Omdia crowns South Korea as global 5G leader

Research firm Omdia has revealed South Korea is the clear global 5G leader, and unfortunately for everyone else, it doesn’t even look to be that close a race.

Although Omdia stressed 5G progress is not a race between countries, it is very difficult not to measure success between the different countries and regions before deciding on a winner. Like 4G, 5G could inspire economic growth, but this will be disproportionately distributed to those who can cultivate a 5G era more successfully than others.

As it stands, South Korea is the leader in the 5G world, with Kuwait and Switzerland completing the podium, though it is not exactly a close race currently.

“Limited coverage, device availability and cautious launches has limited take-up in other global markets,” said Stephen Myers, Omdia Principal Analyst. “However, expansive coverage rolled out by Sunrise and Swisscom in Switzerland, Ooredoo and Vodafone in Qatar and Kuwait’s three service providers has rivalled Korea for breadth of market coverage.”

The results were calculated by weighting five different elements of the 5G industry; spectrum availability, service launches, network coverage, 5G adoption and the development of a supporting ecosystem. In every area, South Korea has exceeded expectations bountifully, a trend which should continue over the next few years in light of the Government’s intention to make a further 2,640 MHz of bandwidth available for 5G networks by 2026.

Again, this might seem like nothing more than posturing, but there is credibility to the idea of first being better.

The number of subscriptions in a market generally matters very little, though scale does offer opportunity to create, validate and fine-tune 5G-specific products and services. A scaled domestic 5G market offers a springboard to launch into the international markets.

When you consider how profitable Silicon Valley is thanks to domination in the 4G-era, this is so much more than political and technological posturing.

Facebook, Uber, Google, AirBnB, Netflix and numerous other companies benefitting from the US’ early drive towards 4G. These companies underpin growth in the economy today, create future-proof jobs and encourage further investment in the US. Most importantly, however, is these companies had a head start over international rivals to ensure their offering was successful in international markets.

Now, all the profits from Netflix subscriptions around the world, Uber’s journeys, Facebook’s hyper-targeted ad campaigns and Google’s promoted search results find their way back to the US. This compounds investments in new areas, creates new jobs and adds further growth to the US economy with an industry which will only get bigger and more profitable.

4G was a catalyst to compound US dominance on the global economy over the last decade, and a leadership in the 5G era could offer the same economic advantages.

Nokia signals its technology virtue

Finnish kit vendor Nokia has been getting involved with liquid cooling 5G base stations and dynamically refarming loads of spectrum.

Ericsson might be having a good run of 5G deal wins, but can it liquid cool its base stations? Well, Nokia can. The proof of the pudding is in its deployment by Finnish MNO Elisa, for which the new tech is helping reduce the potential energy expenses of its base stations by 30 percent and CO2 emissions by approximately 80 percent. This is apparently the first commercial deployment of this sort of thing.

Base stations produce a fair bit of heat, most of which is dissipated into the air around them. By using liquid cooling, that heat can be repurposed, although it’s not immediately obvious what for. Liquid-cooled sites are silent, we’re told, they require zero maintenance, and can be 50 percent smaller and 30 percent lighter than standard active air conditioning units.

“Nokia was first to introduce a liquid-cooled base station with the 2G, 3G and 4G base stations with Elisa in Finland,” said Tommi Uitto, President of Mobile Networks at Nokia. “Now we have demonstrated the world’s first liquid-cooled AirScale 5G base station in commercial operations, making liquid cooling a reality for all network generations. This innovative solution supports operators in their quest to be more environmentally responsible while allowing them to achieve significant cost savings.”

“Elisa has set a clear target to be carbon neutral at the end of 2020,” said Sami Komulainen, EVP of Production at Elisa. “We also want to maintain our 5G leadership and continue to be amongst the top operators in the world to offer the wide benefits of this new technology to our customers. Innovations such as Nokia’s liquid cooling 5G base station demonstrate how 5G can help drive sustainability.”

