Today would have been the first day of MWC 2020

Under normal circumstances we would be writing this from Ericsson’s stand in hall 2 of the Fira Gran Via in Barcelona.

Ericsson traditionally likes to kick off its MWC at 8am on the Monday morning, which can be challenging for those who have failed to be 100% professional over the preceding weekend. Typically CEO Börje Ekholm would offer a broad update of the state of play at Ericsson and the industry on the whole, with maybe a piece of news or two slipped in to keep journalists on their toes.

We would then have found a spot on its cavernous stand and jumped on its wifi (assuming a telecoms event had proven itself capable of providing adequate telecoms infrastructure for once), to tap our account of the morning’s proceedings. Ericsson’s stand has traditionally been an above-average source of free food and drink for those both lucky enough to have been invited in and whose name also made it onto the list given to the gatekeepers.

Because those two things don’t always coincide, you see. Despite the absolute annual predictability of MWC, the mechanics of managing access to those stands that have gatekeepers always seem to confound even the most seasoned show campaigners. If anything the situation is usually even worse at the only stand bigger – Huawei’s. Many a precious MWC hour has been spent sat on the floor outside that stand while harried Huawei representatives scurry around trying to work out who the hell this bedraggled hack is and how much of a threat they pose to their inner sanctum.

Saturday night activities permitting, we would have already been given good presentation by Nokia, which likes to go off-site on the Sunday to steal Ericsson’s thunder. The format has tended to be similar to Ericsson’s however, with perhaps a touch more theatrics. Traditionally we have tended to write up Nokia’s event in whichever bar we could persuade to show the rugby, accompanied by a tentative first beer of the day.

Since Tuesday and Wednesday evening have always been late ones in the past, savvy MWC veterans have learned to use the Monday evening as a great opportunity to catch up on some kip and give their livers a breather. The following two or three days would have been spent traipsing from stand to stand, gratefully grabbing coffees when available and forcing down barely edible sandwiches. The culmination would have involved sitting in the departure lounge of Barcelona airport exchanging knowing glances with addled fellow travellers.

None of that is happening this year, of course. A few companies have tried to extract some residual value from the week through ‘virtual MWCs’, but it’s hard to get too enthusiastic about such things. Most industry people we have spoken to feel lost and aimless this week, but we’re a tough lot and will bounce back quickly. In the meantime, please join us in raising a glass of Estrella to the ghost of MWC 2020, it’s the least we can do.

Why doesn’t Huawei publish the details of its 5G deal wins?

Huawei says it has signed more 5G contracts than any of its competitors, but for some reason chooses not to publish any details.

This stands in stark contrast with Ericsson and Nokia, who both have publicly available web pages that not only offer a live total of their 5G deals wins (Ericsson says ‘commercial 5G agreements or contracts’ which seems a bit slippery), they also name as many of them as they have been authorised to and even detail how many live networks their kit is present in. Ericsson is especially transparent in that last regard.

Huawei has no publicly available information that we’re aware of, apart from ad hoc updates such as the one we reported on yesterday. We don’t know any of the operators it has signed 5G contracts with, nor how many live networks it is part of. Only in response to our specific questioning yesterday did we learn that the 91 number refers only to unique operator 5G RAN wins.

We asked Huawei why this is and were told that it’s up to their customers when the agreements are announced. The inference, then, is that none of its customers have given Huawei permission to go public, which seems odd. Or maybe not. It’s no secret that doing business with Huawei now has major geopolitical implications, so maybe all of its 5G partners want to keep that fact quiet, for fear of drawing the petulant attention of the US.

It’s hard to believe that not a single operator, for example the three Chinese MNOs, would want to go public. In fact Huawei execs were perfectly happy to name them when we asked about this yesterday, so why not publish? Vodafone’s European operations were also mentioned, so that’s a bunch of named wins already. And what about the other 24 wins in Asia, surely they’re not all scared of Trump.

The problem this creates for Huawei is that it helps bolster the US-driven narrative that a lack of transparency is reason enough to call all Huawei’s activities into question. We have written many times that Huawei deserves the same legal due process granted to everyone else, but it doesn’t help its cause when it chooses to be more opaque than its competitors over even minor matters such as this.

