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.

Ericsson optimism grows after another solid quarter

Swedish networking vendor Ericsson reckons it’s capturing market share after announcing sales growth of 3% in Q3 2019.

Ericsson derives much of its market sizing estimate from analyst firm Dell’Oro and last we heard they were saying the overall market is currently growing at 2%. That does point towards Ericsson increasing its market share and also makes us wonder about Huawei’s 24% growth, unless nearly all of that was down to its smartphone division.

Ericsson Q3 2019 slide 1

As you can see from the first slide above, quarterly profits were more than wiped out by the one-off hit from the US fine for historical dodgy dealings. But that was already priced in and investors seem to be pleased by the sales and margin numbers, as well as an improved outlook on both fronts that you can see in the second slide blow.

Ericsson Q3 2019 slide 4

“We continue to see strong momentum in our business, based on the strategy to increase our investments for technology leadership, including 5G,” said Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm. “We saw organic sales growth of 3% in the quarter, driven by the early adopters of 5G, in North America and North East Asia.”

Ericsson Q3 2019 slide 2

We spoke to Ericsson’s networks head Fredrik Jejdling about the numbers and he echoed Elkolm’s words about the 5G market ramping earlier than previously expected. However he insisted that the improved sales outlook was more down to Ericsson’s underlying strategy paying off than broader market movement, hence the claimed increased share. China remains the biggest market for 5G gear and Ericsson is doing its best to compete there but it will be tougher than the US.

Ericsson Q3 2019 slide 3

For the longer term enabling operators to compete in the industrial IoT market, which is increasingly viewed as the biggest commercial opportunity created by 5G, is a major strategic priority for Ericsson, according to Jejdling. But he was keen to avoid downplaying the consumer applications of 5G and pointed to South Korea as the best current example of where some of this is becoming reality.

Once more Ericsson has delivered a solid but unspectacular set of results, which seems to be just fine by Ekholm, Jejdling and co. Ericsson’s share price was up 7% at time of writing, which implies investors were pleased by the slightly improved outlook. The networks division remains the driver of the majority of Ericsson’s revenue, but as the industrial IoT market starts to mature, investors will presumably look for a greater contribution from the other divisions as evidence that Ericsson is seizing that opportunity.

Ericsson promises enormous rewards for the right enterprise investments

With consumer revenues in the mobile world flat-lining, many telcos are exploring the world of enterprise services to recoup 5G investments, and Ericsson thinks it’s a pretty large pot of gold.

According to Ericsson’s ‘5G for business: a 2030 market compass’ report the question isn’t whether or not telcos are exploring how to work with enterprise customers in new and interesting ways, but more which are the ones to prioritise.

“The combination of 5G and digitalization creates new opportunities for service providers to build and extend their businesses beyond connectivity and presents a way to break the trend of a stagnant market,” Jan Karlsson, Head of Business Area Digital Services at Ericsson, said in the report.

“However, even if the rapidly changing 5G-IoT landscape offers enormous potential, it is complex and not without its challenges. Deciding on the best way forward requires a comprehensive understanding of issues surrounding the addressable markets, the driving forces and barriers for different industries to adopt 5G-enabled use cases.”

This is the challenge which many telcos will face. Enterprise services are not simply about bundling together several buzzwords, each vertical demands its own niche solution. For example, the fast-growing gaming industry is demanding low-latency driven services, while smart manufacturing depends on reliability and resilience and broadcasters are searching for the high-speeds and coverage.

With limited resources available in-house, some telcos might have to elect which niche to target. This creates the potential for a very interesting industry moving forward. Perhaps the telcos will compete for post-paid contracts in the consumer world, but the creation of niche solutions for enterprise services might force telcos down more specialist routes.

But each of the verticals are not created equal, and the nuance in opportunity in the short- to mid-term is worth bearing in mind.

According to Ericsson, while healthcare might have notable challenges, there are also some significant rewards. mHealth, eHealth and hospitals are all areas where connectivity can offer benefits and profits. In Industry 4.0, a favourite segment for 5G justification, the team suggests smart factories might gain traction sooner rather than later, though mining and utilities usecases are not gaining as much traction.

The automotive arena is an interesting area, with opportunities obvious in both the connected/autonomous vehicles segment as well as for in-car entertainment. Unfortunately for the telcos this is an area where other challengers are trying to own the ecosystem. If the telco industry is not careful, it might be relegated to nothing more than a commoditised connectivity partner.

