ORAN and CBRS were the main themes at Mobile World Congress Americas, held in Los Angeles. I have to say, though, that unlicensed was the third most important theme, though it will emerge to the main stage in future years.
ORAN encompasses several topics woven together. ORAN is a set of common interfaces that describe how various devices in mobile RAN work together. ORAN may also represent a new way of building radio networks. Recently, new vendors are being invited to bid on major mobile network projects, including Mavenir, Altiostar, Parallel and others. And, the major market share players in mobile RAN, which include Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei, Samsung, and ZTE are being asked by operators to support ORAN. The incumbent vendors are responding in various ways: Samsung, a challenger in the market, has whole-heartedly embraced ORAN, while Huawei has only recently acknowledged the existence of ORAN. Ericsson and Nokia have embraced ORAN with the view to embrace and extend - in the sense that Microsoft used this term in the 1990s. Based on presentations made by Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung, we expect that the incumbents, Ericsson and Nokia,will embrace ORAN but will establish a path to continue serving customers with the same vertically integrated business models of today. We are eager to see the results of mobile network operator bidding to observe how many startups win projects for wide scale deployment.
CBRS. Today, CBRS is available in the US market and has been so for about a month. We had an interesting opportunity to moderate three panels on the stage at MWCa and found some very interesting indoor/campus uses for CBRS, including WiFi backhaul, secure/critical communications, surveillance, IoT/sensor monitoring. Since CBRS indoor spectrum generally allows for more output power than for WiFi, the range is better. We see this as a key advantage for CBRS users, though enterprises who take advantage of the so-called OnGo service must pay various monthly fees such as those for the SAS and potentially other ongoing services. We expect that CBRS will be successful in certain verticals.
Unlicensed. We believe the existence of CBRS could uncork the value of unlicensed spectrum at 900 MHz, 5 GHz, 2.4 GHz, and 6 GHz. We are conducting significant research into each of these and other spectrums.
We attended the operator and vendor consortium of 5G Americas. The themes of the show were: 5G, spectrum, cell siting, Asia-Pacific operator progress. For the second time in the past couple weeks, we saw FCC Commissioner Michael O'Reilly present, and his key messages were similar both times, focusing on CBRS, C-Band and 6 GHz. In attendance from the North American service provider side were AT&T, T-Mobile US, Shaw, and Sprint (we focused on NA operators mainly in this write-up). Notable vendors included Cisco, Commscope, Ericsson, Intel, Kathrein, Mavenir, Nokia, Qualcomm, and Samsung. We would say the most important theme from the show is the surge in interest in unlicensed spectrum, both for the use of mobile operators, as well as competing carriers, as well as by enterprises both for indoor and outdoor applications. For this write-up, we are focusing primarily on comments made by some of the leading operators who attended the conference.
AT&T discussed mmWave, future 3GPP releases, 5G phones, Mobile Edge Computing and indoor cellular, mid-band spectrum strategies, 5 GHz spectrum usage, Mobile Edge Computing (MEC), StandAlone (SA), among other topics. AT&T views mmWave as just a tool in the toolkit, so to speak, and not the only spectrum that is useful in 5G. It considers mmWave to be most helpful in urban and potentially indoor settings. Representatives said that future 5G-oriented Releases 16 & 17 are expected to be software upgrades to existing hardware and won't require new equipment to incorporate these new capabilities which will include network slicing. AT&T is making a big deal about its Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) initiative. At the conference, it emphasized MEC as having two main parts: a) expansion to about 100 edge sites (mostly Central Offices) from about 20 central locations in the LTE era and initially supporting packet core, and b) Microsoft Azure services managed end-to-end by AT&t. The company also emphasized that it plans to pursue some indoor cellular opportunities, some that currently leverage 5 GHz using LAA technology, some that will leverage CBRS and some that will leverage mmWave. We get the impression from AT&T that it is open in how it pursues future mid-band spectrum strategies. Its strategy could change based on: a) the timing of the CBRS PAL licenses (currently slated for June 25, 2020), b) the potential for C-Band private auctions (potentially in the mid 2020 timeframe), c) the potential for some or all of the 6 GHz spectrum availability (where Wi-Fi 6 would co-occupy), as well as other factors. We learned that, at least in certain regions, the company is making very ample use of 5 GHz spectrum using LAA techniques. AT&T seeing its picocells (small cells) get around 100 Mbps from LAA out of a total 130 Mbps inclusive of around three other licensed spectrums. We were surprised the company makes such ample use of unlicensed spectrum where Wi-Fi currently exists. The 5 GHz experience of AT&T leads us to think that 6 GHz, which promises to offer far more spectrum that the 5 GHz swath presently available, could be very beneficial to mobile operators and their consumers, as well as the Wi-Fi industry, and its consumers. AT&T expects that by this time next year, it will be "pushing" 5G to all its customers, part as a result of handsets adopting 5G capabilities, part the result of its network seeing nationwide coverage. Of the services that AT&T operates, it is installing mainly Packet Core in its MEC systems. AT&T is also planning to run Microsoft Azure services in its MEC locations. It expects that both Packet Core and Azure will see a 10-20 ms latency reduction by being located in MEC locations. AT&T says that StandAlone (SA) is "just new software," and downplayed the significance of the upgrade from EPC/NonStandAlone (NSA) to SA.
