MADRID -- 5G Core Summit 2019 -- Orange Spain's Tomas Alonso has no desire to join rival Vodafone in this year's market for new 5G services. As far as he is concerned, the technology is still not mature enough to make any real difference to customers. Spanish authorities are not helping, either.
That's partly because operators still lack the spectrum they need to provide a high-quality 5G service, said the head of product engineering here in Madrid. Yes, Spain held its relatively civilized 5G auction way back in July 2018, when Orange collected 60MHz of spectrum in the 3.6GHz-3.8GHz band. The trouble, it seems, is that telcos' band plans look like a piano with missing keys. "In almost all cases, the spectrum is allocated in different packets," said Alonso. "We need to do some shuffling to have contiguous bands so that we can provide the best experience in 5G."
Having picked up 90MHz in the auction, Vodafone might be in a stronger position. Regardless, the Spanish regulator is clearly under some pressure from Orange to help sort out the mess. It is also feeling some heat on the 700MHz front. "The earliest date [for an auction] is the first half of next year," said Alonso. That spectrum will be needed for "effective and efficient" mobile rollouts, he said.
But it's not just the spectrum situation that bothers him. The 5G network equipment currently available remains "too heavy" and too power-hungry for his liking. "To be efficient, we need to wait a bit more and then have a better ROI [return on investment] when we deploy the network," he said. Nor is the operator's backhaul infrastructure in place on a mass-market scale. Orange is piggybacking on its investments in fiber-to-the-home networks -- which today reach more than 14 million Spanish households -- and extending fiber lines to mobile sites. But the job is not yet done.
Then you have the devices -- or rather, you don't. "They are all very high end today and [each] costs more than €1,000 [$1,100]," said Alonso. None is yet available that supports the "standalone" (SA) version of 5G, which uses a new 5G core network in conjunction with the 5G New Radio technology.
Of course, no European operator is ready with its 5G core. In the meantime, operators are deploying services based on the "non-standalone" (NSA) system, which hitches the 5G New Radio to an existing 4G core. Alonso does not sound overly impressed. "So far, we have completely defined the enhanced mobile broadband [eMBB] functionality and in the second and third steps there will be newer standards for latency and mobile IoT [the Internet of Things]," he said. "Standalone will be mature in a matter of months … The real technology that will provide all the promises of 5G is not here."
Nevertheless, Orange is currently guiding for a commercial 5G launch in Spain by the end of 2020. And while the details remain thin, its plan is to focus initially on eMBB before moving into other service areas "as soon as the standards are ready," said Alonso. Before then, Orange is working on 5G trials in Madrid and several other big cities. As far back as December 2017, it recorded 15Gbit/s speeds during a pilot of millimeter wave spectrum in the Spanish capital. It has also managed a video call on SA technology in Valencia.
According to Alonso, the biggest challenge is to change how the company works. "The way we deliver value to customers will be completely different from the way we deliver value to customers with current technology and so we are spending a lot of time on that," he said. That overhaul appears to involve setting up dedicated 5G teams and breaking down some of the silos that currently separate technical and commercial departments.
Other stakeholders, including regulatory authorities, will need to get on board, said Alonso. Besides calling for action in the spectrum arena, he wants to see an easing of rules about radio electrical transmissions. Without that, activating 5G sites across the country could prove difficult. "We have to change processes but also the way that we validate if a node can be put on air," he said.
A further demand is for some type of certifications process that would remove doubts about the security of 5G technology. "It is something we talk about a lot, but we need the sector to complete the analysis to have certifications," said Alonso. "That is something we need in the short term." As Vodafone and other first movers race into the 5G market, the lack of any system is something early adopters may have to live without.
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading