Nokia reiterated its commitment to 25G PON in its two-day briefing with industry researchers this week. It also shared some interesting commentary about is progress with Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) and its consumer Wi-Fi devices. But, what makes Nokia’s 25G announcement so interesting is that there is significant controversy associated with the 25G standardization process; 50G PON is also in the race for standardization, too. It seems that the world will split into two purchasing groups: Chinese and Western. We think the fact that two purchasing groups will emerge is a material negative for the telecommunications industry and is a sign of things to come. Nokia has decided to chart its own path, find partners, and make the best of this controversy. Our view is that Nokia’s 25G PON offerings will see more demand than 50G PON in the upcoming years, and when 50G finally becomes necessary, Nokia can move to support it.
For background, in May 2020, Huawei announced to analysts that it is backing a 50G standards process, in cooperation with the ETSI. Huawei calls its 50G development “F5G,” which stands for Fixed 5G. It demonstrated over a video presentation an FPGA-based prototype, and it and explained that it expects this technology to be adopted first by the mobile infrastructure market for connecting RAN radio systems to baseband systems and for backhaul. Then Huawei expects the market will develop for residential PON, and later for enterprise campus connectivity (to replace Ethernet switches). Huawei explained that in February 2020, it has the support of Chinese operators, ETSI members in Switzerland, a European operator, Altice Portugal, and Chinese operators.
On the other hand, Nokia had developed a chipset that specifically supports both GPON and next generation PON technologies; it is called Quillion and has been available for nine months. Nokia had consistently explained on several occasions in the past several months that during a February 2020 ITU meeting relating to 25G PON, 18 members of the ITU were in favor of initiating the 25G standardization project (including ATT, BT, Korea Telecom, nbn Co, Telecom Italy, SK Telecom, Telus etc). However, there was a minority coalition led by operators and vendors from China that objected to the proposal on the grounds that 25G PON would pre-empt their futuristic vision of 50G PON. This in turn resulted in no consensus being met.
In response, Nokia has worked with operators and suppliers interested in pursuing 25G PON in the near-term, which we interpret as the next 1-2 years. This MSA (multi-source agreement) strategy is used by various groups in the technology industry when there is sufficient buying power to move ahead of (or in this case, without) standards ratification; we see if used frequently by hyperscalers when building their bleeding-edge data center infrastructures. We understand that there are a handful of operators, including Chorus (New Zealand), Chungwa Telecom (Taiwan), and NBN (Australia) and several technology suppliers including AOI, MACOM, MaxLinear, Ciena, Tibit and others. The MSA has a website with more information.
Nokia explains that 25G PON shares the same optical technologies as those used in Ethernet Switches that are common and used by data centers and campus switching environments. Sharing common optical technologies with high volume data center deployments will reduce costs . Our view is that in a few years, data center switching demand for 25G optics will continue to rise, and this is perfect timing for Nokia and others who are going to use 25G for PON because the supply will be there and this technology will be mature and lower cost.
There’s one other thing to consider that pits Nokia against others. It decided to develop its own semiconductors to power its infrastructure PON systems (OLTs). Nokia’s chip system is called Quillion, and its introduction means it won’t be dependent upon OLT chip vendors.
What’s even more interesting about this whole debate is just how future-looking it is. PON has moved through two main generations, GPON (2.5 Gbps), 10 GPON (XGS and XGPON), and now we are talking about two different generations, 25G and 50G. Huawei’s 50G “F5G” approach is a “if you can’t join ‘em, beat em” strategy, where Huawei will leverage its home market telecom operators’ volume and a few others to work outside its home territory. Huawei will leverage this technology to three markets over time: 5G backhaul, residential PON and enterprise networking. On the other hand, Nokia is taking matters into its own hands in that it has developed its own chips. What’s happening now is not uncharted waters, but it is rare for the telecommunications industry to splinter into multiple buying groups – usually standards are developed and followed for the benefit of the industry. This time, in the absence of standards, Nokia has forged on ahead on its own and its headstrong ways are likely to benefit it because many Western operators and now actively seeking to diversify away from Huawei in their procurement of fixed network equipment.
