ZTE, Telenet Hail Massive MIMO First in Europe

BRUSSELS -- ZTE Wireless & Services User Congress 2017 -- China's ZTE and Belgian cable operator Telenet are trialing what they claim is Europe's first pre-5G massive MIMO technology compatible with paired spectrum.

Demonstrated at a ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763) event in Brussels Thursday morning, the system runs over the 1800MHz spectrum band and includes 32 antenna elements in both the transmitter and receiver devices, representing a huge increase in the number of antennas compared with older MIMO technologies.

The innovation could help the Chinese vendor to expand its presence in the European market -- where it faces strong competition from rivals Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) -- as operators begin to prepare for the rollout of 5G technologies in the next few years.

Vendors have already developed pre-5G massive MIMO technologies that work in time division duplex (TDD) networks, whereby a single spectrum channel supports both uplink and downlink communications.

However, most of Europe's service providers operate networks based frequency division duplex (FDD), which runs uplink communications over a different spectrum channel from the downlink.

"All of the major European operators have more FDD than TDD," said Eddy Tang, the chief technology officer of the Europe and Americas regions for ZTE, addressing an audience that included representatives from several European service providers. "This is ZTE's innovation solution for you."

Belgium's largest cable company, and a subsidiary of cable group Liberty Global Inc. (Nasdaq: LBTY), Telenet has been active as a mobile virtual network operator for several years, previously renting capacity on the network of Orange to provide its own mobile services.

But it became a fully fledged mobile operator last year with its €1.325 billion ($1.56 billion, at today's exchange rate) acquisition of the BASE business then owned by Dutch incumbent KPN. (See Telenet Buys KPN's BASE in $1.4B Deal.)

It has subsequently been working with ZTE at a new innovation center, where it is testing a range of 5G technologies.

"TDD was quite easy to do but FDD was difficult for vendors," said Christian Vyncke, Telenet's head of mobile RAN innovation. "ZTE was the first [vendor] to provide FDD."

Often seen as one of 5G's most important innovations on the connectivity side, massive MIMO works by cramming antennas into the transmitter and receiver devices to boost performance.

The system that ZTE is demonstrating with Telenet features 32 antennas in each of the transmitter and receiver devices, up from a maximum of eight in the most sophisticated older MIMO systems.

ZTE and Telenet say that field trials were carried out in the Werchter festival area -- a popular venue for concerts -- using six LTE devices. "4G terminals are compatible with this technology, and so if you have traditional 4G terminals you can enjoy pre-5G solutions," said Tang.

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The BASE business acquired from KPN Telecom NV (NYSE: KPN) was previously focused on the southern part of Belgium. In the past year, Telenet has been working on expanding coverage and modernizing network capabilities through an initiative called Project RADAR, in partnership with ZTE. It earmarked €250 million ($296 million, at today's exchange rate) for that mobile network transformation in August last year. (See Telenet to Upgrade Mobile Network With ZTE.)

The Chinese vendor says it has already carried out pre-5G massive MIMO trials with operators in the Asia-Pacific region including China Unicom Ltd. (NYSE: CHU) and Indonesia's Telkomsel, recording peak connection speeds of 710 Mbit/s with the former.

It is now planning similar trials with Australia's Telstra Corp. Ltd. (ASX: TLS; NZK: TLS), Italy's Wind Tre, Thailand's Advanced Info Service plc (AIS) and India's Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL), says a ZTE spokesperson.

While ZTE remains relatively small next to its big three equipment rivals, it this week reported an impressive set of financials for the first nine months of 2017, with sales up 7% and net profit rising nearly 37%, compared with the year-earlier period. (See ZTE Surge Continues With 9-Month Profit up 37%.)

In the past year it has made important inroads with operators outside its domestic market, including emerging markets giant VEON (formerly VimpelCom) and Italy's Wind Tre, a merger between VEON's Wind subsidiary and the 3 Italia business owned by Hong Kong's Hutchison.

The Chinese vendor is highly regarded by some operator executives and analysts on the technical front and for the quality of its products, even if it lacks the vast resources of local rival Huawei.

Using a range of bandwidth-boosting technologies including carrier aggregation, MIMO and more advanced modulation techniques, it previously claimed to have hit connection speeds of 1.3 Gbit/s on a 4G network. "That was one of the highest speeds ever reached on an LTE network," says ZTE's spokesperson.

— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading

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