Save a few euros and get to do some eco virtue-signalling at the same time, seems like a double win to us. Meanwhile Nokia has helped Vodafone Idea to complete what they claim is the world’s largest Dynamic Spectrum Refarming deployment. As the name implies, DSR technology enables MNOs to allocate spectrum to different radio technologies on the fly, which should make the transition from one generation to another more smooth. The two also collaborated over some massive MIMO gear.

“At a time when connectivity is so crucial, the deployment of DSR and mMIMO will help Vodafone Idea enhance network capacity and improve the experience for their customers,” said Sanjay Malik, Head of India at Nokia. “We are committed to helping mobile operators around the world strengthen and optimize the efficiency of their networks through innovative solutions so that they can fully utilize all available resources.”

“Dynamic spectrum refarming provides us with more network capacity and data speed to enable us to deliver best-in-class network experience to our subscribers,” said Vishant Vora CTO at Vodafone Idea. “Vodafone Idea was the first one to trial the DSR and I thank Nokia for the close partnership. Similarly, we have the largest deployment of mMIMOs in India and our investment in mMIMO technology significantly helped us in meeting the growing data demand during the COVID-19 crisis.”

So, Ericsson got to show off yesterday, today is Nokia’s turn, but things are strangely quiet from Huawei. Come on, you’re not going to let a bit of aggro from the US keep you down are you?

US path to mid-band spectrum not as simple as some make it seem

Despite many proclamations and posturing during the development years of 5G, mmWave is not living up to expectations, but securing valuable mid-band assets is becoming an increasingly complex project.

As it stands in the US market, T-Mobile US has access to 2.1 GHz spectrum to deliver 5G services. These assets were accessible due to the recently approved merger with Sprint and offers a significant advantage over Verizon and AT&T, both of whom are still operating in the high-frequency airwaves, the mmWave, which delivers high-speed and low coverage for an overall substandard experience.

Over the next 12-18 months, theoretically, more mid-band spectrum should be made available to the likes of Verizon and AT&T, as well as Dish as it expands its offering, through three separate spectrum auctions. However, there is still plenty which can go wrong in the meantime according to Chris Pearson, President of 5G Americas.

“If history shows us anything it is that we have not been very successful at co-operation,” Pearson said during a call with Telecoms.com.

What Pearson is referring to here is collaboration between private industry and public organisations to either harmonise spectrum usage or clearing the bands to offer more power to the mobile service providers. There are success stories, clearing the 1700-2100 MHz airwaves is one, but these outcomes are seemingly more the exception rather than the rule.

The issue with spectrum is simple. High frequencies offer exceptional download speeds but very poor coverage, while at the other end with low-frequency bands a telco can offer excellent coverage, but the download speeds and latency will be woeful. This is why mid-band assets are so important, it is a more palatable compromise between speed and coverage, a mobile experience which can be sold as an upgrade to customers.

When we asked Telecoms.com readers about how important the mid-band airwaves are 68% said without these assets it is impossible to deliver an attractive 5G service. Only 3% said the industry should be paying more attention to mmWave, and 8% believed mid-band spectrum is critical for the moment but its importance would fade behind mmWave eventually.

“Can we move along without it,” Pearson said. “Absolutely. But for the long-term we will need more spectrum.”

As Pearson highlights, there are three spectrum auctions on the horizon which are worth paying attention to. At the end of July, the ‘CBRS’ band at 3.5 GHz will make 150 MHz of spectrum available to the industry. In December, the C-Band airwaves (3.7-4.2 GHz) should be cleared up to make an additional 280 MHz of spectrum available. And the NCIA (NATO Communications and Information Agency) is currently producing a report to free up more assets in the 3.1-3.55 GHz range.

Theoretically, there should be plenty of spectrum available for the mobile network operators to deliver a comprehensive 5G solution, though this is under the assumption that everything runs smoothly.