Sprint "is all-in on 2.5 GHz mid-band deployments for 5G services." Given the company's potential merger with T-Mobile USA, we view its network-build-out choices as being somewhat limited. It has limited options because it increases its near-term value to its acquirer, T-Mobile, if it deploys 5G in 2.5 GHz. Likewise, it is doesn't implement in mmWave, this reduces overlap with T-Mobile, who is deploying there. The company reiterated that it had launched 5G in 9 markets. It is seeing its peak speeds on 5G (aided by the fact that it has simultaneously upgraded hardware to Massive MIMO) be about 3-5 times that of its 8T8R LTE systems. It currently covers 11M POPs and 2,100 square miles with 5G. Sprint also shared that it sees RFPs from customers to replace Wi-Fi with 5G, though it didn't share more about this topic. The company's experience is that in upgrading its macro base stations to Massive MIMO 64T64R capabilities, it is getting 3-4x faster throughput than its 8T8R systems, though in the field these measurements vary widely. Additionally, Sprint said that its Massive MIMO systems relative to earlier systems show "generally the same coverage," with 1-2 dB better sometimes. Sprint is exploring ORAN and vRAN but "not adopting near term."
Shaw (Canada) presented its mobile LTE and 5G efforts and plans. Shaws plans are interesting because the company has significant cable services deployed in Canada. The company said nearly all the mobile technology it has installed in the past three years are "5G-ready." It will use 5G first in 600 MHz, then in mid-band (probably in 3.5 GHz) and the last in mmWave. Shaw expects that low-band 5G handsets will be available in 2020, and, similar to what AT&T said, it expects that is when 5G mobile will start in earnest in Canada. Shaw admitted that it is behind where the US operators are in deploying 5G, but offered no apologies, as it felt it is where it needs to be from a competitive standpoint in Canada. Almost laughing, Shaw explained that it would never consider deploying mmWave along highways, and that only high-density locations would get mmWave coverage. Shaw's view that mmWave is for high-density locations was shared universally by other operators in attendance, including AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile US.
T-Mobile US spokespersons explained that mmWave has seen some challenges, relative to initial expectations and that while it does get mmWave to operate beyond near-line-of-sight, the view of T-Mobile is that mmWave is "just part of 5G." T-Mobile expects 3GPP Release 16 to be completed in 2020, but that it will be 2021 before it deploys Release 16, which won't require "a massive hardware refresh" and which will incorporate industrial and connected vehicles features. T-Mobile views 5G as being appropriate for indoor installations because while mmWave has challenges penetrating glass and concrete, but when 5G operates in low and mid-band spectrums, the "issue goes away." By 2020, T-Mobile expects StandAlone packet core to be ready, but since its current EPC/NonStandAlone (NSA) systems are already virtualized, the upgrade to SA is "not a forklift" upgrade. T-Mobile says virtual RAN (vRAN) "will take time," and that it will "need accelerators," which we take to mean FPGA-based Network Interface Cards (NICs) or the like to allow servers to operate faster than just x86 processors will allow.
We attended the Mobile World Congress last week in Barcelona along with an estimated 104,00 others from nearly every country in the world. We met with over 42 companies and nearly 200 people at the show and attended many press announcements. While most of the MWC19 headlines were about 5G, we were struck that much of the hyped growth will in fact be the result of deployments in enterprises and could be served using unlicensed (or lightly licensed) spectrum. Many of the presentations and product announcements suggested as much, if you read between the lines. We'll step through these two, enterprise and unlicensed next.
The Enterprise opportunity. A major theme we picked up at the Mobile World Congress show is simple: that for the mobile telecom market to grow, 5G must expand to the enterprise. We see ample evidence that without an expansion to the enterprise, the cellular market as we know it will likely experience declines as consumers expect more bandwidth for less in the future. The 5G narrative at the MWC19 show was straightforward: German & Chinese robots, trucks and drones need 5G to unlock the potential for future growth. There were robots, drones and trucks bleeping and whirring to make the point for visitors. We wouldn't argue with the contention that robots and very fast moving vehicles that are controlled remotely need very low latency; yet, there are so many use cases that don't actually need such low latencies.
