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Nokia kicks off pre-MWC race with tech show-and-tell

Al-Lu, Al-Lu... Notice anything new about us?

And then there were four: the Big Five mobile network vendors are reduced to a quartet, though Cisco will be hoping that its new alliance with Ericsson will admit it to the inner circle, while Samsung and NEC remain hopeful of harnessing virtualisation to improve their radio access network (RAN) business.

But the fight is really a three-way one now, of course, with Nokia setting out its Mobile World Congress stall for the first time as the owner of Alcatel-Lucent, and Ericsson set to reveal more about that Cisco partnership – while Huawei looms over them both.

Both European companies stuck with recent tradition and revealed highlights of their Mobile World Congress (MWC) announcements well in advance, though both promise further news in Barcelona itself.

Last year, both companies were heavily focused on software-defined networking and telco transformation, Ericsson adopting "Digital Telco" as an MWC 2015 slogan and Nokia unveiling Radio Cloud. Both were cautious about using the "5G" term too heavily, aware that, in March 2015, and indeed, Huawei introduced its "4.5G" label to reflect the industry’s need to deliver innovative network platforms for the mobile operators, long before 5G was defined.

Managing the 5G transition

This year, the awkwardness about over-using 5G will be over, with the 3GPP standards work underway, and the ITU having confirmed the official "IMT-2020" name and kicked off some spectrum study items. Meanwhile, all the R&D programs being undertaken by ETSI, government bodies, academics, operators and vendors will have far more concrete results to share in Barcelona this year, as 2020 looms closer and 5G becomes more real.

Yet the vendors need to avoid the nightmare scenario where everyone stops investing in 4G networks while they wait for the shiny promises of the next generation. Thus that "4.5G" message will be a critical one this year – keep investing in enhancing the cost:performance of your current networks, and never fear, there will be a smooth migration path to whatever 5G turns out to be.

Operators are understandably cynical about this, since the debate about whether 5G should be based on a whole new air interface is still raging, and they’ve been caught out by the future-proof, seamless migration promises before. However, most of them cannot afford to wait until 2020 – or, for most, 2022 and beyond, when 5G equipment achieves mainstream deployment economics. They need to enhance 4G – and the real risk for OEMs who get the balance wrong will be that they do this so effectively that, come 2025, many operators are still happy to stick with LTE and its new generations, LTE-Advanced and LTE-A Pro.

What is different this time around, compared to the 2G-3G and 3G-4G transitions, is virtualisation. This is a genuinely new approach for mobile operators, but one with some track record and proven technologies in the enterprise, so they do not need to be the only risk takers. And it really will allow carriers to mix and match different platforms – legacy, current and future – while placing the key investments in the glue that will hold all those RAN and core elements together.

This will be a major theme for both Nokia and Ericsson, with both of them looking ahead to Cloud-RAN, dense machine-to-machine networks and 5G. But what was notable about their pre-show events was how much emphasis there still was on current architectures and technologies, and on the nitty-gritty of squeezing more out of an LTE (or even a 3G) network. In the end, behind the glossy Cloud-RAN and hyperdensity displays promised by China Mobile, NTT Docomo and the other groundbreakers, most MNOs’ survival depends, far more immediately, about making those mobile broadband investments of the past decade really work for them in the era of massive data usage and the Internet of Things.

The new Nokia makes its MWC debut

Nokia is certainly presenting a more confident face than the last time it came to Barcelona as a newly married entity – the first MWC for the Nokia Siemens infrastructure joint venture was marked by a last minute legal delay in finalizing the deal, which meant none of the newly minted signage and roadmaps could be used. It was a poor omen for the venture, but in the case of the enlarged Nokia in 2016, there are better portents. No agonizing over a new company name or board level balance of power – Nokia has made it clear this is an acquisition, not a merger, and it is putting its stamp clearly on the new firm, with ALU, apart from the iconic Bell Labs name, consigned to history.