Firstly, the ‘CBRS’ auction has already been delayed once. It should go ahead of course, but there is always a risk.

Secondly, the C-Band auction, scheduled to take place in December, is currently under threat from legal action. Several smaller satellite broadcasting companies who are being asked to vacate and/or move operations in these airwaves are kicking up a fuss. The aim is to shift the satellite operators in the 3.7-4.2 GHz range into a consolidated 200 MHz block, which would offer plenty of room for the telcos to play around it, but there are dissenters.

PSSI Global Services has filed a lawsuit in the District of Columbia arguing the FCC is crippling the entire industry by forcing through the changes in this spectrum band. Should this legal challenge gather momentum or spin-off into different directions, it could impact the availability of assets in the C-Band range, and subsequently delay the auction.

The final area is another very difficult issue to manage. The report which is being produced for the 3.1-3.55 GHz range has only completed one of six sections. This report is supposed to shed light on what the spectrum is being used for, by whom and ways which it can be rationalised to add more available spectrum for mobile operators. But Pearson highlighted that progress has been sluggish.

The issue seems to be that it is difficult to understand what the spectrum is currently being used for, the incumbents are not being the most helpful as there are confidentiality hurdles to negotiate. No-one officially knows what this spectrum is actually being used for which usually means it is something to do with the military or intelligence services.

Without co-operation from the incumbents, it becomes very difficult to audit these airwaves and create a logical strategy to move forward.

To understand the importance of mid-band spectrum, it is worth looking at the experience being delivered without access.

According to OpenSignal’s most recent analysis of the US market, Verizon is delivering speeds few other international telcos can compete with over mmWave, but this digital dream is only accessible to 0.5% of its 5G subscribers. Elsewhere, for example in the UK where mid-band spectrum is being utilised, there is a speed upgrade (albeit nowhere near as much) but 12X more users are able to access the 5G airwaves.

What is critical about 5G right now is not delivering gigabit speed over the air, there are no applications which require this today, but demonstrating 5G is an upgraded service. Speed and latency improvements are a must, but if the users cannot access them the money spent on 5G networks are a complete and utter waste of time.

The US does of course recognise this situation, Pearson highlighted there is momentum gathering in support of the telcos in Washington, however it is far from an ideal situation. This is a pain point, though there is plenty of risk on the horizon to acting as a blocker for the solution.

New appointment arrives to clean up Three’s network fiasco

UK telco Three has announced the appointment of Carlo Melis as Chief Network Officer just as the Huawei saga starts to rear its head once again.

Over the course of the last week, the rumour mill has been churning at full capacity, with Huawei’s name popping up on more than one occasion. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing a backbencher revolt unless ‘high-risk’ vendors are removed from networks within years, while the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) is once again investigating whether the firm is in a sound enough position to work with UK telcos.

One might have said there were better times for Melis to join the business.

Arriving from Wind Tre in Italy, Melis has been working on network resilience during the on-going COVID-19 landscape though eventually his attention will turn to managing the spectrum portfolio and presumably creating a network which can rival market leaders within the UK. Much work has been done in recent years, though thanks to outside influences, Three is still in somewhat of a difficult position.

“Three has been on an incredible journey, completely overhauling its network and IT infrastructure and laying the foundations for a 5G network that will dramatically transform the experience for its customers, at the same time as delivering major 4G improvements,” said Melis.

“I’m looking forward to joining Three, bringing my expertise to build on the great progress already achieved and to deliver a network that will stand the business in good stead long into the future.”

The last few months have certainly been an eclectic mix of ups and downs for the Three business. The fixed wireless access (FWA) proposition and campus network offering was looking healthy before Ros Singleton left the business. These business units are still functional, but look a little weaker without Singleton involved, however it is the more mainstream 5G programme which looks more precarious.

