Ericsson gets to the core of BT’s 5G network

Swedish kit vendor Ericsson is celebrating a deal win with UK telco BT, which will be deploying Ericsson’s dual-mode 5G Core on its Network Cloud.

The dual-mode bit refers to a combination of Evolved Packet Core and 5G Core, which means the Ericsson package supports 4G, 5G NSA and 5G SA. It’s fully container-based, which makes it cloud-friendly and will allow BT to deliver it on its new Network Cloud. It will apparently form a key component in BT’s move to a single converged IP network.

“Having evaluated different 5G Core vendors, we have selected Ericsson as the best option on the basis of both lab performance and future roadmap,” said Howard Watson, CTIO of BT. “We are looking forward to working together as we build out our converged 4G and 5G core network across the UK. An agile, cloud-native core infrastructure is at the heart of our ambition to enable the next generation of exciting 5G services for our customers and give the UK the world-class digital infrastructure it needs to win in the future global economy.”

Marielle Lindgren, Head of Ericsson UK and Ireland, kept things contrastingly short and sweet. “Ericsson and BT have a long history of working together and we are delighted to continue that relationship with this new dual-mode 5G Core deal,” she said.

It’s not clear from any of the supplied information how big a chunk of BT’s 5G core business Ericsson has grabbed, but this is a handy win for Ericsson regardless. The absence of an offsetting deal win press release from Nokia implies Ericsson is the dominant 5G core supplier for BT as Huawei, of course, is out of the question.

ZTE wins a chunk of China Mobile’s 5G core work

Chinese kit vendor ZTE has won the bid for a bunch of work on the standalone 5G core of China Mobile.

Any deal win with China Mobile is significant as it’s the world’s largest mobile operator. It is generally expected that the majority of any such work will be given to Chinese vendors, as that’s the way things seems to be done over there. Most recently China Mobile awarded 86% of its 5G RAN work to Chinese vendors, with ZTE getting around 30% of the work.

It’s hard to work out precisely how big a piece of the 5G core pie ZTE has got, because the English language press release seems to have just been put through Google Translate, but it looks like ZTE did a bit bet in the core than it did the RAN.

“For the public-oriented network, ZTE has won the bid of 12 provinces in six regions, and secured the bid for 35% shares in 31 provinces in China for the industry-oriented network,” said the press release. “This well demonstrates the company’s industry-leading strength in the 5G SA core network.”

We also got a rare update on ZTE’s global 5G deal wins. “To date, ZTE has obtained 46 commercial 5G contracts in major markets, such as Europe, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa (MEA),” we’re told. “ZTE commits 10 percent of its annual revenues to research and development and takes leadership roles in international standard development organizations.”

That number still puts ZTE well behind Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia. But is still a decent tally. Huawei doesn’t seem to have made any announcements regarding its share of Shina Mobile’s 5G core work, but it seems safe to assume it got most of the remainder.

Great expectations for the Next Generation 5G Core

The single biggest change in the telecoms landscape over the last year was that commercial 5G networks went live around the world. More than 50 networks in over two dozen countries had switched on 5G services by the end of 2019. Subscriber uptake was already faster than the same period when 4G was first introduced, according to data released by the South Korean operators. The research firm Ovum (now part of Omdia) predicted that over 1.3 billion subscribers are expected to sign on 5G by 2023.

(Here we are sharing the opening section of this Telecoms.com Intelligence special briefing to look into why and how the industry should start embracing the next generation 5G core (NG 5GC) and where we are now vs. the expectations.

The full version of the report is available for free to download here.)

Why we should embrace Next Generation 5G Core

5G has come with high promises. The technology was designed from the outset with service scenarios. The plan was for 5G to provide enhanced mobile broadband access (eMBB), ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC), and massive machine-type communications (mMTC), to serve both consumers and business customers. So far, although there have been limited tests of URLLC and mMTC, all the 5G commercial networks have primarily been marketing high speed internet access as its key selling point, both on mobile and in the form of fixed-wireless access.

