′s fully SDN based end-to-end IP+Optical elastic network solution, which provided high flexibility, efficiency and capabilities, perfectly supporting the needs of 5G core network. And now we are already testing 5G SA.
Yes, exactly. We are testing 5G SA already because we have to prepare our network for the future. We are using our core network, radio part, and all the other frequencies to have an end-to-end test today with 5G standalone to be ready when the frequencies are available in this area of the world—to provide the service immediately to the end users. And we are really advanced in these regards, because, for instance, the service that is important in this new technology—VoNR, has already been very successfully tested by us. By virtue of VoNR technology for 5G packet voice transmission, A1 together with ZTE completed the CIS region's first call within the 5G SA network.
We love A1's marketing approach during Belarus' first 5G standalone test in May 2020. A1 was widely referring to it as a "pure" 5G experience in comparison with 5G non-standalone architecture. Could you explain why do you, being an operator, advocate for 5G SA as a model?
There are two different architectures within 5G—non-standalone and standalone. Non-standalone relies fully on LTE infrastructure, and standalone, as its name stands for, is a "real" 5G network. Standalone architecture enables an operator to have the full richness of 5G features, like lowest latency, massive number of devices and high capacity. The reason why A1 chose standalone mode is simple. Relying only on LTE, we have a disadvantage, because it is not our network and it would be difficult for us to really find a way.
Standalone, I believe, is the ultimate goal for any mobile operator in the world, and each operator is now starting to look into standalone, and more and more of them. The front-runners are in China, where standalone is the ultimate goal today already. So, if it's possible, we are looking for end-to-end. Even today, we have this capability in each part of the network with standalone, not tomorrow. So, let's go for it, because I believe that standalone will be the final goal.
ZTE, being a vendor, is fully prepared for 5G deployments in terms of equipment. Being an operator, how do you assess the current readiness of consumer E2E ecosystem, especially in regards with SA mode?
It is important that we have it end-to-end, because we need to bring the service to the end user device. In the end you have to use it on a smartphone or application on IoT device. Now we are in a lucky situation, in comparison to any generations before, because devices are already available. In 2020 we see more and more 5G-enabled devices supporting both SA and NSA standards. This is of course highly desirable for anybody investing. For us, as operators, and of course, for an end user, because the end user today is investing in 5G device, getting ready when the networks are enabled to run the service on 5G. This brings a new level of service that we will provide together with 5G.
Regardless of the unpredictability brought by COVID-19, the 5G device ecosystem keeps getting bigger, as both 5G standalone and non-standalone networks are being deployed. Meanwhile, these devices are becoming more affordable.
Another trend we are observing now as a vendor is that 5G might become a catalyst for the fixed-mobile convergence. What is your take on this matter—fixed-mobile convergence instead of fixed mobile substitution. And what role Wi-Fi will play in the future?
This is, of course, a long discussion. Will mobile networks be really replacing the fixed networks? It was possible for 3G and 4G to do so. But the capacity that you need because of the tremendous increase in demand for the kind of fixed line at home is tremendous. We are transporting so many folds of traffic in the fixed line compared to the mobile line, because we are having video sessions, watching video or TV, mostly at home when we are not moving. And in the office, we prefer to use Wi-Fi. This is why now is exactly the time to bring together Wi-Fi at home and Wi-Fi in the office. This is just an example where this convergence is happening, because with VoWiFi and VoLTE in new radio, you have a complete set-up to provide the same kind of service—for messaging, for voice, which is still important.
To free up capacity on the mobile network, the devices like smartphones should use Wi-Fi wherever it is possible. The performance of Wi-Fi at home with xPON access is very advanced in speed and roundtrip time. VoWiFi including messages over Wi-Fi plus xPON is an adequate access to build convergence with 5G networks. This is minimally applicable for home and office environment. Real mobile service usage on the go will be dramatically fueled with autonomous vehicles. The mobile networks in the future will be working in convergence with the fixed networks, but with Wi-Fi as the final access to enjoy the freedom of wireless connectivity.