Announced at almost the exact same time as the departure of Phil Sheppard, who was effectively the company’s CTO, was the conclusion of the Supply Chain Review. Huawei was designated a high-risk vendor, and therefore limited to providing a maximum of 35% of a telcos network infrastructure equipment. This is a significant problem for Three which decided Huawei was going to be the sole supplier of RAN equipment for its 5G network.

These are the complications Melis needs to manage over the next few months. Alongside the teething problems of a new cloud core and ensuring the 4G network remains stable during this period of dramatically increased traffic, the 5G deployment strategy needs to be reimagined. Of course, this becomes difficult when even more uncertainty is introduced by rebellious politicians and the NCSC investigation.

It could have been a smoother start for Melis…


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Verizon starts toying around with mid-band spectrum

With 5G falling flat in the US, it appears Verizon is taking matters into its own hands with an application to the FCC to experiment with mid-band spectrum, specifically, 3.7-3.8 GHz.

In fairness to the US telcos, there hasn’t been much opportunity to deliver 5G over the airwaves which are proving critical to the rest of the world. The ‘C-band’ spectrum is congested, though the FCC is currently in the process of clearing it and creating a dynamic spectrum sharing initiative which could be the envy of the world. Better late than never.

According to the application made to the FCC, Verizon is planning on running trials over the 3.7-3.8 GHz spectrum in several locations in three states, namely:

  • Basking Ridge, New Jersey
  • Westlake, Texas
  • Williamston, Michigan
  • Okemos, Michigan
  • Jenison, Michigan
  • Hudsonville, Michigan
  • Ada, Michigan
  • Lowell, Michigan
  • Sunnyvale, California

Many telcos around the world have been bragging of the benefits of mid-band spectrum, benefiting from a more palatable compromise between increased download speeds and coverage, the US telcos have been struggling with mmWave or low-band airwaves, neither of which can deliver on the much-hyped 5G promise.

The status quo of disappointment was fine as long as all the telcos are underwhelming, but there has been a recent development which should worry the likes of Verizon and AT&T.

As part of the merger agreement between T-Mobile US and Sprint, the new company will have access to all three tiers of spectrum. T-Mobile had been offering 5G over 600 MHz and mmWave already, which was not satisfactory, however it now has access to Sprint’s 2.5 GHz assets. A blend of low-, mid- and high-band spectrum licences should see a very effective delivery of 5G. This is already being delivered in Philadelphia, though it won’t be long until it is scaled by the ambitious challenger.

Looking at the 5G subscriber forecasts by analyst firm Omdia, this could have a very material impact on the balance of power in the US telco industry.

Forecast of 5G subscriptions in US (2020-2022)
Telco 2020 2021 2022
AT&T 5,581,572 14,416,872 29,301,757
Verizon 2,520,867 16,560,150 35,020,621
T-Mobile and Sprint 5,560,802 18,560,447 36,266,014

Source: Omdia World Information Series

Alone, T-Mobile would erode the subscription lead AT&T and Verizon hold over it today, but it would still be in third place. When you combine the T-Mobile and Sprint figures, you have a market leading firm.

Some might suggest the figures are incorrect as the merger would mean Sprint disappears, but this will not happen overnight. Legacy deals might well be kept in play for the short-term under the Sprint brand as integration projects and campaigns run, but they will be delivered over the same network. The very network which will have the most comprehensive and attractive blend of spectrum.

“Mid-band spectrum provides the sweet spot combination of capacity and coverage for modern 5G networks that the rest of the world is coalescing behind,” Chris Pearson, President of 5G Americas, recently wrote on a blog post championing 5G as a catalyst for recovery from the current global pandemic.

“The international standards forum 3GPP identified the spectrum range 3.3-4.2 GHz as the core 5G band for countries around the world. But the US has yet to auction any exclusive use licensed spectrum in that global mid-band range for 5G.”

Pearson has pointed to regulatory restrictions slowing progress in accessing mid-band spectrum, a critical component in ensuring 5G meets the promises being made by the telecoms industry. A lack of mid-band spectrum is problematic for numerous reasons.