What 5G operators can offer is constrained by the underlying networks that power the service, which in turn are constrained by the specifications process. No company would be happy to invest in a technology, only to discover soon after that it would not be interoperable with the industry standards. The current mode of 5G implementation involves overlaying 5G radio access network (RAN) on top of 4G core networks, the so-called non-standalone (NSA) mode. In order to offer more advanced services, such as end-to-end network slicing, the industry needs end-to-end 5G, or the standalone (SA) mode. 3GPP, the standardisation body, will publish Release 16 (R16) in the first half of this year, which will define the specifications of the Next Generation 5G Core (NG 5GC). Only after the specifications are frozen can the industry start serious investment in the latest technology.

The industry needs NG 5GC for multiple reasons. On the customer side, the excitement from fast internet access can only go so far, and even on this count, the underwhelming experience from today’s patchy coverage and inconsistent speeds have already raised eyebrows. Global Wireless Solutions, an American network benchmarking, analysis and testing firm, conducted a field test of the 5G networks in the centre of London towards the end of last year. The highest download speed of 470 Mbps was recorded on EE network, while the lower speeds of 330 Mbps and 320 Mbps were recorded on O2 and Vodafone networks respectively. These did not only fall far short of the “gigabit speed” promised prior to the commercial launches, but also could be achieved only if the customer stood next to the base stations. Probably more importantly, the Global Wireless Solutions tests have found no meaningful improvement in latency from 4G connectivity. Both failed deliverables, the speed and latency, come primarily down to the fact that the live 5G networks are in NSA mode and are limited by 4G’s Evolved Packet Core (EPC).

On the service provider side, they need to up their game to justify the 5G investment. With the exception of the South Korean operators, which have priced 5G at a considerable premium (entry price of $46 vs. average ARPU of $29), most operators in other markets have not vastly hiked the tariff of 5G packages. This may not hurt them too much, as it cost the operators less to deliver data over 5G networks than over 4G networks, calculated on per GB basis. However, to recoup and to increase return on investment in 5G, operators need to aim to provide higher value services to business customers, including URLLC, edge services, network slicing, among others, which need 5G in SA mode supported by NG 5GC.

Then there is economics. Building a telecom network is not too dissimilar to building a railway network. The investment in radio networks, transport, core, etc. is sunk cost, just like the money spent on laying the rail tracks. No operator would want to go halfway with 5G, with plenty of investment but only limited possibility of return. Therefore, there will be the need from operators to go all the way to SA mode including to deploy NG 5GC to power it.

The following sections of the report will look into the opportunities the era of aggressive SA mode 5G launches will open to telecom operators and adjacent industries, and how telecom operators can capture these new opportunities by embracing NG 5GC. Specifically, the rest of the report will look at:

  • What NG 5GC is about, and why we need it now
  • What the practitioners are doing
  • When we will have NG 5GC

The full version of the report is available for free to download here.

Nokia says it can do network slicing as soon as this summer

Ethical kit vendor Nokia has launched new tech that allows network slicing on 4G and non-standalone 5G networks.

Full network slicing is only expected when standalone 5G comes along, with a new, improved 5G core. Prior to that it has largely been a slide in the 5G PowerPoint presentation, alongside all the other utopian promises that have been attributed to it as the industry tries to persuade the world, and perhaps even itself, that 5G will change everything.

Now Nokia is claiming that, via a mere software update, its operator customers can dip their toes in the network slicing water today. The solution will support connectivity from 4G and 5G devices over the sliced network to applications running in private and public clouds and will be available this summer, we’re told.

“Working closely with our customers to develop new technologies and business opportunities is hugely important to Nokia,” said Tommi Uitto, President of Mobile Networks at Nokia. “4G/5G slicing enables multiple new use cases which operators can start building now to create new revenue streams.” The customers in question in this case were Telia Finland and A1 Telekom Austria.

“It has been really exciting to be the first operator to conduct a live test of Nokia’s new network slicing feature,” said Jari Collin, CTO of Telia Finland. “As a 5G frontrunner in business customer pilots and solutions, we know that this will be a key functionality that will deliver many of the promises our customers are waiting for. With slicing, we can efficiently use our spectrum to deliver seamless and reliable connectivity and also strengthen our leading IoT position with nationwide deployment of new technologies like  LTE-M and NB-IoT.”