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.

Nokia acquires Elenion to boost optical offering

Nokia plans to acquire Elenion, a privately-owned technology company whose proprietary silicon photonics design platform can lower the ‘per bit’ cost for network operators.

Through its acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent in 2016, Nokia has become one of the biggest suppliers of optical transport solutions. In the latest quarterly and full-year results, the IP routing and optical businesses registered healthy growth. This newly announced transaction looks to be an attempt to acquire unique technology know-how. The parties claim that Elenion’s silicon photonics design platform can, with its design toolset, improve the efficiency of the optical supply chain, and in turn, bring down the cost of data transmission on per bit basis for the operators.

The technology know-how can be highly relevant to Nokia’s core mobile business as well. The terse announcement stresses that Elenion’s silicon photonics technologies are highly integrated, low-cost, and ideal for short-reach and high-performance optical interfaces. This indicates that the technologies can be broadly applied in the dense radio networks expected for 5G, as well as the enterprise market where Nokia has made strong gains recently.

“As a world-class provider of silicon photonics solutions, advanced packaging and custom design services, Elenion provides a strong strategic fit for Nokia. Its solutions can be readily integrated into Nokia’s product offerings and address multiple high growth segments including 5G, cloud and data center networking,” said Sam Bucci, Head of Optical Networking at Nokia. “When combined with Nokia, Elenion technologies will accelerate the growth and scale of Nokia’s optical networking business, while enabling us to cost-effectively address new markets.”

“Nokia is an industry leader in networking systems, including advanced coherent optical interfaces and hyperscale datacenter solutions. Elenion benefits by having its technology incorporated into an industry-leading portfolio and with a company offering solutions across a wide array of networking applications,” added Larry Schwerin, CEO of Elenion Technologies. “Nokia’s strong optical industry leadership, size, scale, global reach, and ongoing commitment to investment in key technologies vastly accelerates the adoption of Elenion silicon photonics technology.”

The value of the transaction is not disclosed, and the companies expect the deal to close in Q1 2020 after regulatory clearance.

Nokia pulls out of MWC – is that game over?

Finnish networking vendor Nokia has announced the cancellation of its presence at Mobile World Congress 2020.

The announcement follows the decision of competitor Ericsson to withdraw from the event last week and of ZTE to at least scale back its presence. Furthermore Cisco has announced it’s pulling out and it seems Samsung networks is too, so that only leaves Huawei among the networking vendors and largest exhibitors at the event.

While the health and safety of our employees is our absolute priority, we also recognize that we have a responsibility to the industry and our customers,” said the Nokia announcement. “In view of this, we have taken the necessary time to evaluate a fast-moving situation, engage with the GSMA and other stakeholders, regularly consult external experts and authorities, and plan to manage risks based on a wide range of scenarios.

“The conclusion of that process is that we believe the prudent decision is to cancel our participation at Mobile World Congress. We want to express our thanks to the GSMA, the governments of China and Spain as well as Catalonia’s Generalitat, and many others who have worked tirelessly to address the challenges resulting from the novel coronavirus, and they have our full support as they move forward.”

Nokia, like many others that have pulled out, is going to try to honour the meeting commitments it made for the show, but that won’t be easy. Having said that a lot of telecoms industry professionals are now going to be at a loose end, having blocked out a week of their diaries months in advance for the event.

It’s really hard to see how the event can go ahead now. The majority of the most significant vendors will now not be there and it looks like the major operators aren’t far behind. It’s unsettling how quickly a health emergency on the other side of the world can bring a massive undertaking like MWC grinding to a halt. Even more worrying for the event will be if a lot of people manage to achieve most of what they would have without attending.

DT reportedly tells Nokia to raise its 5G game, prompting a non-denial

A report claiming one of Europe’s biggest operator groups has demanded Nokia get its house in order when it comes to 5G has not really been refuted by either of them.

