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Intel: Australia's 5G focus is on commercialisation

In comparison to Korean and US carriers' focus on influencing standards, Australian telcos are more interested in the pure commercial applications of 5G, Intel's head of 5G Business and Technology has said.

While telecommunications providers in South Korea and the United States are focused on assisting in the development and testing of 5G standardisation, Australia's carriers are mainly interested in trialling commercialisation opportunities, Intel has told ZDNet.

According to Rob Topol, general manager of 5G Business and Technology for Intel globally, this doesn't necessarily mean that Australia is lagging; the nation's telcos simply have more practical interests.

"I don't think [Australia] is behind. The difference, though, is ... in places like Korea and the US, you've seen more of an interest in influencing the specification and the standard, so you've seen a lot of early activity there," Topol explained.

"Australia is a focus more on 'let's focus on the use case and actual physical testing', because there's more of a desire to focus on what's the commercial viability of this solution.

"They're both good reasons to jump in and work on the technology."

Topol said Telstra has been a "great partner" for Intel in Australia, with the two collaborating on 5G New Radio (NR) trials.

"We have recently put an agreement in place, and we've not worked through all the parameters yet," he told ZDNet. "There's interest in growing the type of use cases and maybe the industries that 5G can benefit from."

Topol said he expects Intel's trial work in Australia to focus on supplementing the nation's biggest industries, such as mining and agriculture.

According to Topol, Australia hosting a major 3GPP meeting next September again shows the country's interest in commercialisation rather than influencing specifications, as standards should simply be given the final tick of approval during that vote.

"[Telstra] are a participant like many other operators, chip vendors, and others in contributing study items and ideas of how to shape the standard ... [but] when that vote happens, that's really the green light for the ecosystem to start moving to a commercial deployment of 5G," Topol explained.

"We start building chips, Telstra starts placing their infrastructure orders, and they start building out their networks, and the point is that this is a great emphasis on Australia because when that vote happens, it is a pretty momentous or monumental point for 5G, because it's now the beginning of 5G becoming a commercial platform.

"But the study items have been worked on over the last year, and will continue to be worked on until September."

One reason why Australian carriers are so focused on commercial trials could be the regulatory barrier, which means telcos must essentially prove what the network can do before they will be assigned spectrum.

"In many cases, a lot of the partners and ecosystems in Australia, it's also on their shoulders to build those use cases and demonstrate where it does work best and where it doesn't, because that's a lot of times where regulatory bodies need help in properly assigning spectrum," he argued.

"So it's a bit of responsibility on the wireless ecosystem to do that."

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has been examining potential spectrum bands to be used 5G, recently accelerating the process of investigating millimetre-wave (mmWave) bands as well as looking into 3.6GHz, following concerns from the industry that Australia would fall behind international counterparts and lose its global leadership position in mobile.

Over the last year, Australia's three telcos -- Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone -- have been working on live 5G trials with Ericsson, Huawei, and Nokia to show the speeds and latency that various specific consumer and business applications could attain.

By comparison, Topol said Korean and US testing has been more about developing 5G technologies across spectrum, and their use for fixed-wireless to extend home broadband, before expanding into use cases across automotive and mobility applications such as handsets and drones.

In South Korea, Intel has been working with SK Telecom and Korea Telecom on 5G mobile device and network developments and verification, including a modem that supports 5G, concepts for anchor-booster cell and Massive Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO), solutions for Licensed Assisted Access (LAA), virtual network platforms, and joint standardisation.

"A lot of the early [Korean] trials have been on fixed-wireless, because when you bring up a new mobile technology, you first want to make sure that it's a great technology, and so to do that you focus on fixed point-to-point use cases," he told ZDNet.

"A lot of work also has been millimetre-wave based ... we've been able to get multi-gigabit-per-second connections which have been fantastic, and so we're starting to apply that now into automotive use cases ... and then we're starting to do testing on lower frequencies now, the sub-6GHz frequencies which are more like the way that cellular and Wi-Fi technologies work today where it's kind of a broader umbrella coverage.