“We are proud to be among the first operators worldwide who successfully demonstrated end-to-end network slicing, spanning the core, transport and radio over our 4G as well as 5G networks,” said Alexander Kuchar, Director Technology & Future Services at A1 Telekom Austria Group.

“For our business customers, it will be a huge advantage to be able to benefit from dedicated mobile communication services, exclusive capacities, strong data security and transmission with high reliability and low latency by integrating A1’s highly reliable and excellent infrastructure and services offering into their internal processes. Network slicing in 4G and extended in 5G will play a key role in allowing A1 to develop new market segments and revenue streams.”

While this feels like a stop-gap technology, designed to let operators have a network slicing dress rehearsal before the main event arrives with SA 5G, this is still a noteworthy achievement for Nokia. It has admitting to taking its eye off the 5G ball a bit and firsts like this will do a lot to restore its technological credibility. The 5G core seems to be a particular strength for Nokia at the moment, so it will be hoping to use that as a springboard to acquire more RAN and fixed business.

Nokia and Ericsson compete for KDDI’s 5G core business

Within hours of each other Nordic kit vendors Nokia and Ericsson issued press releases announcing the completion of 5G core trials with Japanese operator KDDI.

Nokia is all about the standalone 5G core when it comes to KDDI and the trial it just completed involved its AirGile gear. Nokia likes to use the term ‘cloud-native’ a lot when taking up AirGile, as if the clever combination of ‘air’ and ‘agile’ into a neologism wasn’t enough. The 5G core is all about cloudy concepts such as agility and scalability, you see, and Nokia reckons it’s got all that stuff covered.

Here’s what the announcement had to say about the trial. “Nokia applied a service-based architecture to the 5G control plane, moving control functions completely into a cloud-based environment which provides operators with improved scalability, velocity and flexibility. The trial allows KDDI to highlight how a 5G control plane can utilize the communication model of today’s web services to create multiple software instances in a cloud environment.” If you want more than that you’ll have to go to the source.

“For Nokia, 5G is much more than radio,” said John Harrington, Head of Nokia Japan. “It’s an end-to-end network transformation. We are pleased to have successfully completed this 5G core SA network trial together with KDDI, as it marks a crucial milestone for KDDI’s 5G SA deployment as well as for Japan’s 5G. Nokia will continue to contribute to  the best of 5G and the cloud to enhance business processes and bring new applications and benefits to more markets and consumers.”

Hot on Nokia’s heels came Ericsson, which claimed a 5G cloud-native CI/CD software pipeline breakthrough, no less. For those telecoms dunces at the back, that stands for Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery, which is presumably preferable to sporadic or whimsical. “The container-based technology enables automatic deployment of new software and functionalities, while maintaining the high quality and availability of the 5G Core network,” we’re told.

“Our market-leading 5G core and unique CI/CD capabilities mean faster time-to-market, higher performance and cost efficiency,” said Jan Karlsson, Head of Business Area Digital Services at Ericsson. “Agile delivery of services while maintaining high quality and availability is a must in 5G Core networks. Our CI/CD end-to-end software pipeline achieves this. We are happy to continue to work with KDDI to automate their network operation.”

Based on our extremely limited understanding of these matters, the Nokia announcement feels like the more significant one, especially since the Ericsson one is represented by is digital services rather than networks unit. Since Japan has gone cold on Huawei, much of the business of its operators will be a straight fight between these two vendors. When it comes to KDDI’s 5G core, Nokia seems to be ahead right now.

Ericsson scores 5G RAN and core deal with LG U+

South Korea’s third MNO will be leaning heavily on Swedish kit vendor for its nascent 5G network, having chosen it for both the RAN and the core.

The new news seems to concern specifically LG U+’s non-standalone 5G using the 3.5 GHz frequency band, for which Ericsson will supply at least some of the RAN kit. Ericsson is only announcing itself a ‘a’ supplier, rather than ‘the’ supplier, so we can assume there are others. It seems the 5G core gig was already known, but Ericsson decided to mention it again anyway.