Reuters grabbed the exclusive with the headline ‘Fearing Huawei curbs, Deutsche Telekom tells Nokia to shape up’. The reporter had not only spoken to the ubiquitous anonymous source who reckons they know a thing or two, but got hold of internal documents too. They paint a picture of DT having a low opinion of Nokia’s 5G offering, resulting in the vendor being ditched by most of the countries in which it operates.

All the fuss around Huawei, however, especially the EU’s recent guidance, seems to have forced DT to have another look at Nokia, albeit with a heavy heart. It looks like DT has put the ball in Nokia’s court and told it there’s business to be had it if can raise its game. This doesn’t seem especially contentious since Nokia openly admits to having dropped the ball on 5G and DT wouldn’t have dropped it as a supplier without good reason, you assume.

But for some reason the two companies felt compelled to address the story nonetheless. “We have been a long-term partner of Deutsche Telekom and have been proud to work with them extensively over the years, providing leading network technology and services,” said Federico Guillén, President of Customer Operations, EMEA & APAC, Nokia. “We continue to work extensively with Deutsche Telekom which is one of our most significant customers, both in Europe and the U.S.”

“As one of the major European manufacturers, Nokia is of strategic importance to Deutsche Telekom,” said Claudia Nemat, Board Member Technology & Innovation, Deutsche Telekom. “It is well known that Deutsche Telekom is pursuing a multi-vendor strategy so that we are not dependent on just one supplier. This is an elementary part of our security philosophy. However, as in the past, Deutsche Telekom will not comment on individual contractual relationships and strategic purchasing decisions.”

So why bother with the announcement at all then? Nothing in either statement comes close to addressing the claims in the story, one way or the other, and the whole thing just comes across as a lame attempt at damage limitation, presumably driven by Nokia. But the good news for Nokia is that it’s first in line to get some scraps off the Huawei table if it can get its 5G act together.

Nokia finishes the year on a relative high

Finnish kit vendor Nokia banked a bit more profit than expected in Q4 2019, to finish a tough year on a slightly positive note.

Earnings per share were €0.15, up from €0.13 a year ago, which was apparently what was expected again this time. Nokia seemed pretty pleased with its cashflow too, having significantly topped up its flagging bank balance in the quarter. Shares experienced a minor bump, taking them near the top end of the range they have inhabited since they tanked after a gloomy outlook a quarter ago.

“Nokia’s fourth quarter 2019 results were a strong end to a challenging year. We saw strength in many parts of our business in the quarter, delivered a slightly better operating profit than the same period in 2018, generated solid free cash flow, and increased our net cash balance to EUR 1.7 billion,” said Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri.

“When I look at Nokia’s full-year 2019 performance, we saw good progress in our strategic focus areas of enterprise and software… We recognize, however, that we have faced challenges in Mobile Access and in cash generation. We will have a sharp focus on these two areas over the course of 2020, which we believe to be a year of progressive improvement as the actions we have underway start to deliver results.

“While I believe that 2020 will present its share of challenges, I am confident that we are taking the right steps to deliver progressive improvement over the course of this year and to position us for a stronger 2021.”

Suri’s words were pretty measured and indicated that it’s still mainly in recovery mode this year, so you can see why investors didn’t get too excited. 4G/5G radio market share outside of China is expected to stabilize at 27% over the course of the year and the current count of 5G deal wins is 66. Once more Nokia’s financial situation feels a bit like Ericsson’s a year or two ago, in so much as it’s all about providing a stable foundation for future growth.

Nokia raises its OSS game

In the build up to MWC 2020 Nokia has got one of its announcements in early, in the form of the ‘cloud-native’ Network Operations Master software.

Turns out 5G is pretty complicated and at times there’s so much going on that you can’t possibly expect flawed, obsolete humans to stay on top of it. That’s why you need greater automation, we’re told, and that has to start with the network operations software, or OSS in old money. Nokia prides itself on its software, so the launch of a new OSS suite is presumably a fairly big deal for them.

“With 5G forcing traditional functions, like revenue management and customer care, to the cloud and helping drive software deeper into the network, communication service providers need a modern approach to performing network operations that is automated, more efficient and scalable,” said Ron Haberman, CTO at Nokia Software. “The Nokia Network Operations Master delivers these capabilities and allows our customers to perform lifecycle operations with ease, efficiency, and confidence.”