Of course, ALU’s technologies are not, and some of them, notably the router lines and some of the SDN/cloud platforms, will be crown jewels, as will Bell Labs’ 5G and green networking activities. One important aspect of the deal will be Nokia’s ability to target fixed/mobile and even non-mobile service providers, as Ericsson and Huawei already do – an approach it abandoned when it restructured itself around mobile broadband alone. In the era of quad play, the Internet of Things (IoT) and mega-mergers, that started to look too narrow, and so Nokia executives are keen to talk up the new comprehensiveness of their portfolio.

This is seen in a new enthusiasm for Wi-Fi. Like Ericsson, Nokia’s instinct has been to be cautious of Wi-Fi-first, whose proponents threaten to undermine the business model and spending power of its core MNO customers. But ALU has had no such qualms, with its greater focus on the cable operators – the most dangerous Wi-Fi-first players to most MNOs – and on fixed/mobile combinations in general. Last year, one of ALU’s announcements was of integrated cellular/Wi-Fi small cell solutions, and Nokia has taken up the banner.

"Our goal is to put technology out there for service providers, whether they happen to be cable operators or others who may be implementing a Wi-Fi-first kind of approach," Jay Fausch, senior director of cable/MSO (previously at ALU), told FierceWireless-Tech. This year is likely to see major cablecos in north America and Europe going more deeply into wireless services using both WiFi and cellular MVNOs, so Nokia will be leveraging its acquisition’s work on handover between the two networks, on common management platforms, and on virtualising the unified RAN to provide more flexible, on-demand allocation of capacity.

Fausch said in the interview: "The ability to integrate within a true sort of Wi-Fi-first and Voice over Wi-Fi environment is one of the areas in which Nokia is going to excel" by developing “much deeper network intelligence and much deeper voice networking and management of subscriber IP addresses, that can be done in a packet core”.

Nokia will talk further about how the companies’ combined efforts will feed into its cellular/WiFi HetNet roadmap, and eventually in to 5G, which is highly likely to support multiple access technologies from a converged software platform.

New additions to FlexiZone

The physical side of that HetNet strategy, for Nokia, is the Flexi family of base stations and small cells, and its pre-MWC event placed heavy focus on these, particularly the FlexiZone metrocell offering. Among the announcements was SCORE (Site Certified for Overall Relative Efficiency), a ratings tool that has graded over one million sites for their cost of deployment and network performance. The vendor claims this could reduce planning and deployment time by 30% and total cost of ownership by 50% by helping organizations to select the optimal sites for their requirements, first time.

It also unveiled the FlexiZone Mini-Macro Base Station, a which has the footprint of a small cell but operates at higher power (2x20W), for locations where macro-like coverage is required, but it is impossible to instal a conventional base station. And it updated its Flexi Zone Controller, which manages clusters of cellular and WiFi access points and is likely to evolve towards virtualization, in line with the work being done in this area by the Small Cell Forum.

The new version of the current controller features Downlink Coordinated Scheduling as well as Uplink CoMP (coordinated multipoint), which can improve performance at the cell edge by up to 150%, said Nokia. The controller also now supports automatic inter-cell interference management, which can reduce the cost and complexity of indoor dense networks.

In the base stations themselves, the FlexiZone G2 indoor small cell now comes in multiband flavors, supporting up to three bands, including the choice of integrated 80 MHz LWA (LTE-WiFi Aggregation) support.

Randy Cox, head of small cells product management at Nokia, said the changes were designed to address multiple layers of the network, from physical access to deployment to management, as operators move towards “ultra-dense, multi-connectivity HetNets that are easier to deploy and which can provide a differentiating customer experience”.

One of the high profile target markets for these dense HetNets is the public venue, and Nokia is addressing this with a new Pop-up Network service to provide temporary capacity for large events, as well as a Geo-Data as a Service offering to deliver the real gold from such mass gatherings – big data.

Venues and the shift to as-a-service

Both these reflect the trend for the small cell market, in particular, to move towards neutral host or "as a service" models, since it does not always make sense for each operator to build out its own dense, indoor or temporary infrastructure individually. Instead, they can secure capacity for their subscribers from a third party network, which will increasingly be combined with cloud services which handle connection management, customer experience and big data.