“We are delighted to have Ericsson as a trusted 5G Core and 5G RAN vendor,” said Daehee Kim, Vice President, Network Strategy at LG U+. “Ericsson’s end-to-end 5G technology leadership is key to ramping-up our nationwide 5G ambitions in Korea. Ericsson will help us to deliver the very best enhanced mobile broadband experiences for our subscribers, as well as opening up innovation and job creation opportunities through the Internet of Things, Industry 4.0 and digitalized society.”

“We’re working in close partnership with LG U+ to strengthen its 5G network in Korea,” said Hakan Cervell, Head of Ericsson Korea. “We look forward to building the partnership to help LG U+ meet its 5G needs as its subscriber base grows across enhanced mobile broadband, IoT, and Industry 4.0. We’re also delighted to now be working with all three communication providers in Korea to use our 5G abilities to keep the country at the forefront of 5G innovation and benefits.”

Huawei seems to be largely frozen out of South Korea, but Samsung is presumably a stronger networking competitor there than anywhere else in the world, so this is still a decent deal win. We don’t know how much of LG U+’s 5G network will be covered by Ericsson, but North East Asia is a key market so it will take whatever’s going.

KPN bans Huawei from its 5G network core

Dutch operator KPN announced it has signed an agreement with Huawei to build the 5G radio network but will only select a western vendor for 5G core.

KPN said it will modernise its mobile network towards 5G, and has adopted a tightened security policy with regard to vendor selection. The company believes that “the mobile core network which from a security point of view is more sensitive”, while the RAN is less so.

As a result, the operator has entered into a preliminary agreement with Huawei to provide the radio access part of the 5G network, but the agreement is adjustable and reversable “to align it with future Dutch government policy.” Meanwhile, the company “plans to select a Western vendor for the construction of the new mobile core network for 5G.”

Jan Kees de Jager, KPN’s CFO, told the media separately that the upgrade will also involve swapping out Huawei equipment from its current core network, according to a report by Reuters. In contrast to what his counterparts in Germany and the UK have claimed, de Jager did not believe switching from Huawei for other vendors would lead to addition cost. Equipment from Nokia, Ericsson and other suppliers would be as affordable as Huawei for the 5G infrastructure, he was reported to tell the media.

“We appreciate KPN’s trust and are honoured by their decision to partner with us for the mobile radio access network modernisation,” said a Huawei spokesperson. “We are committed to support KPN in their ambition to maintain and strengthen their lead in the global telecoms industry.In general, Huawei believes that excluding parties based on geographical origin does not provide a higher level of security. Cyber security can be improved by establishing standards that apply to all parties in the sector. Today, the IT supply chain is highly globalised. Cyber security must therefore be addressed jointly at a global level and suppliers must not be treated differently based on the country of origin.”

KPN is essentially adopting the same policy as the leaked UK government guideline related Huawei’s role in the country’s 5G network: banned from the core but fine to use in the RAN. But precisely because it is adopting the same policy, KPN has to face the same issue raised by Tom Tugenthat MP, chairman of the British parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, that it will be very hard to insulate the non-core from the core on 5G network thanks to its virtualisation and software-defined nature.

Additionally, although equipment from different vendors should work together as they all comply with the 3GPP standards, standards do not cover every detail. As Huawei stand staff told Telecoms.com during MWC, there are plenty of discreet innovations vendors can make to optimise the performance of the system if both RAN and core come from the same vendor. So, operators might risk having subprime performance out of the network equipment sourced from different vendors, if not facing downright incompatibility headache.

BT shows off its shiny new Nokia silicon

UK telco BT is one of the first customers for Nokia’s catchily-named 7750 SR-14s IP routing platform, which features its special FP4 chip.

Nokia first announced all this shiny new core gear a couple of years ago, but it looks like the sales cycle for this sort of thing is fairly protracted. So this is an important deal win for Nokia, but perhaps even more so for BT as it’s a clear statement of intent when it comes to investing in its core network. Apparently traffic through the BT network is growing by 40% annually so it needs to show it can handle it.