Interestingly enough, in the retail segment, Ericsson is downplaying the opportunity for 5G in the physical stores though eCommerce certainly presents greater prospects. There could be profits for those who create the solutions and own the space, though as there are a limited number of larger retailers who would have the CAPEX to invest in such propositions as in-store mixed-reality experiences or drone delivery, it might be a tricky segment to justify.

Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from this report is the opportunity for diversification and specialisation in the enterprise services market. Some telcos might opt to chase after the same pot of gold, but strategic investments could see the right telco enter a niche will little or no competition.

US government thinking of giving Nokia and Ericsson a helping hand – report

Huawei’s main rivals in the telecoms kit market could be set for some extra assistance from the US as it looks to level the 5G playing field.

The rumour comes courtesy of the FT, which spoke to some anonymous but definitely senior US government officials. They reckon that, in spite of all the impediments the US has thrown in its way, there’s a real danger that Huawei could become ‘dangerously dominant’ in the 5G market. One way to help Ericsson and Nokia keep up may be to give them cheap credit, so they can match the generous financing terms Huawei offers its customers.

One official lamented how rubbish at making telecoms gear the US is and is starting to worry about the national security implications of taking its eye off that ball. “Almost every department and agency is desperately looking right now for ways to get back into this game,” they are quoted as saying. Another even ventured that if they don’t, Huawei might be the only choice for 5G gear, which seems a bit harsh on Nokia and Ericsson, not to mention Samsung and ZTE.

The credit thing seems to be a direct challenge to the assistance Huawei is thought to get from Chinese state banks. No such state credit lines are available to western companies, which obviously puts them at a competitive disadvantage. Underlying this is the broader narrative that China doesn’t play fair in global trade and offers a considerable amount of state assistance to its domestic champions.

The report seems to imply the US is considering an ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ approach by not only helping out its favoured kit vendors, but even trying to create persuade a US player like Cisco to get involved in 5G gear. Reports like this make it easy to believe that all this security talk is just a smokescreen designed to legitimise US participation in the kind of state intervention it condemns China for.

Ericsson and Nokia both claim to be KDDI primary 5G partner

In a strange turn of events, both Ericsson and Nokia have made announcements claiming to be the primary partner for the efforts of Japanese telcos to drive towards 5G.

Unless there is a different definition of ‘primary’ in the Nordics, someone is up to a bit of funny business.

Looking at the Ericsson announcement first, the Swedes are claiming to be the primary 5G vendor with the first commercial live 5G services to be available from March 2020. As part of the agreement, Ericsson will supply KDDI with Radio Access Network equipment, including products and solutions from the Ericsson Radio System portfolio.

“Having established our important partnership with KDDI in 2013, we have now expanded our collaboration efforts,” said Chris Houghton, Head of Market Area North East Asia for Ericsson. “We are excited about our involvement in KDDI’s 5G network buildout, which will provide a sound basis for our future collaboration as well as allowing our partner to offer users a whole new generation of mobile services.”

Over in Finland, Nokia has said it has been selected by KDDI as a primary partner. There might be a bit of nuanced language here, though it would certainly be unusual to have more than one primary.

Looking at the two statements, Ericsson is claiming to be “the” primary partner while Nokia is claiming to be “a” primary partner. This might be the slight difference we have been searching for to understand why such little regard has been afforded to the dictionary.

If more than one company is being granted the title of “primary”, in our opinion, it undermines the concept entirely.

“This deal will allow KDDI to get ready for the 5G era and we are honoured and excited to continue our long-term relationship,” said John Harrington, Head of Nokia Japan. “As an end-to-end supplier of multiple technologies to KDDI, we look forward to transforming the network and launching 5G for consumers and industries.”

Nokia’s agreement suggests its radio access solution AirScale will be used to support both cmWave and mmWave 5G frequency bands across its network.

As it stands, Nokia currently has 48 5G commercial contracts in place, though it is not clear how many 5G base stations the company is manufacturing or shipping each month. Alongside this agreement, Nokia also signed a pact with Vodafone New Zealand last month, with the telco planning to launch 5G services towards the end of 2019.

In Sweden, Ericsson has signed 25 5G commercial contracts, while it announced deals with Nex-Tech Wireless and RINA Wireless earlier this month. These are not the biggest deals you could imagine, both the telcos are regional US carriers, though considering the size of some of the areas covered (Kansas, Utah, Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and Oregon) they are useful contracts to collect. Ericsson is also not unveiling how many base stations it has shipped to date.

Ericsson is claiming to be involved with two-thirds of the live deployments worldwide, while Nokia has said it is providing equipment to 11.

The two announcements with KDDI are perfectly demonstrative of the situation both Nokia and Ericsson are in currently. With Huawei running riot through the 4G era, these two vendors will have to prove their on-point heading into the 5G epoch. It might be little more than chest-beating for the management team to prove to investors they are not falling that far behind the Chinese rival.

Huawei has claimed to so far gained 50 5G commercial contracts and shipped more than 150,000 base stations. With the Chinese vendor under severe pressure from the US Government, some would have assumed both Nokia and Ericsson would have benefitted greatly, though this does not appear to be the state-of-play currently. They are both doing well, but given the context, is it good enough?

Over the last few years, Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri has promised 5G would bring fortunes for the company, while Ericsson was forced into replaced its CEO in early 2017 to steady the ship. Börje Ekholm has done a perfectly reasonable job though rumours have emerged he is ready to step down.

What should be worth noting is that Ekholm was CEO of Investor AB prior to assuming control at Ericsson. Investor AB is a notable investor in Ericsson, so it would have been reasonable to presume his time at the top would have been limited. Saab CEO Håkan Buskhe has announced he will be leaving the automotive company, with local press suggesting he is in-line to take over.

Ericsson is yet to provide clarity on the situation, though Nokia has suggested KDDI would be able to clear up the situation.

Ericsson sets aside $1.2 billion in preparation for corruption fine

Since 2013, Ericsson has been the focus of two investigations concerning the Swedish vendors compliance with the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and now it is preparing for the fine.

The investigation officially ended in the fourth quarter of 2017, though Ericsson has been in a continued dialogue with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Department of Justice (DoJ) since. With the team found to have broken the law in six markets, Ericsson is expected the combined fines to be north of $1 billion. Today’s announcement is to prepare investors for the hit.

“With today’s announcement we confront another legacy issue and take the next step in resolving it,” said Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm.

“We have to recognize that the Company has failed in the past and I can assure you that we work hard every day to build a stronger Ericsson, where ethics and compliance are cornerstones in how we conduct business. Over the past two years, we have made significant investments in our ethics and compliance program including our investigative capabilities and have taken actions against employees who have transgressed our values and standards.”

Corrections have been made to internal procedures in the six years since the probes begun, though it casts a dark shadow on the vendor. Corruption allegations are never favourable, irrelevant as to how far in the past they were.

Starting in 2013, the SEC launched a probe with the DoJ joining the party in 2015. The investigations covered a four-year period, ending in 2017, relating to bribes which were offered to Government officials. Ericsson was found to be non-compliant with the FCPA in six markets; China, Djibouti, Indonesia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam.

Like every other law, there are hundreds of provisions and clauses to the FCPA, though there are two which it is most readily known for. Firstly, rules dictating accounting transparency requirements under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and secondly, concerning bribery of foreign officials.

In short, the rules state it is unlawful to provide anything of material value to government officials to obtain or retain business. On the accountancy transparency side, these rules are to ensure there is an effective compliance and accountability system to internally prevent illegal activity.

Although Ericsson has been co-operative with the agencies during the investigation, the $1 billion fine might only be part of the problem. The Ericsson management team has pointed to additional risks associated with this saga, including reputational damage. The team will have been working hard to smooth over the cracks, however the official fine might well encourage other parties to have a closer look at the relationships in place.

Ericsson and Nokia up their R&D game to compound Huawei misery

Whenever Huawei is facing scrutiny, rivals simply have to sit back and reap the benefits, though Ericsson and Nokia are upping the focus on research and development to compound the gains.

This is the opportunity which is being presented to Huawei’s rivals. When it is banned from certain markets, there is a gain. When there are security concerns shown, there is a gain. When there are questions about the resilience of the supply chain, there is a gain. All the likes of Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung have to do is sit back and do what they have been doing for years. The worse beating Huawei takes, the better their alternative looks.

What is clear is these companies will have to be as careful when capitalising on the misfortune, tip toeing over broken glass as gunfire rages overhead. Just look at the trouble Nokia CTO Marcus Weldon got himself in when criticising Huawei a couple of months back.

However, looking more closely at the financial reports of the rivals, there is perhaps evidence of an attempt to compound the gains by increasing R&D investments. There are of course numerous reasons why this would be done.

Firstly, if Huawei is considered the market leader for radio and transmission equipment, this is an opportunity to close the gap. Secondly, this is a chance to seize the initiative in the 5G race while the reputation of Huawei is picking up dents. Looking at the numbers, this story becomes a bit more apparent.

