MWC 2019: How Nokia's CTO sees 5G fixed-wireless

Nokia CTO Marcus Weldon spoke with ZDNet on 5G, fixed-wireless, and enterprise LTE at MWC 2019 in Barcelona.

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Nokia's FastMile 5G indoor gateway

(Image: Corinne Reichert/ZDNet)

With fixed-wireless being the first way 5G can be monetised, Nokia has made the move to provide access tech with its new FastMile 5G indoor gateway.

So far, 5G fixed-wireless access solutions have been deployed across Japan, Australia, Canada, and the United States, Nokia CTO Marcus Weldon told ZDNet at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019 in Barcelona, with nearly every customer showing interest and Nokia conducting hundreds of trials globally.

The interest is due to both the economics of fixed-wireless 5G being better than fibre to the home, and because of the "hyper competitive" mobile market, according to Weldon.

While fixed-wireless already exists on 4G -- though it has only really been used for regional connections and in disaster relief situations due to speeds being limited to just a few megabits per second -- what has changed to make the technology good enough to serve as an alternative to fixed-line is the advent of Massive MIMO and beam-forming technology, as well as the addition of millimetre-wave (mmWave) spectrum.

For now, it's the customer premises equipment (CPE) that serves as the critical cost for fixed-wireless, but with Nokia having already entered the market, Weldon said this would start to reduce.

Nokia's FastMile 5G fixed-wireless gateway

According to Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri, Nokia's new FastMile 5G fixed-wireless gateway provides speeds of up to 1Gbps.

Despite the unit being sizeable -- due to the 5G tech behind it needing time to mature, and the company also squeezing its meshed Wi-Fi solution announced at MWC 2018 inside -- Nokia said it made a conscious effort to ensure the device was still nice to look at. If people are less likely to hide the gateway, it will provide better service and signal due to it being positioned out in the open, explained the networking giant.

Nokia said it had seen strong interest in the product already, with a second customer in Africa soon to be announced. In the meantime, exploring the real-world use of the device with its first customer Optus means Nokia will be able to iron out the kinks and understand the final challenges.

"It's a very quick way for us to mature a technology, getting it in the field," Nokia said.

"So from that point, it was fantastic to work with Optus. You want someone who wants to move quick, and wants to jump in the deep end of the pool."

Arguing that Nokia has the most complete access portfolio across both fixed and wireless, Weldon said that the service could eventually also be used for mobile connectivity.

"That same technology could provide a mobile function as well, because the radio actually can, if you implement mobility, you can form the beams in the direction of a user who's outside a home as well as inside, and then it goes to a handset rather than the CPE," he explained.

"There's nothing stopping that from happening, so there is some thinking that maybe it's not entirely fixed, that it ends up having a mobile capability as well."

The service will start as a fixed solution, however, "because why would you offer local mobility in just a local neighbourhood"?

"But as you start adding 5G macro, it might make a lot of sense that you've got this nice complement if you do this 5G macro on Massive MIMO, you've got this millimetre-wave local, even a small cell doing mini Massive MIMO locally that's just beamed to homes -- you could make those things interwork," he added.

The radios and device could also detect whether people are consuming bandwidth within a home during the day, or whether to redirect it to mobile users.

Bell Labs is already looking into this now, Weldon said: Dynamically retuning beams based on changing circumstances within milliseconds.

Making money through 5G: Carriers will need enterprise

Nokia's recent 5G Maturity Index showed that carriers must become digital service providers rather than simply connectivity providers. In this way, they would produce enough revenue to make up for the amount they spent on upgrading their networks to 5G.

"It takes more than one use case to justify the network investments," Nokia said.

The real new money for 5G, according to Nokia, is going to be in industrial systems and private LTE networks.

Weldon, however, noted that it would be "years-ish" down the track before telcos begin to see revenue from enterprise 5G -- but when they do, he predicted that it would be equal to the amount being made in the consumer 5G mobile space.

"Most of those features you can start in private LTE mode, but the real volume of that market will be when all 5G specs are done, and a couple of years to deploy it [after that]," he said.

"In three to five years, the revenue will be very visible."

The networking giant sees the rise of private LTE networks in campuses, industrial areas, and mines, especially where Wi-Fi isn't working well enough so LTE and 5G connectivity are needed to wirelessly control intelligent systems.

The private LTE part of the Nokia Enterprise business arm has been "growing rapidly" as a result, the company said.

Over at US tech giant Cisco, Bob Everson agreed, calling enterprise "the place that's most monetisable for 5G".

Cisco is backing this prediction with its "5B for 5G" program, which is providing $5 billion in loans to help carriers transition to new networking technologies.

"Historically, these networks have been defined by the radio access, and now we've moved to an era, and we're really in the era, where the customer can define the network by the services they want to deliver, and by their operational model," Everson said, pointing to Rakuten as an example.

"They can define the network by operational model and by the applications they want to deliver, [like] enterprise platform -- versus having it defined by what's essentially an access technology."

The US market is ahead of the pack on 5G, according to Nokia. Japan and Korea are hot on its heels, followed by Australia and the Middle East, while Europeans are still waiting for 5G spectrum to be licensed.

Suri kicked off MWC 2019 by saying Nokia is confident it has "the right strategy at the right time", with more than 3.8 million 5G radio products in the market already, including with AT&T, KT, Optus, T-Mobile, Vodafone, SK Telecom, NTT DoCoMo, Telia, TIM San Marino, and Rain.

"As of today, we're approaching 100 5G trials," Suri said.

"We are remarkably well positioned."

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