Wireless is just a small part of "Enterprise." Enterprise 5G use cases being presented at MWC, including the wirelessly controlled robot, involved far more than just a wireless connection to succeed. To automate a workplace with robots, there is far more technology that has to be brought to market, including software, integration, wireline networking and the list goes on. None of these capabilities have traditionally been delivered by telecom equipment vendors; they have been delivered by vendors who have served the enterprise market (examples would be Cisco, IBM, Oracle, etc.).
Unlicensed Opportunity is Robust. In both the enterprise market and the outdoor market, unlicensed spectrum has tremendous potential. This goes for a) WiFi, which is already immensely popular, b) for in-building 'lightly licensed' CBRS (a US-only market), c) the soon-to-be released 6 Ghz spectrum, as well as d) outdoor mid-band spectrum like 5 Ghz (already very popular), e) outdoor 60 Ghz (like the kind relating to the Facebook Terragraph project) and f) 900 Mhz LoRa. While each of these unlicensed (or lightly licensed) frequencies was discussed at the show, 5G licensed was so overwhelmingly promoted it was hard for these exciting unlicensed markets to get any airtime. We think this lack coverage relatively speaking is a dis-service and we'll touch on just a few of them in this post.
Wi-Fi isn't going away. Related to the enterprise 5G topic, we found points and counterpoints about 5G versus WiFi interesting. Huawei's Enterprise group issued a press release about its 802.11ax (WiFi-6) expectations and how important WiFi is for the enterprise market. On the other hand, Huawei's telecom group was pursuing a press agenda about partnering with Operators to pursue the 5G market. Few companies on earth possess as broad a produt portfolio as Huawei, who has ample expertise, market share and credibility in both the mobile wireless market and the enterprise wireless market. We felt this dual-message (5g AND WiFi) was well-balanced. On the other hand, vendors and operators who have historically focused on cellular-only were pushing a "5G will displace WiFi" or at least a "5G is the only solution for mission critical enterprise" agenda. We feel that 5G-only in the enterprise message is to broad-based; we think 5G in the enterprise is far more nuanced because:
802.11ax/WiFi-6 is cellular-like. 802.11ax, which was launched commercially in 4Q18, incorporates many cellular-like capabilities. Many of the technical merits debates presented at MWC compared older 802.11ac WiFi against LTE and 5G NR. This is not a fair comparison because both 5G NR and 802.11ax actually began shipping commercially generally at the same time (4Q18 and 1Q19).
There is very little overlap between the Wi-Fi opportunity and that for cellular. The overlap in opportunities being discussed as the 5G enterprise opportunity at MWC have surprisingly little overlap with the vertical industries currently being served by Enterprise-class WiFi. Take manufacturing, which represents 9% of the Enterprise WLAN market by units in 4Q18. Or the outdoor WLAN market, which is only 3% of total Enterprise-class market in 4Q18 by shipments. The point is, there is very little overlap between the Enterprise WLAN market and the 5G enterprise market being discussed at MWC.
LTE will be the workhorse for many years. Additionally, let's consider the fact that many of the use-cases being discussed at MWC will initially be served by LTE, not 5G. In the enterprise market, the use of LTE in unlicensed (or lightly licensed, like the US's CBRS) bands is often called private LTE. The main difference between unlicensed LTE and licensed LTE is that with unlicensed, the enterprise can work directly with enterprise-focused VARs, resllers, solutions providers and complementary equipment suppliers, while with licensed LTE, the enterprise will need to work directly with its local mobile service provider who owns the spectrum, likely ensuring that the operators becomes the prime integrator of the project, or at least part of it. Private LTE will therefore have fewer parties involved (no operator), lower monthly costs (no operator) and will likely get the project to completion faster (fewer parties and a prime vendor/contractor/solutions-provider with expertise in the enterprise's vertical market). So, why not consider unlicensed/lightly-licensed LTE instead of licensed 5G to achieve the goals illustrated in many of the 5G use cases at MWC?
Where will WiFi lose out? If it has wheels or wings on it, Wi-Fi is not your friend - look to cellular.
To conclude, yes, 5G will fit some very exciting use-cases, especially those for low-latency applications. These are indeed exciting and deserve attention. We see it this way for the wireless industry: if the things involved have wheels or wings, or are of such high value that you must use cellular, there's a good chance LTE will cut it. And next, it makes sense to consider using unlicensed spectrum - which is just emerging as viable for many uses.