So the Pop-up Network combines portable LTE base stations with networking planning and optimization services and with a centralized controller to handle all that. Meanwhile, Nokia Geo-Data as a Service says it “combines anonymized 3D geolocation data from devices with network data, to provide accurate insight into network, device and application performance as well as subscriber behaviour.” This helps operators to tune their networks for maximum efficiency and customer satisfaction, and for both MNOs and venue owners to gain deeper insights into behaviour patterns and data usage among visitors.

Nokia explained: “For example, network planners can spot and correct areas where subscribers are experiencing poor service; marketing personnel can identify subscriber trends and implement campaigns to grow revenue from the most valuable subscribers; or sales executives can pinpoint where their network provides better service than its competitors to leverage with new corporate clients.”

In a very different environment, Nokia is also leveraging its centralized RAN control and its compact access points. Its LTE Fast-Mile offering is designed to support fixed broadband in rural or underserved areas and combines a home indoor router and outdoor antenna, which are self-backhauled to the macro site and a cloud-based controller running on Nokia’s AirFrame server platform.

This has echoes of other Cloud-RAN approaches to rural coverage, such as Parallel Wireless’s, in which clusters of low cost cells are centrally managed and, eventually, fully virtualised. As the mobile world moves gradually towards that software-driven world, Air-Frame – co-developed with Intel – will be one of the most strategic platforms in the enlarged Nokia’s armoury, and will increasingly be supporting networks in markets far less niche than FastMile.

LTE-Advanced Pro features

Nokia also promises to show off a range of features included in 3GPP Release 13, whose specifications will be frozen next month. The 3GPP is calling Releases 13 and 14 "LTE-Advanced Pro" to indicate a clear evolution path from LTE-Advanced (Releases 11 and 12) and 5G (Release 15 onwards).

LTE-A Pro really equates to what Huawei calls 4.5G, with a heavy focus on the IoT (LTE-M ultra-low power modems, and the NB-IoT low power wide area network, are both included). Other key themes of Pro are critical communications, intelligent traffic management, macro layer enhancements to achieve what some call SuperMacro, and a rising proportion of software technologies which can be deployed either on existing infrastructure, or on servers and commodity hardware in emerging cloud-based RANs.

One of Nokia’s LTE-A Pro demonstrations in Barcelona will be of 3D beamforming, which combines vertical and horizontal beams to maximize signal levels in TD-LTE while minimizing inter-cell interference. Outdoor trials indicate that 3D beamforming can quadruple uplink throughput and treble that in the downlink, Nokia stated. It also plans to show off intelligent beamforming with 8x4 antenna arrays to double TD-LTE rates at the cell edge and boost overall sector throughput by 50% on average, especially in higher bands.

On the FD-LTE side, enhancements to be demonstrated include up-link carrier aggregation and 64QAM modulation, which Nokia plans to offer as software upgrades to boost the peak data rates in the networks to up to 150 Mbps. It will also show inter-site carrier aggregation of TDD and FDD carriers from different base stations, which can boost throughput at the cell edge even with existing Release 10 LTE devices.

Ericsson’s first MWC highlights

Over at Ericsson, the main elements of its pre-MWC launch were called Mobile Broadband for Everyone, which is mainly geared to 3G price:performance improvements (more details to come in future issues); and Delivering Extreme App Coverage, the marketing label for a major refresh of Ericsson’s Radio system hardware and software. This effectively sets out the Swedish giant’s roadmap to “evolve today’s LTE to become part of 5G, with the world’s first commercial gigabit LTE downlink data speeds, and hyper-scalable RAN architecture for Cloud-RAN”, as Ericsson put it.

It therefore ticks most of the MWC 2016 boxes, including future-proofing, virtualised RAN, super-high speeds and Release 13 enhancements. The gigabit downlink speeds will be achieved using a mixture of LTE-A and LTE-A Pro techniques including a split-level approach to MIMO antenna arrays – with 4x4 configuration on midrange and high frequency bands and 2x2 in lower bands.

The updated radio architecture will also allow operators to aggregate up to 60 MHz of spectrum from multiple standalone bands (typically of 10 MHz or 20 MHz each). Like Nokia, Ericsson will support 256QAM to increase capacity. Although new devices will experience the maximum benefits – and will not be available until later this year - there will be some improvement in performance even for handsets from Release 10 and above.

Copyright © 2016, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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