Network slicing will make automation and a much higher level of cloudy flexibility critical features of any network software. NOM also covers AI, machine learning, etc and is designed to just take care of all the plumbing, allowing network operations centres to focus on the stuff only people can manage, if such a thing still exists.

“5G networks will require significantly more operations automation than past networks in order to achieve promised levels of efficiency and new service support,” Nokia got Dana Cooperson, Research Director at Analysys Mason, to say. “Nokia’s Network Operations Master is a cloud-native network management system that is underpinned by machine learning and automated actions and provides the types of tools mobile network operations teams need now for 5G.”

Here are a couple of vids that may tell you more.

Nokia applauds its own progress with 63 5G wins

Nokia is proving to be its own biggest fan, parading around a list of accomplishments, from 5G contract wins to the number of patents it has filed across the last year.

With a list including the likes of O2, T-Mobile US, Verizon, Vodafone Italy and Zain Saudi, the team is not unveiling how many base stations it has actually shipped, though it does appear it is keeping momentum with rivals, despite rumours of poorly performing products.

“This milestone highlights the quality and customer confidence in our 5G portfolio, and we expect this to continue this year with the addition of many more new deals,” said Tommi Uitto, President of Mobile Networks at Nokia.

“Our global end-to-end portfolio includes products and services for every part of a network, which are helping network operators to enable key 5G capabilities such as network slicing, distributed cloud and the industrial Internet of Things. We are delighted that our technologies are helping to shape the delivery and deployment of 5G technologies worldwide and the myriad benefits these will bring to businesses and consumers alike.”

Nokia is now claiming to have signed commercial 5G contracts with 63 customers, 60% of which select more than just New Radio from the portfolio. The team is also suggesting it has put together a hording of more than 2000 5G patents and has contributed technology to 18 live networks across the world.

Although this is little more than a propaganda campaign to raise the profile of the firm, Nokia does appear to be keeping pace with rivals. Ericsson has stated it has signed 78 commercial agreements, Huawei said it had signed 50 in September, ZTE is claiming 35 by October and Samsung has also been weighing in with some interesting wins including AT&T, Vidéotron in Canada, as well as KT and SK Telecom in its domestic market of South Korea.

Interestingly enough, it is only Huawei and ZTE who are bold enough to state how many 5G base stations have been shipped to date, though these numbers are not the most recent. ZTE stated it would have exceeded the 100,000 milestone by the end of 2019, while Huawei claims to have shipped more than 400,000 in October.

Looking at the patents, Nokia’s claim of 2,000 does sound impressive, but you have to place some context to the situation. According to a report published by market intelligence firm IPlytics in November, Nokia is sitting in fourth place in the race for 5G patents.

Declared 5G patent families Filed in at least one office Granted in at least one office
Huawei 3,325 2,379 1,337
Samsung 2,846 2,542 1,746
LG 2,463 2,296 1,548
Nokia 2,308 2,098 1,683
ZTE 2,204 1,654 596
Ericsson 1,423 1,295 765

What is worth noting, is that while a bigger number is very PR worthy, it is not always the greatest reflection of the industry. Last year, Ericsson CIPO and Head of IPR & Licensing Christina Petersson suggested Ericsson was the most successful in the industry, owning 15.8% of standard essential 5G patents. Nokia and Huawei, by comparison, both had 10.9%.

Petersson suggests many of the patent claims in the industry are misleading, as some simply count the number patents declared to ETSI as being possibly essential to 5G, though these are not independently validated. Some which are being claimed as ‘essential to’ might not be; it might simply be another way to pump the reputation of the firm in a slightly misleading manner.

This is where the language becomes a bit more nuanced. Nokia has ‘declared’ 2,000 patents, but it has not necessarily been granted this many. Many of the patents filed throughout the industry have not been granted yet, and many of the applications are not publicly available for assessment.

Perhaps the number of commercial 5G contracts or patents might mean something one day, but ultimately there are too many unknowns to place too much credit to the claims.