Ericsson Kickstarts 5G RAN Arms Race
Ericsson has fired the next-gen mobile infrastructure starting gun by announcing what it claims is the world's first commercial 5G radio access network (RAN) product.
The Swedish vendor has unveiled the AIR 6468, a mobile network access product that it says will conform to the 5G New Radio (NR) specifications being developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP).
The move will no doubt be followed by similar announcements from Ericsson's main RAN rivals, including Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. , Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) and ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763).
But with 5G not expected to be mainstream until 2020, and with 5G standards not expected until 2018, why (and how) is Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) announcing a 5G network product now?
According to Ericsson's head of 5G architecture, Joakim Sorelius, the AIR 6468 radio will support TDD (time division duplex) LTE deployments -- so it can be used immediately for 4G services -- and ultimately 5G applications.
So, when you strip away the marketing, when it becomes available it will be 4G-capable and 5G-ready. (See What Does It Mean to Be '5G Ready'?)
And it's not quite available yet. The product will be ready for testing by network operators in the near future, says Sorelius, and will become commercially available in mid-2017. The vendor is also planning to release an FDD (frequency division duplex) version of the product, though the timing of this is unknown.
The new product includes advanced antennas (64 transmitters and 64 receivers) that enable 5G features such as beamforming and Massive MIMO that, says Sorelius, will enable between five and six times more capacity than current radio access networks and enable greater data throughput. Initially, the product will support the 2.6GHz frequency, which is being used in Europe and Asia, but "over time it will support all frequencies below 6GHz," says the Ericsson man.
The company believes that the combination of this new product, along with its existing Radio System Baseband 5216 processing unit (currently being used in 5G field trials) and the 5G "Plug-In" software modules it announced in June, means it can deliver all the components needed for a 5G access network. (See Ericsson Offers Taste of 5G With 'Plug-In' Software Modules.)
And Ericsson isn't announcing this in isolation: In addition to the AIR 6468, the company is also announcing today a range of new additions to the Ericsson Radio System, launched last year, that "address key 5G requirements," including new radio and baseband units that support faster data throughput speeds and cloud RAN capabilities. (See Ericsson Unveils 5G NR Radio for the full details.)
Altogether, then, "this is a big announcement, in the sense that it includes a lot of product news and, of course, Ericsson's claim that it will be first to commercialize 5G New Radio (NR) in mid-2017," says Heavy Reading senior analyst Gabriel Brown, who has tracked the RAN market for more than a decade.
"The majority of the product announcements focus on enhancements to the company's flagship radio access product, the Ericsson Radio System," notes the analyst. "There are performance enhancements to the portfolio -- such as Massive MIMO and unlicensed operation -- and enhancements to deployment and operations, including rail-mount baseband modules and spectrum tools. These are important capabilities that target the peak productivity years for LTE technology."
He adds: "The 5G NR product announcement is interesting. Essentially, this is a new 64-port active antenna module and baseband unit that will, in principle, be capable of supporting the 5G NR air interface at a later date. However, the product is likely to be used initially to support LTE in TDD bands. It has comparable power output to existing RF units, but is able to generate additional performance gain from beam-steering techniques. Again, this can be important in advanced LTE networks."
In terms of the 5G capabilities, this looks very much like the Swedish firm's opening gambit, notes Brown. "At the same time, Ericsson is positioning this hardware platform as capable of running 5G NR software when that's available. This is a reasonable claim and, for trials and perhaps some early deployments, it would be an attractive platform for certain 5G NR profiles. However, it doesn't look like Ericsson's big entry into 5G RAN. It's a start -- a 'way marker' -- but there will be lots more to come from Ericsson and the rest of the industry on NR over the next couple of years."
But is this really 5G?
That's all very well, but given that 5G specifications have yet to be agreed, can this really be referred to as being a 5G access system?
Sorelius says Ericsson's extensive involvement at the 3GPP standards-setting group means it's very confident that its new product is in line with 5G architectures and that, once 5G standards are agreed, a software upgrade is all that will be needed to make this radio access system compatible with 5G standards. "A lot of people use the term 5G to refer to a lot of things -- what we are talking about here is conforming to 5G NR," says Sorelius.
But is this all really just for bragging rights? "Well, we have a good case for bragging," laughs the Ericsson man. In the short term, Ericsson hopes operators will deploy it to increase 4G cell site capacity and throughput, "and then use our 5G plug-ins to make the migration to 5G as smooth as possible."
All of this appears to play into the battle amongst the main mobile access network vendors to position themselves as 5G leaders. In addition to Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia and ZTE have all been announcing technology advances that can help to make networks "5G ready," and it's inevitable that similar product announcements will be forthcoming from Ericsson's main rivals in the coming weeks and months.
Ray Le Maistre, , Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading