CEO Chat With Huawei's Dr. Wen Tong

Light Reading's Steve Saunders sits down with Dr. Wen Tong, Wireless CTO at Huawei, to hear his views on the state of the 5G project – and what may lie beyond...

Steve Saunders, Founder, Light Reading

July 14, 2016

10 Min Read
CEO Chat With Huawei's Dr. Wen Tong

There's no question that, come 2020, 5G technology will turn the world's conception of what mobile networking is on its head. Within the world of 5G development, Dr. Wen Tong is known as a key mover and shaker. That's not surprising, given his resume. Prior to joining Huawei in March 2009, Dr. Tong worked at Nortel where he pioneered fundamental technologies in wireless with 240 granted US patents. In other words, when it comes to developing wireless tech, he has form. So when Huawei offered me the chance to interview Dr. Tong, I leapt at the opportunity. Here's what he had to say.

Figure 1: Dr. Wen Tong, Wireless CTO at Huawei Dr. Wen Tong, Wireless CTO at Huawei

Steve Saunders: Hi Doctor Tong, great to talk to you today.

Dr. Wen Tong And you, Steve.

SS: Your main job right now is to help Huawei and the rest of the industry develop 5G. How is that going?

WT: Relatively smoothly. Back in 2012 when I first started to talk about it no one was very excited, but now we not only have industry consensus around 5G, it has actually become a brand that everybody wants to associate with. So on one hand it's progressing very well. On the other hand we still have some challenges. My mandate is to work both inside Huawei, and also externally, because 5G is an open technology -- it can't be limited by what one company wants to do. So my high-level objective, from back in 2013 all the way through to 2018, is to make sure we develop strong 5G technology that will be embraced by the entire global ecosystem and standardized in time for a commercial launch around 2020.

SS: Do you think there is going to be a consensus about the best way to deploy or develop 5G and are there disagreements between the leading companies that still need to be resolved?

WT: In terms of the overall 5G definition, or the vision as a whole, we already have industry consensus that 5G will be built around three use cases: enhancing mobile broadband; massive machine type of communication; and ultra-reliable low-latency communication. The last two are not really present in the previous generations, which is what sets 5G apart. So this definition is clear and everyone is on board.

But there's a second aspect to this, which is the specific technology paths that companies will take to make the 5G vision a reality. Of course, every company is at different places in terms of how advanced their technology is, and Huawei has done a lot of work early on which put it a step ahead. Even so, the whole industry agrees that the standardization of 5G must happen within 3GPP, and I think that process is also running very well.

The place where there will be competition is around who has adopted the best technology, and how they are managing the timeline; in other words, when to deliver which technology, and where, and to which users, factoring in both customer and market needs. This is where we are focused now.

SS: So that's where the differentiation comes, correct? Both in how well vendors implement the standard, but also how they prioritize different geographies and industries?

WT: Yes. It's mostly about setting priorities, and getting the timeline right.

Next page: 5G and the developing world

5G and the developing world

SS: New high-speed technologies like UBB [ultrabroadband] and 5G have the potential to upgrade the quality of life, not just quality of service, for the population of the entire world. However, I'm worried that they won't end up being deployed in the places which would benefit most from them -- and where they would be genuinely transformative -- such as Africa and the remoter parts of India. It feels like there is a real risk that those parts of the world will just have to struggle carry on with low-speed networks or broadband networks while the rich enjoy UBB and 5G. My sense is that Huawei is more likely to prioritize the deployment of these technologies in developing markets than some of its competitors. Do you think that that's true?

WT: It's true; we're clearly a global company serving a truly global market. We have as much of a footprint in the developing world as we do in the developed market. From a technology perspective -- our R&D capability, our product capability -- we cover both.

And in terms of the developing world, once a new technology is available what you sometimes see is that they actually end up adopting it much faster, because they can skip a whole generation of older technology.

Your concern is still very valid, but I think 5G has some characteristics that will help its adoption in the developing world. It provides a very flexible, scalable way to carry video -- all the way from narrow band to the very wide band. And it will make it easy and painless to launch new cloud services in developing countries. Those are some of the things that 5G can bring to the table, and which will help drive deployment in the developing markets.

SS: Are there one or two parts of the world that you think will adopt 5G faster than everyone else?

WT: Yeah, the US market, as well as Japan, Korea and China all clearly have potential to launch an early version of 5G.

SS: What's the delta or difference in cost between installing 4G today and installing 5G in 2020, backing out all of the inflationary differences? Is that 5G network going to cost the same as a 4G network today because of all of the competitive forces between the vendors, or is it going to be an order of magnitude more expensive?

WT: There are a few different investments that service providers need to make. The first is on the network infrastructure side. This is something customers have to do anyway; it's not really a 5G-specific issue. A second area is on the new spectrum required for 5G. This is a second cost factor that is entailed by the customer. Then, for 5G, everyone will adopt it as a technology upgrade. Meaning that you can scale in the investment depending on market velocity and business case -- and you can easily reconfigure or adapt the technology, without having to make a decision where you say, "OK, let's shut down those generations, and then power up this generation."

