5G lessons from Asia

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Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece R. Ezhirpavai, Global Chief Architect for 5G Solutions at Altran, examines Asian 5G standalone use cases and explores the lessons operators in Europe and America can learn from their Asian counterparts.

It looked so promising. 2020 was supposed to be the year of 5G – but Covid-19 had other plans. Yet a recent report from market research firm Strategy Analytics estimates that 5G handset sales could hit 250 million this year globally. While operators globally have launched 5G services, most 5G standalone (SA) deployments have taken place in Asia. The likes of China Mobile, KDDI SK Telecom and Softbank have gone live with 5G SA networks. In Europe and the U.S., it has mainly been non-standalone (NSA).

It’s worth noting the success that some mobile network operators have had in deploying SA versus NSA 5G, particularly in Asia. What can European and U.S. operators learn from their Asian counterparts?

Most operators globally performed remarkably well coping with the sudden explosion in demand for data as people were forced to work remotely – and networks were stretched. While 4G operators around the world boosted their 4G LTE signals, Asian 5G operators were able to boost bandwidth and give their emergency workers a shot in the arm.

5G to the rescue

Take, for example, Advanced Info Service (AIS), Thailand’s leading mobile operator. It connected hospitals with 5G and even had 5G-connected robots to treat patients. In neighboring Malaysia, Telekom Malaysia Berhad (TM) installed 5G base stations to deliver connectivity at quarantine centers to share data with medical authorities lightning fast. China Mobile deployed a dedicated 5G network to support a hospital in Wuhan – built in three days – to provide healthcare staff with rapid analysis, data collection, remote diagnosis and remote monitoring.

GSMA, together with the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT), has looked at how operators in China successfully developed a number of vertical use cases starting last year, tapping 5G’s extremely low latency. Smart tech manufacturer RoboTechnik, for instance, has formed a partnership with China Mobile Jiangsu and Ericsson to introduce a private 5G network to power a smart factory. Thanks to this partnership, the project achieved a 30% increase in production and reduced labor costs by 40% over the 1 year pilot.

Over in Japan, the country was banking on hosting the 2020 Olympics to showcase its 5G prowess. Operators were planning on using 5G SA to provide a 360-degree interactive sporting experience. KDDI for instance, planned to use augmented reality in Shibuya, close to the Olympic stadium, to spur interest in AR and virtual reality (VR), which have failed to grab mass market appeal. KDDI even partnered with a smart-glass provider to create holograms for Android handsets. COVID-19 changed all that.

Enterprise networks

During the crisis, some operators experienced more demand for private 5G networks and network slices as enterprises expanded their connectivity to accelerate their digital transformation. Operators in Asia with their 5G SA networks were better prepared with simplified radio access networks (RAN) and their cloud-native 5G cores. This made it easier for them to deploy private 5G networks and deliver network slices faster for enterprise use cases.

Operators in Europe and the United States, meanwhile, used other means to meet this demand with 5G NSA. In Germany, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom opened their spectrum for sharing so businesses can deploy their own private networks as part of the 5G Non-Public Networks (NPN). The U.S. with its 3.5Ghz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) can share spectrum for private 5G networks.

There are however disadvantages with spectrum sharing. These include low power units, so they may not be applicable to all use cases and the deployment options are restricted. What’s more, shared spectrum can have limited license areas – so this impacts coverage roll out. There is an important lesson here: yes, using shared spectrum is a means to an end to deliver private networks. But a complete 5G SA network enables operators to leverage 5G’s industrial-grade cloud-native architecture and take full advantage of virtualization.

Chinese equipment vendor ZTE recently outlined the advantages that cloud-native 5G architecture provides vertical markets. A nationwide network can be divided into multiple network slices, and in China it is being customized to serve different vertical industries. Cloud-native systems make it simple to allocate 5G slices for use cases such as autonomous driving and robotics, where reliability and low latency are critical. This 5G vision mirrors that of the vertical use cases outlined by the GSMA, such as the Tianjin 5G smart port and China Unicom’s 5G VR smart education initiative.

Key learnings

The GSMA found that operators in China and throughout Asia-Pacific have forged partnerships that include vertical enterprises, OEMs, vendors and developers to create a robust ecosystem that delivers real value. These ecosystems secure production efficiencies, lower operating costs and gain network savings. This is a key learning for operators in the U.S. and Europe.

An example of a mutually beneficial partnership in 4G LTE was the 2019 announcement between Verizon and Audi for a vehicle-to-everything (V2X). As part of the agreement, Audi added advanced connectivity and embedded in-vehicle Wi-Fi for all of its Audi A4 and A5 model lines in 2020. 5G will provide American and European operators with even more opportunities to forge such relationships in vertical markets.

Another lesson: As 5G operators look to carve out industry sectors they can ‘own’, they should not attempt to build a ‘one-size-fits-all’ catalogue of services and applications for all industries. Each vertical is different with unique connectivity, latency and reliability requirements – not to mention legislative sensitivities. In the automotive sector, for example, edge computing and low latency are key. In education, it’s about student engagement and immersive experiences.  Operators should be open to forging partnerships with app developers and vendors to identify use cases that fit specific industry opportunities.

Strengthening 5G 

Operators in Asia are expected to invest more than $400 billion on 5G infrastructure between now and 2025, and over $300 billion on 5G deployments. One of the biggest takeaways from all of this is that simply deploying 5G networks will not guarantee success. South Korea – a leader in rolling out 5G networks – ended 2019 with a reduction of almost 10 percent in subscriber growth rates.

The initial marketing push for 5G will attract customers but for continued growth, operators must focus on enhancing the quality of their 5G networks to drive industry use cases like private 5G networks. There are plenty of lessons to learn as 5G moves from the lab to the field and from hype to reality.

Ezhirpavai is the Global Chief Architect – 5G Solutions at Altran. Ezhirpavai joined Altran as part of the company’s acquisition of Aricent in 2018. At Aricent, she played a key role in the development of software framework solutions like SS7/Sigtran stacks, VoIP stacks and has contributed to IETF specs for SCTP (RFC 4960). Pavai (as she’s called) has led various projects and new product conceptions for tier 1 operators, while working closely with engineering and business teams. As part of her previous role in the Aricent Innovation team, Pavai was instrumental in enabling some of Aricent’s most successful software frameworks and solutions. Most recently, she has been involved in creating virtualized solutions and creating stateless solutions.






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