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Tech giants fight to be first in 5G

Read time 6min 50sec
The race is heating up to be first in 5G.
The race is heating up to be first in 5G.

With Mobile World Congress 2019 in Barcelona, Spain just a month away, the race for 5G firsts is heating up.

Chinese telecoms giants ZTE and Huawei announced new 5G-related breakthroughs in the last two weeks, as equipment makers and telecoms operators ramp up the rhetoric on the fifth-generation technology.

Huawei is the world's biggest producer of telecoms equipment and ranks second in global smartphone sales, behind Samsung and ahead of Apple. ZTE is China's second largest telecom vendor and the fourth largest in the world.

ZTE last week claimed it made "the world's first 5G call" by means of ZTE's 5G prototype smartphone at a field trial in Shenzhen, China.

However, Fiona Vanier, ICT senior analyst at Frost & Sullivan, says in June 2018, Finnish operator Elisa claimed it had made the first 5G phone call, which took place between the Estonian minister of economy Kadri Simson in Tallinn, Estonia and the Finnish minister of transport and communications Anne Berner in Tampere, Finland.

"Everyone wants to be the first to do something. Obviously, 5G phone calls are exciting news since this heralds the advent of 5G communications, which is much more important than being 'the first'," Vanier says.

"ZTE, in particular, has been trying to place itself at the forefront of the 5G 'revolution' as a thought and technical leader. This is an attempt to position itself for future 5G competition as a vendor," adds Dobek Pater, director of business development at Africa Analysis.

So, why is a 5G phone call such a big deal anyway? Vanier says it is significant because it represents the next evolutionary stage in the development of mobile connectivity.

"This is not so much about a 5G call as it is about the broader possibilities that will be enabled with 5G technology. 5G technology will facilitate the support of many more mobile devices, will reduce network traffic and congestion and will allow for the development of many more Internet of things (IOT) services. It will also enable the development of smart cities, with more and more municipal services being administrated and run via mobile networks. In addition, 5G networks utilise much less power than their 4G or 3G counterparts, which is good for the environment," she says.

Pater adds this is significant because the expectation is that with 5G, all calls will be made as data calls, doing away with the traditional circuit-switched call technology.

"Many operators have already been moving to mobile [voice over Internet Protocol] VOIP over 4G networks [VoLTE], so 5G will be the logical progression of this."

However, in the South African context, he says mobile operators have not moved holistically to mobile VOIP services, although the service is available.

"One of the reasons is that there are still a lot of 2G handsets in use in SA and will remain in use for at least the next few years. We expect that by the time we see broader 5G deployment in SA, probably two to three years from now, there will still be 2G handsets in use in the country. Therefore, even though the technology will be available to make VOIP calls over 5G infrastructure, traditional circuit-switched calling will still be very much in use," Pater explains.

ZTE claims to have made the world's first 5G call.
ZTE claims to have made the world's first 5G call.

ZTE said the field test with China Unicom was the world's first commercial test to call in the non-standalone mode and also "completed the verification of diverse services, such as WeChat group voice call, online video and Web browsing".

Pater says these types of services are already in use but will become a lot more prevalent over the next few years.

"Some of these are more data-intensive than others (eg, video streaming/downloading/video calls) and 5G networks will be better suited to handle such traffic on a large scale. However, in the context of the ZTE test, it is important to successively test the simpler applications to ensure the technology (from a standards perspective) is stable and delivers what is expected of it.

"In general, 5G infrastructure will be used to handle large quantities of data traffic simultaneously, allowing the proliferation of usage of data-intensive apps and a lot more location-based services. At this point, we don't even know what apps may be coming to the fore by the time 5G is prevalent. They are yet to be invented," he adds.

Chipping away

This week, Huawei officially launched its 5G multi-mode chipset, Balong 5000, along with the first commercial 5G device powered by it, the Huawei 5G CPE Pro. Huawei said the chipset supports a broad range of 5G products in addition to smartphones, including home broadband devices, vehicle-mounted devices and 5G modules.

Balong 5000 supports 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G on a single chip and has the capability to perform to industry benchmarks for peak 5G download speeds.

The analysts agree these chipsets are a big step forward in terms of the evolving 5G landscape.

"They are important as they form part of the commercial development of the technology, its various components, and signify progression towards wider-scale infrastructure deployment over the next few years as various technological network components are developed and then produced on a large scale to decrease the cost of production and, therefore, the cost of network build-out," says Pater.

Vanier adds that when looking back on the development of 2G and 3G technology, it is clear that a few mistakes were made.

"One of the most notable was the heavy upfront costs paid for licences and network equipment. In some instances, network operators struggled to recoup these upfront costs, especially in fiercely competitive markets.

"In many of today's markets, operators are much savvier. They are keen on the development of software that enables them to use existing infrastructure and avoid heavy investment in yet more hardware. Consequently, the development of a 5G multimode chipset that supports 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G on a single chip is very important," she adds.

Huawei also yesterday launched the "world's first core chip specifically designed for 5G base stations" called the Huawei Tiangang. The chip promises to support simplified 5G networks and large-scale 5G network deployment all over the world. To date, the company says it has signed 30 commercial 5G contracts and shipped over 25 000 5G base stations globally.

Huawei this week launched a multi-mode chipset.
Huawei this week launched a multi-mode chipset.

SA advances

Pater says SA is already seeing small pilots of 5G but it is really as a way to test the technology and "more of a marketing gimmick at this time" to be able to claim being the first or one of the first to deploy 5G in the country.

"The government indicated it plans to allocate 5G spectrum in 2020 and we can probably expect to see deployments start in earnest in 2021/2022 in the large urban centres, in specific areas. Deployments are likely to gain momentum in 2023/2024, when we are likely to see broader geographic deployment.

"At this point, as a country we are still focusing on 4G deployment, in particular in the more under-served areas. If the relevant spectrum is awarded during 2019, we will probably see a period of [additional] 4G infrastructure deployment in 2021/2022," Pater adds.

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