Nokia kicks off MWC with a 5G launch for carriers that want to be ahead of the pack

Nokia has taken the wraps off a new fifth-generation product for network service providers that are looking to launch 5G networks early.


Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri at MWC.

Image: Nokia/ZDNet

Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri took to the stage today at MWC in Barcelona to announce a new 5G product, as well as a rollout of its 4.5G Pro kit with Telefonica in the UK.

While the official 3GPP 5G standard has yet to launch and the first fifth-gen network isn't expected to go live until next year at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, Nokia has unveiled an early end-to-end 5G product stack for carriers, called 5G First.

5G First will feature Nokia's Airscale cloud RAN, as well as its AirScale massive MIMO adaptive antennas for the 3.5GHz, 4.5GHz, 28GHz, and 39GHz frequency bands, a cloud packet core, and shared data layer. In addition, the system will offer transport services for 5G networks.

Nokia First will eventually intersect with the 3GPP standard after it's released, according to Suri -- this is expected to be around 2020. Nonetheless, the first pre-standard 5G networks are already starting to emerge, with Verizon is piloting fifth-generation technology in areas including Dallas this year.

5G First will be available to early-adopter carriers from the second half of this year, and Nokia said it will use the learnings from its 5G work to contribute to the 3GPP standard. For now, however, 5G First is based on specs from the Verizon 5G Technology Forum ecosystem and KT Special Interests Group.

Nokia has struck a series of 5G partnerships of late, announcing a deal this week with Samsung to collaborate on interoperability testing for fifth-generation kit, while earlier this month it said it will be working with Intel on labs in both the US and Finland that will focus on developing new 5G products.

As well as looking ahead to 5G, Nokia is also catering to network service providers that are still expanding their 4G offerings.

At MWC, Suri announced Nokia had won a three-year deal with Telefonica to improve the performance of its LTE network in London. Telefonica will be using Nokia's 4.5G Pro kit, which is underpinned by the Finnish company's Radio Access portfolio, Flexi Zone small cells, the NetAct network management system, Traffica real-time network analytics, and Nokia Global Services. 4.5G Pro will mean speeds of 1Gbps and latency of under 10ms from LTE networks, according to Nokia.

"I believe 4G will coexist with 5G for a very long time. 5G is going to be so much about densification... I don't people fully understand there's a lot of runway for 4G to happen," Suri said.

At MWC, Suri also made a series of predictions about how the communications space will evolve in the short term. One was that there will be more consolidation in the carrier space in the US and India. "Carrier M&A will heat up dramatically in the USA and India... the genie is pretty much out of the bottle and it will be hard to put it back in," Suri said.

The CEO also predicted that "webscale companies" -- internet giants such as Amazon or Google -- will be building out their capacity faster than network service providers. "Non-carrier customers will add network capacity at more than two times the rate of carriers... we've seen a lot of shift take place from the carriers to the cloud players," he said.

Over the last few years, Nokia has undergone something of a transformation.

In 2014, it sold off its handset-making arm to Microsoft, and last year it entered a 10-year licensing deal with HMD Global which allows the company to make smartphones that bear the Nokia brand. It also sold its mapping unit, HERE, to a consortium of car makers for €2.8bn.

With two of the three main arms of its previous business now gone, Nokia has been doubling down on the networking side of the company. In 2015, not long after it announced the sale of HERE, Nokia confirmed the acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent for €15.6bn. With Nokia's traditional market of mobile networking infrastructure slowing as operators eke out their 4G investments ahead of the official arrival of 5G, the company has been looking to boost its networking business by ramping up its software portfolio.

"It was a tough year for telecoms, for the infrastructure business, no doubt about it. The overall market was down significantly... our top line was down for the year but we started to slow that decline," Suri said.

Nokia has been building out its telco cloud, network analytics, and software-defined networking portfolio of late. For example, it recently bought Comptel for €370m to help boost the latter. It's also aiming to reach beyond its traditional carrier customer base by targeting multinationals and large enterprises with private networks and other communications products, as well as bringing out industry-specific products for verticals including energy, transport, and the public sector. At the same time, it's also looking to launch new software products more peripherally related to comms, such as those that underpin companies' Internet of Things implementations.

Nokia is only going after the very largest businesses -- the top 4,000, according to Suri -- by offering products such as private network slices.

The company used MWC to announce a new deal with Chinese smartphone maker and ISP Xiaomi for a fibre optic network that will link up seven of its datacentres in and around Beijing. The deal involves Nokia's DCI product, based on the company's 1830 Photonic Service Switch and managed with its Network Services Platform. It should, according to Nokia, mean less latency and higher speeds for Xiaomi's broadband subscribers, as well as giving the company private cloud services.

While Nokia has exited the mobile manufacturing business, it still has an appetite for selling other hardware: another major acquisition for the company came in the form of French digital health tech company Withings, which it purchased for €170m last year.

As well as selling consumer gear such as smartwatches and connected scales, it's likely in future Nokia will put more effort into creating devices for the medical industry as a way of expanding its IoT business. At MWC, Cédric Hutchings announced a new generation of Nokia's Health Mate app as well as confirming that the Withings product line would be rebranded as Nokia this summer.

Nokia also made its first steps into the virtual reality market with the launch of its OZO VR camera back in 2015.

"Nokia is a fundamentally different company than it was one year ago," Suri said.

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