Firstly, coverage can only be delivered only low-band airwaves, but this does not deliver speed upgrades as T-Mobile customers are finding out. Over mmWave means coverage is very limited, which AT&T and Verizon customers are discovering, while it means network deployment is also a lot more expensive as densification projects are very costly and time consuming. Latency is also falling short of all standards by all telcos.

Pearson is of course a champion for the telecoms industry, but the necessity of mid-band spectrum is also replicated at regulatory level.

“For America to be a global leader and win the race to 5G technologies, which we must do for both economic and national security reasons, we must actively identify and make available a key ingredient necessary for 5G networks and systems: mid-band spectrum,” FCC Commissioner Mike O’Reilly said in a letter to President Donald Trump in April.

“Yet, the pipeline is nearly empty, and our wireless providers lack sufficient mid-band spectrum to meet the exponential growth enabled by 5G networks and expected by users. I believe that only you personally, with your unique ability to cut through the bureaucratic stonewalling, can free the necessary spectrum bands to provide our wireless providers the means to succeed.”

If the US is to deliver the 5G promise it needs access to mid-band spectrum. Not only will this benefit consumers, but it will allow enterprise customers to deliver on the newly emerging 5G-powered business models. Without it, US corporations might fall behind international rivals who exist in countries where the mid-band airwaves are available. This is a mid- to long-term consequence, but one which would be much more damaging to the US economy on the whole.

As it stands, only T-Mobile is in an adequate position. This should be a concern for AT&T and Verizon.

T-Mobile is a company which has been very successful in recent years, growing from a position of irrelevance to a genuine threat. The comfortable spectrum position could act as another catalyst for growth, potentially creating a new leader in the US telecoms industry.


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New Zealand sensibly abandons latest 5G auction and just hands the spectrum over

A chunk of mid-band spectrum was due to be auctioned-off in New Zealand around now, but COVID-19 has caused a change of plan.

The Radio Spectrum Management department of the NZ government recently made the following announcement: “In May 2020, the Auction for short-term, early access rights in the 3.5 GHz band for 5G services (Auction 20) was cancelled. This was due to the constraints imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, a direct allocation process will be undertaken. Offers will be made of 40 MHz to Dense Air, 60 MHz to Spark, and 60 MHz to 2degrees.”

Spark and 2degrees are two of the three Kiwi MNOs, alongside Vodafone NZ, which apparently has quite enough mid band spectrum already, thank you very much. Dense Air is a UK-based company that specialises in small cell connectivity. Understandably Spark and 2degrees are happy with the decision.

“Securing 3.5GHz spectrum was critical for the rollout of a full suite of 5G services, so we would like to acknowledge the Government for facilitating the allocation, which will enable us to proceed with our planned 5G roll out at pace,” said Spark CEO Jolie Hodson. “We plan to switch on 5G sites in a number of major centres and regions across the North and South islands over the next year. To maintain this momentum, we are keen to work with Government to accelerate the timeline for the longer-term spectrum auction, which is currently scheduled for November 2022.”

“This decision makes sense. At a time when the impact of Covid-19 means operators are having to make tough calls on how they spend their capital, it needs to be focused on the networks delivering the capacity people need – and can use – today,” said 2degrees Chief Executive Mark Aue. “At the same time, access to 5G spectrum will allow 2degrees to continue its 5G network planning and site acquisition so it can build and test the technology. This will provide time for 5G uses cases to develop, and initial deployments, in advance of long term spectrum rights that will power national 5G services from late 2022.”

Vodafone seems to have kept quiet on the matter, but it must be secretly annoyed at the good fortune of its rivals. Maybe it will have a quiet word with the government behind the scenes, asking for a cheeky bit of spectrum sometime in future, to level the playing field once more.

It’s good to see that governments and regulators are capable of forgoing easy money when the circumstances demand radical action. Besides, public money is already being thrown around in a bid to stave off another great depression, so a few Kiwi buck is just a drop in the ocean. But credit where it’s due, this is not the time for the public sector to be extorting money from the private sector and NZ deserves credit for acknowledging that and acting accordingly.

What we learned about Dish during the earnings call

With Dish executives leading the company’s quarterly earnings call, details of the plan to crack into the US mobile market were revealed.

The next few years are critical for the US telecoms industry but also the credibility of the FCC and the Department of Justice. Both of these authorities dismissed opposition to the T-Mobile US and Sprint merger, ignoring suggestions it would damage competition. Dish was the reason competition could be maintained, irreversibly changing the US telecoms industry, so it better succeed.

Fortunately, the is being fairly transparent about developments, or certainly more so than most telecoms executives are. But what did we learn from CEO Erik Carlson and Chairman Charlie Ergen last week?

Firstly, $10 billion should be enough to build a nationwide network.

This is a figure which has been banded around quite a lot in recent months without any in-depth explanation, but Ergen believes $10 billion should be enough to meet FCC regulatory requirements and go beyond to create a nationwide network which can compete. There might be a few unforeseen expenditures, spectrum auctions for example, but the team is standing by this estimation.

While the Boost business has not been officially closed yet, the team should have launched in one market by the end of the year, with its own independent core but leaning on the T-Mobile access network. This MVNO agreement will be running for seven years, but the team have already begun talks with tower companies to push forward to create its own network.

What is worth noting is that this work is running independent of the assets which can be purchased from the new T-Mobile company. EVP of Corporate Development Tom Cullen highlighted that deployment planning has begun but once the Boost deal closes, Dish will also have first refusal to acquire cell sites from T-Mobile which are deemed surplus to requirements thanks to the network rationalisation process between T-Mobile US and Sprint.

Although this is detail which some might not have expected, there are still quite a few questions remaining. That said, there is absolute clarity on one area in particular.

“We also took a $356 million impairment charge during the quarter, related primarily to our narrowband IoT build and our satellites D1 and T1,” said CFO Paul Orben. “Now that the T-Mobile/Sprint merger has closed and there is more clarity surrounding our revised build-out requirements. We no longer intend to finish our narrowband IoT build.”

NB-IOT has been struggling to live up to the expectation in numerous markets and this will not help matters. Dish is officially turning its back on NB-IOT, choosing to take an impairment charge on FCC commitments and turn attentions to a 5G network instead of completing the project.

While this might not be the most encouraging of signs, the embracement of OpenRAN and Mavenir as the company’s first official supplier is.

“Marc [Marc Rouanne – Chief Network Officer] continues to work on the architecture and further vendor selection,” said Ergen. “So I would anticipate more of those announcements in the third quarter. And then we’ll share our deployment plans once those are formalized likely on the next call.”

The dynamic of network suppliers is an interesting one for Dish. Ergen highlighted there was a desire to use Huawei equipment, which he described as “best in class”, though the team is being asked to find innovation in new ways. We also found out there is an active dialogue between Dish and Japan’s Rakuten to learn about OpenRAN deployments in the wild.

This is an area many will be keeping a close eye on, not only for validation of a technology which is still not the real deal, but also vendor appointments. The scale of this network, and the aggressive deployment schedule, could force OpenRAN start-ups to grow very quickly. Dish could be a major catalyst for growth for the lucky few who are selected.

It is of course early days, but there are some very interesting developments to keep an eye on here. The team might have opened the door slightly, but there is still much left to discover.

Will the team be able to deploy a network for $10 billion? How will it build its wholesale business unit? When will network slicing begun to be factored in? Which OpenRAN suppliers will be added to the roster over the next few months? Which markets will the postpaid products be launched in first?

With the next earnings call scheduled for July 30, the next three months could offer some very interesting announcements.

OpenRAN lobby group forms in US with 31 founding members

A new lobby group has emerged in the US, known as the Open RAN Policy Coalition, with a mission to guide policy making and encourage the promotion of the OpenRAN movement.