The big ideas unveiled at the conference were twofold. First, Huawei is promoting worldwide open standards as a counter to the likelihood that if it gets cut off from US-influenced technology, it may have to create its own, non-standard technology. Second, the company is promoting “F5G,” which is “fixed 5G,” or a global standard for Passive Optical Network (PON) technology that operates at as high as 50 Gbps and can be used for fixed broadband, optical LAN (Campus Networks), cellular backhaul/fronthaul, and even optical Access uses. The company also discussed evolutions or themes discussed at previous events like HAS2019, such as mmWave, FDD+TDD integration, Control User Plane Separation (CUPS), and more generally, 5G. Much to our surprise, the opening keynotes differed significantly from the previous year’s themes in that there was no discussion of the advancements the company was making in developing in-house semiconductors and optical subsystems.
First of all, the company’s keynote, presented by Rotating Chairman, Guo Ping, was focused on Huawei’s views towards the US efforts to thwart Huawei. The Chairman complained about the year-ago Entity List actions, and then more about this week’s escalation of prohibitions against Huawei. Huawei expects these US actions will negatively impact Huawei in the future. It said it is ramping up R&D and is focusing on open standards. It says US’s efforts will hurt US interests. In the past year, Huawei says it has redesigned over 1,000 circuit boards and that it grew R&D 30% last year. Huawei’s supply chain is not “closed off, but open than ever,” and it “will continue to diversify” its base of suppliers. As a result of US restrictions, the company fell $12B short of its plan in 2019. Huawei’s view is that it simply hopes to “survive” in 2020. One key message from the keynote was that Huawei does not want to see a world with two standards and two supply chains for the communications industry.
The company’s big news, in our view, was that it is advocating for F5G, which is a variant on PON technology that could be used in nearly all parts of networks, from indoor enterprise, to residential and business last mile, to cellular backhaul/fronthaul, and so on. The vision, which was shared by co-sponsor, ETSI, a standards body in the telecom marketplace. We think Huawei’s goal of creating a single technology platform that can be used in various markets where today multiple standards exist could be a good one. For instance, in campus LAN environments, one could certainly argue that copper-based Ethernet has run its course (our forecasts are for declining revenue), and in the “last mile,” 1G-class PON and its currently shipping successor, 10G PON will need to be replaced by something. F5G, which would operate at 10 Gbps and 50 Gbps speeds, differs from another consortium’s approach to a 10G PON successor, which operates at 25G. So, on the one hand, Huawei is entering the market with a big idea – to put the same kind of fiber system “everywhere” (to the home, in the business, to the cellular towers, for instance) – at a time when many of these markets are currently, or soon will be, undergoing a transition, is a good idea. On the other hand, there are already other standards bodies working to create accepted approaches for “to the home” fiber at 25 Gbps, for “in the business” at 2.5/5 Gbps, 10 Gbps, 25 Gbps and 100 Gbps (some copper, some fiber), and “to the towers” at 25 Gbps, 50 Gbps and 100 Gbps. If Huawei gets it way, and F5G succeeds to become a standards, while at the same time the other standards continue to progress as they are today, then we’ll end up with two standards, the Huawei/ETSI approach, and the other approaches used by BBF, IEEE, etc. This is what Huawei said it is trying to avoid in the keynote.
We enjoyed Huawei’s perspectives about its experience in the Chinese mobile and fixed market, where we see increasingly Chinese vendors are serving an increasing portion of capital equipment needs, while at the same time, it was interesting to hear about how the company is taking its experiences to other markets like Europe, Middle East, Asia and Latin America. Several topics it discussed that were important, in our view, were the importance of mmWave, FDD+TDD integration, and CUPS. To review each, we thought it was interesting that Huawei continues to view that the mmWave frequency as being limited to a US-only 5G market implementation; it views the C-band (which is mid-band) as the main spectrum where 5G will be deployed around the world, and it thinks this is sufficient to achieve 5G’s goals. Next, the company spent ample time discussing its RAN technology that allows both TDD and FDD to operate simultaneously, explaining that FDD is best suited for lower frequencies and allows for superior uplink capabilities, while TDD is best for mid-band and is well-suited for MU-MIMO, high capacity throughput radios. The company also shared that its CUPS technology has been adopted by 60 customers, which represents significant progress.
We are eager to see the standards “battle” resolved, whether that means Huawei works closely with existing standards bodies, or whether other players worldwide, get on board with F5G, so that the communications industry will benefit from volume shipments and consumers may benefit with lower prices and new technology getting deployed sooner.