Vendor R&D investment as % of total revenues
Huawei c.15%
ZTE 14.9%
Nokia 21.2%
Ericsson 18%

The numbers above are taken for the first six months of 2019. Huawei hasn’t given numbers for the first half, only a full year commitment, so this is more of a rough guess. Samsung does not break-out financials for its network equipment division, keeping up its reputation for being less-than-transparent, so it is difficult to offer a comparison.

Including Samsung with the other four major network infrastructure providers might raise some eyebrows, but with a strong 5G RAN product Samsung now deserves to dine at the top table according to Heavy Reading Analyst Gabriel Brown, particularly in markets where it has made long-term, sustained investment in R&D and in customer support, such as the US, India and South Korea.

After years of investment and working to meet customer requirements, the US market offers promise to Samsung. Without Huawei and ZTE in the game, operators are looking for credible alternatives to the Nokia and Ericsson duopoly in RAN, while its Korean domestic market clearly offers some wins. There is a clear opportunity for growth, though as Brown points out, there are other considerations.

In terms of the 5G RAN, Samsung has competitive base station products according to Brown. However, it doesn’t necessarily have the breadth of portfolio, relationships or footprint to compete globally. Brown stated this is often an area which is underestimated and is expensive to build-up and maintain. Outside of its priority markets Samsung does not have the local support that telcos have come to expect nor the long-term in-country presence that gives operators confidence to do business.

However, it is still an opportunity, with the team is making the right noises, producing the right demonstrations and making the right connections to grow and claim market share.

The numbers above are taken for the first six months of 2019. Huawei hasn’t given numbers for the first half, only a full year commitment, so this is more of a rough guess. Samsung does not break-out financials for its 5G network equipment division, keeping up its reputation for being less-than-transparent, so it is difficult to offer a comparison.

Including Samsung with the other four major network infrastructure providers might raise a few eyebrows but work done over the last few years has raised their game. According to Heavy Reading Analyst Gabriel Brown, Samsung now deserves to dine at the top table, with strong focus on the US, India and South Korea.

Samsung is a company which is clearly benefiting from the Huawei misery. The US is a market which will offer promise to Samsung, though it will have some difficulties considering an ex-CEO of Ericsson is in charge at Verizon, while its domestic market clearly offers some wins. There is a clear opportunity for growth, though as Brown points out, there are other considerations.

In terms of the 5G base station product, Samsung is up there with the best according to Brown, though as it doesn’t necessarily have the relationships or product inventory in place it might struggle in certain areas. Brown stated this is often an area which is underestimated, as Samsung may well struggle to meet the timelines demanded by telcos in Switzerland or Columbia (for example). It doesn’t have the ‘feet on the ground’ or scaled manufacturing experience of its rivals, an element many telcos will have come to expect.

However, it is still an opportunity and the team is making the right noises, producing the right figures and making the right connections to grow and claim market share.

Back to the R&D investments, this is an important metric to judge vendors by and will gain interest from potential customers. At Ericsson, the 18.7% ratio invested in R&D is certainly an increase from the 14% and 15% it spent in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Nokia’s investments are also up from this period, though it has consistently hovered around this level. As a percentage of net sales, R&D accounted for 20.5% and 21.2% for 2018 and 2017 respectively at Nokia.

Although both of these firms are leaping ahead when it comes to the percentage, another factor that you have to take into account is that Huawei is spending more in real terms.

Vendor Total R&D investment in US$
Huawei $8.38 billion
ZTE $900 million
Ericsson $1.93 billion
Nokia $2.53 billion

While Huawei is vastly exceeding the amount spent by its rivals, it has a much broader scope. Ericsson focuses on mobile predominantly, while Nokia has both mobile and fixed businesses, as well as licencing payments from its former glory days as a leading mobile phone manufacturer.

Huawei has its fingers in a lot more pies. Not only does it focus on both mobile and fixed, it also has a subsea cable business and an enterprise unit, while the consumer group is now the largest contributor to total revenues. Looking at the consumer unit alone, Huawei will be investing R&D funds into smartphones, laptops, wearable devices and a new operating system to potentially replace Google’s Android.

This $8.38 billion figure should always be considered when comparing the R&D investments from all the rivals, but it should also be weighed against the broader business exposure Huawei as.

There are of course numerous factors to consider when judging who is winning the 5G race, geopolitical trends are close to the top of the list, but the percentage of revenues being attributed to R&D is another very important one. Although these numbers do not tell the whole story, perhaps it does indicate rivals are attempting to make the most of Huawei’s misery while they have a chance.

Ericsson CEO Ekholm could be set to step down – report

Anonymous insiders have told Swedish financial paper DI that Ericsson plans to replace Ekholm with the departing Saab CEO sometime next year.