“BT’s FTTP footprint is growing on a daily basis, and we are launching 5G this year in the busiest parts of 16 of the UK’s busiest cities,” said Howard Watson, BT Group CTIO. “These technologies create an amazing customer experience, and drive people to watch more, play more and share more. We have to stay ahead of the massive traffic growth that this will bring, and Nokia are a key part of that, giving us the capacity and automation that we need.”

“Nokia’s 7750 SR-s platform, based on our FP4 silicon, will offer BT’s network the enhanced capabilities and automation needed to address continuously mounting capacity demands as it moves toward 5G,” said Sri Reddy, Co-President of IP/Optical Networks at Nokia. “Our exclusive partnership will allow BT’s converged core network to grow, and move to a programmable, insight-driven network architecture, creating a platform for BT’s growth to continue as demand for its services in FTTP and 5G expands.”

As you can see there’s a fair bit of buzzword-dropping in the canned quotes. The significance of FTTP and 5G in this context essentially amounts to the fact that network traffic is likely to keep growing rapidly for quite a while. For Nokia this is a juicy deal win in a core network market that, admittedly, is largely denied to one of its biggest competitors.

Vodafone puts the brakes on core Huawei spend

There aren’t many things that could rival Huawei’s headaches derived from government bans, but a snub from another one of the worlds’ largest telco groups might be up there.

With 275 million customers around the world, plus another 250-odd million through joint-ventures, this is one of the biggest telcos in the world. With networks spreading across Europe, Africa and Asia, the buying power and influence of Vodafone is considerable. This could a massive blow to the prospects of Huawei, both financially and in terms of credibility.

Speaking on the earnings call last week, CEO Nick Read stated the following:

“Specifically on Huawei, what I was really trying to make clear is, I think we need to move to more a fact-based conversation, I think at the moment is a simplistic political level and there is a big distinction between radio and core. We are predominately using Huawei in radio. We are continuing to use them in radio for 5G. However, in the core, we have put them on pause. They are not significant in the scale of our operations in the core and therefore it’s not a big financial implication.”

This is where Huawei finds itself in a difficult position. In numerous markets it is still fully free to compete for on-going 4G and up-coming 5G contracts, though these telcos will question the risk. Does the benefit of working with Huawei outweigh the risk? Why spend money on kit when you might have to strip it out in the near future?

As it stands, Vodafone does not have a huge level of exposure in terms of Huawei in the core, this is the case for most European telcos, though should the ban extend to radio or transmission this might become a significant issue. A full-scale ban is certainly not out of the question, very little is when you consider how aggressive and antagonistic the current political climate is, and this could send ripples throughout the ecosystem.

Vodafone confirmed to us Huawei equipment is in the core in some minor markets and Spain, and this is where the pause is relevant. Huawei will continue to supply Vodafone with equipment in other areas. In this sense, the fallout should be contained. Just to put things in perspective, Vodafone’s position is similar to that many telcos around Europe are taking.

However, as Read notes, should a ban extend to other areas of the network it could proves to be a sticky situation for everyone involved.

“Clearly, if there was a complete ban at the radio level then it would be a huge issue for us, but it would be a huge issue for the whole European telco sector,” said Read. “And what, Huawei have probably, what 35% market share through the whole of Europe, so I think that is a totally different consideration, but we now need to make a lot more fact-based conversation.”

The point which Read is making is a logical and incredibly important one. Too many people are getting swept up in the political rhetoric and not looking at the facts which are on the table. The negativity surrounding Huawei is starting to snowball, but little (if any) hard evidence has been put on the table. People are forgetting about the facts, instead contributing to the momentum.

What businesses like Vodafone need is certainty. The political see-sawing with Huawei is not providing much confidence for the telco to appropriately invest in networks. If this has a negative impact on the performance of the networks in the future, the politicians will be the first to point the finger of accusation at the infrastructure owners. The perfect storm of disaster and disorganisation is started to develop.