I see the cost of the upgrade being dramatically reduced compared to 4G technology. I'm really optimistic that new radio technology when combined with good engineering process will help us contain the cost challenge. We may talking about a magnitude of two to three over 4G -- something of that order. Also, it's hard to imagine this will happen overnight, where you put down a dollar to set up a new network. It's a relatively gradual process.

SS: Let me ask you a really stupid question. Why do we need a high-speed 5G network for IoT and machine-to-machine applications? Don't they actually need a very low-speed network?

WT: Well, 5G is capable of both low speed and high speed. Not every connection has to be multi-gigabits per second. For sensor traffic you might only need a few kilobits per second, a few bytes. But both types of traffic will be on the same network, the same infrastructure. 5G allows this to happen using so-called network slicing technology, which allows the network to support both very low latency traffic and other applications. It's a programmable feature in 5G.

So we're no longer talking about having this technology for this band, or that technology for that band. The network is capable of handling it all, you just have to map your assets to the requirements.

SS: Got it. How is Huawei helping to prevent the politicization of 5G? Or are vendors really behaving themselves?

WT: As a global vendor we are definitely playing that role. We need to create a technology that will meet the needs of all future business demands. One way to do that is by making 5G software programmable so that it can be modified to deliver the requirements needed in different regions.

Then there's the standardization process itself. As with the previous generations, the harmonization process requires some give and take. As long as we have one single global standard, I have complete faith that the process will prevail.

In fact, at the Radio Grand Plenary meeting in Pusan in Korea, the 3GPP people provided a modified 5G plan that enables early market adopters to implement an early version that is upgradable to a full version when the standards are finished. That's a clear and very positive reaction to addressing the needs of the market. At another level this is business as usual. In any standardization process there will be a lot of debate. What is emerging is a very robust platform that harmonizes a lot of different competing technologies. We've been through this before. I'm very optimistic this round.

Next page: Roll on 6G!

Roll on 6G!

SS: You've been involved with all of the G's haven't you? From 1 to 4 now 5. Did you learn any lessons from the previous wireless versions that you're applying here in terms of how to develop these technologies smoothly?

WT: The thing that it is very clear for me is that we need to embrace as much disruptive technology into creating the next generation. Radio technology, for example. This networking technology requires dramatic change, with cloud-native technology coming to the network. We have to be very clear on this. Any sub-optimal technology will have an impact on the longevity and scale of the 5G market -- that is clear.

The second important lesson is that we need to build the ecosystem. IT's not about one company. We need to build a very early consensus. The third lesson to learn, which we made clear on day 1, is that everybody has to be committed to global standardization.

SS: Absolutely. We can't have one vendor or even country leading the equivalent of a Brexit. Do you have any advice for network operators to get ready for or prepare themselves for 5G?

WT: First, they have to figure out the demand market, and base their roadmap on their specific market situation. Second, they have to be prepared. The main issue is spectrum preparation -- are they carving a new set of spectrum, or reforming some previous spectrum? These are things they need to think about now because they take years to work through.

SS: Do you think we'll ever see a 6G?

WT: Yes, I believe there will be another technology evolution within ten years, based on new technology innovation. And on the business side this technology will enable something else. These two things have to intercept. When that happens is when we will see a 6G, or even a 7G. The generations don't stop.

SS: Fantastic!

WT: I'd like you to have the opportunity to come in in person and see what our 5G technology looks like in detail.

SS: I would love to do that. Hopefully this interview is the first step in a longer conversation. I'd love to spend some time in the lab with you.

WT: You'd be very welcome.

SS: Thank you.

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About the Author(s)

Steve Saunders

Founder, Light Reading

Steve Saunders is the Founder of Light Reading.

He was previously the Managing Director of UBM DeusM, an integrated marketing services division of UBM, which has successfully launched 45 online communities in less than three years.

DeusM communities are based on Saunders' vision for a structured system of community publishing, one which creates unprecedented engagement among highly qualified business users. Based on the success of the first dozen UBM DeusM communities, the UBM Tech division in 2013 made the decision to move its online business to the UBM DeusM community platform – including 20 year old flagship brands such as Information Week and EE Times.

Saunders' next mission for UBM is the development of UBM's Integrated Community Business Model (ICBM), a publishing system designed to take advantage of, and build upon, UBM's competitive strengths as a leading provider of live events around the globe. The model is designed to extend the ability of UBM's events to generate revenue 365 days of the year by contextually integrating content from community and event sites, and directories, to drive bigger audiences to all three platforms, and thereby create additional value for customers. In turn, these amplified audiences will allow business leaders to grow both revenues and profits through higher directory fees and online sponsorship. The ICBM concept is currently being discussed with a broad group of business leaders across UBM, and is earmarked to be piloted in the second half of 2013 and early 2014.

UBM DeusM is Saunders' fifth successful start-up. In 2008, he founded Internet Evolution (, a ground-breaking, award-winning, global online community dedicated to investigating the future of the Internet, now in its fifth year.

Prior to Internet Evolution, Saunders was the founder and CEO of Light Reading (, Heavy Reading (

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