DI is both Swedish language and behind a paywall, so we’re relying in Reuters’ account of the original report here. Some handy unnamed sources have told DI that the plan was always for Ekholm (pictured) to only be in charge for as long as it took to steady the ship after the rocky conclusion of Hans Vestberg’s time at the helm. Ekholm is, after all, an investor rather than a company CEO, so maybe the feeling is that his strengths lie more in executing short-term tactical objectives than setting and implementing long-term strategic ones.

Someone more cut out to dictate Ericsson’s direction for the foreseeable future may be Håkan Buskhe, who has been CEO of Swedish engineering company Saab since 2010, but who announced he was calling it a day earlier this month. He has a six month notice period and the DI report would have us believe that the Ericsson board has already tapped him up to replace Ekholm any time after his gardening leave is finished.

“The reason I choose to leave Saab is that I would like to face another operational challenge in my career,” said Buskhe after handing in his resignation. “Until a new CEO is in place, I will continue to have full focus on Saab to ensure a smooth arrival for my successor, with the priorities being the implementation of the major projects together with our customers and the continued work to achieve Saab’s financial goals.”

The report notes that Investor AB, of which Ekholm was the CEO before stepping into the breach at Ericsson, is the biggest single shareholder in both Ericsson and Saab, with 40% of the voting shared in the latter. So Buskhe is presumably well-known to both Ekholm and the Ericsson board. It’s certainly not inconceivable that they will have discussed this move over a luxury pickled herring or two at some time.

Ericsson hadn’t responded to our request for comment at time of writing, but since it wouldn’t give one to Reuters either we’re not holding our breath. Ericsson’s shares were down a couple of percent at time of writing, which isn’t bad considering the positive effect Ekholm has had on the company. Alternatively it could equally be a sign that most investors don’t take the DI report very seriously or that they don’t think Buskhe would be a bad replacement.

Nokia taps Telia for new head of strategy

Finnish network vendor Nokia has decided its strategy should be directed by Gabriela Styf Sjöman, formerly of Swedish operator group Telia.

Sjöman (pictured) will replace long-time Chief Strategy Officer Kathrin Buvac, who isn’t leaving Nokia, but will now focus entirely running Nokia’s enterprise division. This move would appear to signify that the enterprise business group, which was only created at the start of this year, requires Buvac’s undivided attention. Whether or not this is because it’s going well or badly remains to be seen.

It seems like a good idea to have operator expertise in a networking vendor strategy team and Sjöman is presumably up to speed on the techie side too, her most recent role at Telia being at the head of its networks division. Nokia is also making much of the fact that she has lived all over the world, having grown up in Mexico and got an MBA from Durham University in the UK.

“We are delighted to welcome Gabriela to Nokia at a pivotal moment in our 5G journey,” said Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri. “She brings a wealth of international knowledge and a deep understanding of our industry, its customers and technologies. Her insight will be critical in refining our strategy for the future. I also want to thank Kathrin, who has continued to lead our strategy organization in addition to her role as President of Nokia Enterprise since January this year.”

“I am excited to join Nokia at such a pivotal time,” said Sjöman. “With its broad portfolio and innovative technology, Nokia is well positioned to help its customers realize the full potential of 5G, and I look forward to being part of further strengthening Nokia in this 5G journey.”

Back in Sweden Nokia rival Ericsson has unveiled its replacement for Rafiah Ibrahim, who decided to call it a day back in March. Fadi Pharaon is being promoted from his current position as VP of networks and managed services in the Europe and Latin America group. He is an Ericsson lifer who seems to have had executive roles for the company in every part of the world.

“With the introduction of 5G we are at an exciting time in the industry,” said Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm. “Our customer relationships are key to build a strong company position in the market for this next phase of industry development. Fadi has the right background, experience and capabilities to lead this work in this Market Area and I am very pleased to see him stepping up to this role.”

“The mobile industry is transforming countries and industries and with 5G becoming a reality, we will see new business opportunities and innovations across our markets,” said Pharaon. “I really look forward to taking on this exciting new role in Market Area Middle East & Africa and work together with both the team in the Market Area as well as the Executive Team. Our abilities to work closely with our customers in our market areas are key to leveraging our technology leadership in 5G.”

We can probably expect every significant announcement from either company to be framed in this ‘now that 5G has arrived’ way. The commercial opportunities presented by 5G are far more diverse and complex than by any previous mobile technology generation, so strategy maybe more important than ever when it comes to capitalising on the 5G opportunity.