"We see it really as a technology that's going to use both types of spectrum, both the lower frequencies and the higher, and be a bit of a mesh network."

In the US, AT&T is using Intel's 5G mobile trial platform in its Indiana, Texas, and Michigan trials, while Verizon relies on Intel for its 11 pre-commercial 5G trial networks. The Verizon trials have also been used for testing interoperability and mmWave spectrum.

"Again, it's more the maturity of the technology, and we've had great success in using it in fixed-wireless, and again now you're starting to see the application into early mobility and we've been looking at vehicle testing as the next good platform," Topol said.

"But again, think of the path that the use cases have different states of maturity because some are easier to demonstrate on the technology, and that's where you start, and others take a bit more time.

"They might have a technology barrier, they might have a regulatory barrier. Some industries, there are still some regulatory aspects that need to be worked out before you apply a technology like this."

Intel has also developed a mini Cloud-RAN concept with China Mobile; conducted 5G handset chipset trials with NTT DoCoMo; developed use cases for 5G devices and architectures with Deutsche Telekom; tested 5G devices and technologies using Telefonica's NFV Reference lab and open research lab 5Tonic; and used Vodafone's innovation labs in the UK to test hardware and software and conduct 5G trials on Vodafone's global radio and core networks.

Intel has also been working with networking companies worldwide, collaborating with Ericsson on 5G, cloud, and IoT trials, as well as interoperability across 3.5GHz; Nokia on pre-standard 5G radio technologies, networking solutions, and interoperability; and Huawei on 5G NR, cloud, and network function virtualisation (NFV) solutions.

Intel has also worked with [PDF] Cisco on developing and trialling a 5G router with Ericsson; ZTE on developing a 5G network slicing prototype for China Mobile utilising Intel Xeon processors; and LG Electronics on developing and trialling 5G telematics technology for automotive applications.

Topol said Intel's collaboration with vendors is twofold: Providing them with the infrastructure and compute platforms to be used for trials; and taking part in interoperability tests between base station and network access before taking the results to both 3GPP and carriers.

The partners that work with Intel are all interested in either influencing 3GPP specifications, Topol said, or have "a very specific use case they want to apply it to".

Intel is also seeing increasing amounts of interest as standards are coming closer to being set at the end of next year, with telcos wanting what is almost certain to be the blueprint for how they need to build out their networks.

Intel announced its first 5G trial platform in February last year, supporting sub-6GHz and mmWave spectrum, with a second-generation platform integrating 4x4 MIMO then launched a year ago; this was followed by its third-generation Intel 5G Mobile Trial Platform unveiled earlier this month.

The new platform will allow for device innovation by supporting initial 5G NR specifications in live tests with partners by the end of the year to be developed alongside 3GPP standards, and is powered by Intel's field-programmable gate array (FGPA) circuits and Core i7 processors, enabling it to implement the latest communications protocols and air interfaces.

At launch, it will support 3GPP NR early interoperability; the 600-900MHz, 3.3-4.2GHz, 4.4-4.9GHz, 5.1-5.9GHz, 28GHz, and 39GHz spectrum bands; and a mobile interoperability solution for end-to-end 5G field testing.

"We've already built the hardware, we've already been testing with a lot of the trial specification work, and we'll take the full functionality of that release on it at the end of the quarter with the vote and it'll be available to partners to start testing," Topol said.

Despite testing across many different applications and use cases, Topol still feels that the technologies that will drive 5G in the end are the currently unknown ones, with Intel as a result making end-to-end development its priority.

"Our goal has been defining 5G end to end, not just about one point, not just about the modem and the handset or about something that goes into a cell tower ... this is about making sure that we have a system that supports the rise of all these machines over the next decade," he told ZDNet.

"We'll continue to be a leader in 5G."