Total Telecom caught up with Phil Twist, vice president for Communications at Finnish tech giant, Nokia, to discuss the imminent rollout of 5G network services and the challenges of differentiating yourself as a network equipment provider in the current market

With the launch of 5G in South Korea last month, the age of 5G is finally upon us. As the rest of the world looks to follow South Korea’s lead, operators around the globe are going into 5G overdrive in a bid to rollout their next generation mobile networks.

While some of the chasing pack have criticised South Korea for using some pre-standardised technological components in its 5G launch, Nokia says that Korea has acted as a useful "proving ground" for network equipment providers to put their 5G kit through its paces.


Made in Korea

"In Korea, we have to remember that its early market conditions, so it’s kind of like the proving ground for everyone to make sure that the the specifications work in a live environment, that the hardware works in the real world and not just in the test lab, and that it all comes together at scale," said Twist.  

The Finnish tech giant was involved with all three of South Korea’s network operators during their simultaneous 5G launch on the 3rd of April. KT, SK Telecom and LGU+ all used components from Nokia’s end-to-end 5G portfolio as part of their initial launch.

"That put us in a very nice position indeed. Samsung is obviously the ubiquitous local supplier, and they have effectively built a device for the Korean market and radio coverage for the Korean market, which is obviously a little bit separated from the rest of the world and will obviously need bringing into the full 3GPP specification. Ericsson is involved with two of the network operators, Huawei is involved in one, but we are the only company to have been involved in all three," he said.    

"Mainly that’s in a radio capacity, but in order to make 5G work properly you need more than just the radio access. You also need the transport pipes to be fast enough, you need the 5G core network to anchor the work that you are doing, you need a smart enough network fabric of IP and optical to take the traffic end-to-end.

"So, when we talk about 5G end-to-end, we mean that we’ve got all those components in line. Probably about half of the 37 contracts we’ve announced across the world contain other components than just radio access – we are leveraging the full Nokia portfolio.


Bringing 5G to the world

Nokia has currently signed 37 commercial 5G rollout with operators across the world (19 of which are now in the public domain) and is present in all of the world’s major telecoms markets. Twist said that the company’s strength was rooted in its broad portfolio of 5G products, which covers the 5G experience on an end-to-end basis.

"As of our Q1 financial report we were officially up to 36 commercial 5G contracts, 18 of which we are able to name. The deal count has been ticking up since then and we are probably about 10 per cent up on those figures now – the deals are coming in thick and fast.

"That’s the commercial side of things. We are actually involved with over 100 operators across the globe to help them evaluate their networks and get ready for 5G.

"Every single customer who has contracted Nokia 4G has opted to contract Nokia for 5G too. We are really happy with that as a kick start to the whole process.

"One of the main advantages of being a truly global vendor is that we can address every market. We have contracts in every continent – Europe, America, Asia Pacific, India we are involved in every market to some degree," he added.  


Carving a 5G niche

With operators around the world clamouring to get their 5G kit out as quickly as possible, network equipment providers are in a strong position to boost their bottom line over the next 18 months. However, with most operators facing a straight choice between Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei, the question remains – how do you carve yourself a distinct niche in the 5G market place?

Twist believes that Nokia is well positioned to capitalise on the full 5G journey – from the current iterations of non-stand alone, release 15 compliant 5G, right the way through to the full fat, fully automated, stand-alone beast that 5G will become in the years ahead. As 5G continues to evolve, Twist believes that Nokia’s strategy of planning for the future will bear fruit.

"Ericsson is primarily a radio vendor – their portfolio is predominantly at the edge of the network, rather than end-to-end. So that’s a clear point of differentiation with us because we have the whole end-to-end solutions in place.

"Huawei is obviously a very advanced technology company, they have a very broad product portfolio, but there are obviously key markets that they can’t get into.

"When you come down to the products themselves there are also points of differentiation, for example, Nokia’s approach to openness. We are leading with O-RAN and things like that because we see harnessing the capability of the whole market as a better eco system play than trying to do everything yourself. By being open you can actually incorporate other elements into the total solution that you put together.

I don’t know of any single operator who would go to just one vendor [for all of their network requirements]. Therefore, having open specifications between different elements of the solution is essential. We’ve been pushing that very hard from the beginning.


Looking ahead to the future

Like most companies in the telecoms space, Nokia is hesitant to put too many "forward looking statements" on the record. Fair enough – market conditions can change rapidly, and nobody wants to be reminded of their predictions 18 months down the line by a smart Alec journalist.

However, one prediction that Twist was keen to put on the record was the huge and transformative effect that network slicing will have on the industry, once stand-alone 5G is fully ensconced across the globe.

"The true essence of 5G is going to be network slicing – which is coming in the next layer of standardisation. It probably won’t appear in networks until around 2022 but that will then give operators an entirely different business model that they can sell a network slice, rather than merely selling a connectivity service. It’s those network slices that people expect to have in place when they talk about ‘what is a 5G service?’," he explained.  

"If you’ve got a 5G experience in a stadium, what have you really got? If you’ve got a 5G enabled public security safety services, what is it that they have? These are the things that are predicated on having network slices in place that give you the characteristics of connectivity, reliability, latency, throughput, across the end. That’s something that we have a really good handle on because we have built a 5G end-to-end lab in our Murray Hill facility, which is where Bell Labs is based. We’ve built that facility to show operators what 5G end-to-end will look like, so that as they develop their business models, they can see how it works.

"It has to be standalone 5G and it has to be end-to-end 5G to facilitate the network slicing. The interworking between different vendors, making that zero-touch network management possible, is fascinating.

"Where we will get to very quickly is a place where networks become unmanageable by humans. They are going to require AI enabled, network management systems to actually optimise and maintain them – with a vision of having zero touch network slicing. That is what our ultimate ambition is.

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