5G vendors compete on end-to-end – but is that what cellcos want?

5G MWC18

Begun, the 5G Vendor Wars have.

Well, not exactly – the 5G battle has been ongoing for some time and is really an extension of the ongoing decades-old competition to supply the world’s mobile networks.

But with the first 5G standards completed by the 3GPP in December, this year’s Mobile World Congress has been deluged with media blitzes from major mobile vendors showcasing their 5G portfolios and the vast superiority thereof, with the main competitive differentiator (at least from a marketing perspective) being end-to-end capability.

At Nokia’s pre-MWC event on Sunday, CEO Rajeev Suri specifically cited Nokia’s end-to-end portfolio as its chief advantage in responding to the sooner-than-expected acceleration of 5G demand.

“5G requires an end-to-end rethink of the network to support things like network slicing, for example,” he said. “An end-to-end offering is beneficial to the operator in terms of better TCO, reliability and time to market.”

That end-to-end approach also applies at the chipset level – in this case, Nokia’s ReefShark chip, which it unveiled shortly before MWC. “The software is no good if the hardware can’t support 5G throughout speeds,” Suri said.

At its own event the following day, Huawei touted its 5G line-up as the only “true” end to end 5G portfolio from the core network all the way to the device itself. Yang Chaobin, president of Huawei’s 5G product line, specifically emphasized the device angle, as Huawei (unlike Nokia) has its own device unit – and its own Kirin chipset for those devices.

“Developing our own Kirin chipset has enabled Huawei to produce its first 5G device [a home broadband CPE], which was unveiled at CES in January,” he said.

The obvious question is what this emphasis on end-to-end means for carriers who prefer (or require) best-of-breed multivendor solutions – especially at a time when the ICT industry has been moving steadily away from proprietary hardware and software to open-source solutions.

When asked, both Huawei and Nokia stressed that their products will of course work in multivendor environments.

Huawei’s Yang cited 3GPP standards compliance, its ongoing device interoperability tests (with network interoperability tests coming later this year) as evidence of its commitment to multivendor support – but added that Huawei’s technology is still superior because of its road-tested experience with massive MIMO and its support for cloud-based architectures, among other things.

Suri of Nokia said multivendor environments are a fact of life for the business and he’s happy to work with other vendors.

“We’re just saying that there’s a lost opportunity if you don’t get one vendor with one end-to-end portfolio with pre-integrated, pre-tested solutions that help with optimization and reduce the TCO, increase reliability and actually increase the time to market advantage,” he said.

Nokia and other vendors have made similar claims about previous Gs in the past, but Suri said 5G is different because 5G is “a fundamental reinvention of the network” that has to support new features like cloud architectures, automation and network slicing.

“If you look at network slicing, for example, not everyone does that with the same capability at the network level,” he said. “And if you go through all the systems integration work to create a hybrid network, you won’t be able to get to a zero-touch network … because you won’t have that level of sophisticated automation, and that may hurt your ability to pursue those industrial use cases.”

Unsurprisingly, specialist vendors looking to be part of best-of-breed 5G networks see things differently. For example, Ciena just made its 5G play in the form of a new open wireline network architecture that enables operators to take a best-of-breed approach in making sure their networks can handle the upcoming network performance expectations of both 4G and eventually 5G.

And it’s designed that way, says Ciena CTO Steve Alexander, because operators increasingly prefer an open-architecture approach so they can mix and match rather than relying on one vendor for everything.

“If you go and look at all these various industry activities such as TIP, xRAN, cloud RAN, open API designs and those kinds of things, that’s being driven out of the carrier world saying, ‘I don’t want closed proprietary based solutions anymore’,” Alexander told Disruptive.Asia .

“Open architectures may not be the place you start, but it will be the place you eventually get to. We’re betting that will continue to play out in this space,” he continued. “There will be a bit of a war out on the edge between the RAN establishment, but I think in the long-term the economic benefits of an open architecture are going to win out.”

NOTE 1: Speaking of TIP, it’s worth mentioning that Nokia is a member, and has been actively working on the organization’s OpenCellular base station project, among others. Earlier this week, the company announced it would combine its wireless PON with Facebook/TIP’s open-source Terragraph technology to launch global gigabit broadband trials in 2018.

NOTE 2: Huawei is not a member of TIP.

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