OpenRAN is of course gathering momentum across numerous different segments of the telecoms industry, though it is still in its embryonic days. It will be years before OpenRAN can materially challenge the status quo in the network infrastructure ecosystem, but assistive government policy and a generous regulatory environment could certainly accelerate this roadmap.

“As evidenced by the current global pandemic, vendor choice and flexibility in next-generation network deployments are necessary from a security and performance standpoint,” said Diane Rinaldo, Executive Director of the Open RAN Policy Coalition, though we aren’t too sure how the two are related.

“By promoting policies that standardize and develop open interfaces, we can ensure interoperability and security across different players and potentially lower the barrier to entry for new innovators.”

As a technology set, OpenRAN disaggregates radio, hardware and software components of telecoms networks. The objective is to offer the opportunity for telcos to build networks through a modular design, selecting each component on its own merit as opposed to proprietary technologies which bundle everything together and potentially create vendor lock-in situations.

Theoretically, networks should be cheaper to deploy as there would be greater diversity in the supplier ecosystem with specialists emerging in each segment.

The purpose of this group is as most would expect; to influence government policy for OpenRAN technologies and to encourage enforced diversity in telecoms supply chains. The group will push for policies which are more overtly in support of open and interoperable wireless technologies, funding R&D, lower barriers for 5G deployment and use government procurement to support vendor diversity.

Much of what is being said is hardly different from the corporate and meaningless jargon which litters the industry thanks to the influence of PR agencies who have little more than surface knowledge, but some of the policy objectives are quite interesting:

  • Signal government support for open and interoperable solutions: Perhaps this is suggesting the group will push governments to pick a camp and actively promote open technologies
  • Use government procurement to support vendor diversity: Should the lobby be successful, maybe there will be regulatory requirements to incorporate open technologies into any network which receives public funds
  • Avoid heavy-handed or prescriptive solutions: Could these mean an end to proprietary technologies through legislation?

For some, this might seem like a worrying development (Ericsson, Nokia or Huawei are hardly going to be thrilled) but the move has been welcomed by others in the industry.

“The launch of the Open RAN Policy Coalition shows the momentum building behind a more competitive, innovative, technology ecosystem,” said Attilio Zani, Executive Director of the Telecom Infra Project.

“At the heart of TIP’s work is the development and deployment of open, disaggregated, standards-based solutions – that are developed in conjunction with the operators. This, together with a supportive policy environment that allows new technology to flourish, will create greater opportunities for new entrants and a more diverse supply chain that will ultimately transform the industry to deliver the high-quality connectivity that the world needs – now and in the decades to come.”

The emergence of a formal lobby group is another step towards the breakthrough of Open RAN technologies, though momentum is already gathering very quickly in the US.

In protest against China emerging as the powerhouse of the 5G era, the US Government has been quick to jump on the Open RAN bandwagon. This preference serves two purposes for the US Government; firstly, it dilutes the influence Chinese infrastructure vendors have on the industry, and secondly, it stimulates the creation of US infrastructure companies. There aren’t many US names in the RAN game currently.

Earlier this year, a bill was introduced to Congress to provide up to $1 billion of federal funds to create Western-based alternatives to Chinese equipment providers Huawei and ZTE.

“Every month that the US does nothing, Huawei stands poised to become the cheapest, fastest, most ubiquitous global provider of 5G, while US and Western companies and workers lose out on market share and jobs,” said Senator Mark Warner, a particularly vocal critic of China.

“Widespread adoption of 5G technology has the potential to unleash sweeping effects for the future of internet-connected devices, individual data security, and national security. It is imperative that Congress address the complex security and competitiveness challenges that Chinese-directed telecommunication companies pose.”

OpenRAN technologies are not a market-ready alternative for traditional RAN equipment in most circumstances now, though there is swift progress being made. With the likes of Rakuten and Dish championing open networks, the status quo is beginning to shift, which will only be accelerated with political support. The formation of this lobby group to compound existing support in the US political aisles is a very interesting development.

Founding members of Open RAN Policy Coalition:

Airspan, Altiostar, AWS, AT&T, Cisco, CommScope, Dell, Dish Network, Facebook, Fujitsu, Google, IBM, Intel, Juniper Networks, Mavenir, Microsoft, NEC Corporation, NewEdge Signal Solutions, NTT, Oracle, Parallel Wireless, Qualcomm, Rakuten, Samsung Electronics America, Telefónica, US Ignite, Verizon, VMWare, Vodafone, World Wide Technology, and XCOM-Labs.

Vodacom launches 5G in South Africa as broadband market looks vulnerable

With some lockdown protocols still in place and low broadband penetration, launching 5G with a fixed wireless access (FWA) spin is telecoms opportunism at its finest.

Having recently assigned temporary spectrum by regulator ICASA, Vodacom is making use of 50 MHz in the 3.5 GHz band to launch 5G services in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Mobile subscriptions will of course be on the radar of the company, but with the Huawei 5G CPE PRO FWA router also available to purchase, there is an opportunity to disrupt the traditional broadband market.

“Vodacom’s 5G launch in South Africa comes at an important time as it will help us improve our network efficiency during the COVID-19 national state of disaster,” said Shameel Joosub, Vodacom Group CEO.

“During this difficult and unprecedented period, we are proud to offer world class network technology to South Africa, and all of its associated benefits, as we provide an essential service to keep the country connected. This is largely due to the allocation of temporary spectrum by ICASA which has already mitigated the network congestion we have experienced since the start of the lockdown period.”

Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, mobile traffic on the Vodacom network has increased by 40%, while it has surged 250% on fixed networks. This presents a risk due to network strain and congestion, but an opportunity to launch an alternative to traditional broadband products while demand is at its highest.

South African broadband market (2019-end)
Internet service provider Subscriptions
Liquid Telecom 169,927
MTN South Africa 279,531
MWeb 119,400
Others 462,918
Rain 68,750
Telkom South Africa 2,165,000
Vodacom 235,337
Vumatel 15,042

Source: Omdia World Information Series

“We have talked to CSPs in emerging and also mature markets,” said Dario Talmesio, Practice Leader for mobile at Omdia. “FWA sales have doubled even in highly penetrated fixed broadband markets.”

With traditional broadband penetration down at 28.38% during the first quarter of 2020, Talmesio pointed out a significant opportunity for the right FWA proposition in South Africa. Its fast to deploy, affordable devices are emerging, and the demand is currently present under current circumstances.

With FWA, you don’t have to dig up roads, lay cables, seek planning permission from local authorities or cause major disruption to communities with construction. It is fast, simple and cheaper. And with the low broadband penetration, Talmesio suggests there is a very interesting opportunity.

The question of longevity and sustainability of FWA products in more mature markets have of course come under question, but in rural environments and nations where the economics do not drive ROI for traditional broadband deployment, FWA is a viable alternative.

Vodacom might be the first to launch services on the temporary spectrum licences, but there is certainly more potential considering what ICASA handed out to telcos in April. Some will of course be allocated to improve resilience of existing services, but the stage has been set for a FWA disruption in South Africa.

Allocation of temporary spectrum licences in South Africa
Service provider Spectrum band Block
Telkom 700/800 MHz 40 MHz
2300 MHz 40 MHz
2600 MHz 20 MHz
3500 MHz 12 MHz
MTN 700/800 MHz 40 MHz
2300 MHz 50 MHz
3500 MHz 50 MHz
Vodacom 700/800 MHz 40 MHz
2300 MHz 20 MHz
2600 MHz 50 MHz
3500 MHz 50 MHz
Liquid Telecoms 3500 MHz 4 MHz
Rain 2600 MHz 30 MHz