Optus chief executive officer Allen Lew has outlined the company's 5G roadmap for the year ahead in an interview with ZDNet, detailing the path it will take to deploy commercial services in January 2019.
Speaking at the opening of Optus' 5G Live showcase in the Gold Coast on Thursday morning, Lew told ZDNet that Optus has yet to make a final decision on its technology vendor partner, despite carrying out most of its trials so far with Huawei.
"At this stage, we are in the development of the technology stage, we haven't selected a partner yet. We are working with multiple system integrators, multiple infrastructure providers to provide the showcase," Lew told ZDNet.
"We haven't finalised who's going to be eventually the one infrastructure provider who will provide 5G for us when we launch a commercial service in January next year."
Lew confirmed to ZDNet that Optus is currently working with all five major 5G networking vendors -- Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei, ZTE, and Samsung -- during its trials, and that the telco will make the decision within eight to 12 weeks.
On making this decision, Lew said multiple factors will come into play.
"One is of course how they perform in trials, how their equipment has performed in what we've set up for the next 12 days [at the 5G Live showcase], and we'll be doing even more testing; the engineers have a battery of tests that they put all the vendors through," Lew told ZDNet.
"We do what is called radio propagation tests, so we look at it in different environments where depending on how high the antenna is, depending on the type of vegetation, are there forests, is it trees, are there buildings in between, so it's a whole bunch of technical stuff that we have to go through to make sure that when we do launch a service, we are not constrained by different environments that we'd face in real life that we haven't conquered in a test environment.
"Of course, there's a commercial negotiation as well, so there's a lot of work to do. That's why we think it's going to be eight to 12 weeks to finalise."
Optus' road to 5G saw it begin switching on its 4.5G network in February last year, followed by the addition of Massive Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (Massive MIMO) and three-cell carrier aggregation to 4G at the end of last year.
Optus had in February announced that it will begin rolling out its 5G network across Australia in early 2019 in an aim to launch a fixed-wireless product in "key metro areas", following its first 5G trial with Huawei back in November 2016.
The trial was conducted as part of Optus' parent company Singtel's memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Huawei; however, Optus had also signed an MOU with Nokia back in 2016 to collaborate on developing a 5G network, under which it undertook closed lab tests using Nokia's 5G radio test bed on its Airscale product, as well as narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) tests.
According to Lew, Optus has now finished trials at its HQ in Macquarie Park; its 5G Live centre in the Gold Coast is stage two of its 5G plan, as it will allow the telco to gather data on how consumers interact with and react to the low-latency, high-bandwidth capabilities of 5G and the technologies it enables.
Optus is also inviting "young entrepreneurs" to visit the showcase -- which utilises both indoor and outdoor 5G base stations -- and commercialise any ideas they come up with, which will also help Optus to decide who to partner with, Lew told ZDNet.
After choosing its infrastructure vendor, the next stage will then be conducting field trials in the second half of 2018 using the homes of Optus employees, Lew revealed to ZDNet, which will be followed by further announcements at the end of the year.
"We're probably going to do some trial tests, and this will be with our Optus staff where we'll be looking at their homes, we'll be setting up antennas and then -- obviously we will get the necessary regulatory approvals -- we'll be testing it with constant use, we'll be asking the staff to move the device around the house to make sure everything's working well," the chief executive explained.
"So we go through what we call a field trial, but that won't be until the second half of the year."
According to Optus Corporate and Regulatory Affairs VP Andrew Sheridan, the telco is facing two big policy initiatives when it comes to 5G: Spectrum and infrastructure regulation.
On the issue of spectrum, Sheridan reiterated that Optus' 3.5GHz holdings will be enough to launch its initial fixed-wireless 5G service, but that it will need to add millimetre-wave (mmWave) spectrum when it comes up for auction in order to have a more mobile service.
"The other issue, particularly around future use cases that the industry will be working through from a policy perspective is around how do you get some of the equipment closer to the consumers, particularly onto the streets and street furniture, so it's a question of looking at some of the distinct planning rules to allow deployment of that," Sheridan explained.
"We're not talking about mobile towers -- we're talking about much smaller-scale equipment that might go on lamp posts, or the sides of buildings, refreshing some of those powers and immunities.
"The regulators and the government are working on those issues."
Optus head of Networks Dennis Wong told ZDNet that launching a 5G network is all about bringing together multiple moving parts.
"The 5G rollout is not just about the air interfaces, it's about end to end. It's about the backhaul, the architecture itself," Wong said.
"We are talking about the radio, we're talking about the ecosystem, we are talking about the device, we are talking about the application, data analytics, the AI part of things, so I think for us, all of this is going in parallel so what we are doing is we're keeping a very close watch with the standards, and as the standards kick off we will work with our partners."
In addition to robotics and VR applications, Optus' 5G Live showcase includes an 8K mobile video-streaming demonstration that involves equipping a moving van with an 8K TV and a 5G prototype device, which sends the live stream over Optus' 5G network.
"Over the next couple of days, you might see another 5G van driving around," Sheridan remarked, after Telstra announced that it would have a van cruising the Gold Coast to showcase 5G on the move. "Ours is bigger and better."
The 5G "handset" in the back of the Optus van is around the size of a desk drawer, while Telstra's handset has since been shrunk down from being the size of a 200kg filing cabinet in February to the size of a PC at the end of March.
Calling 5G the final piece of the "industrialisation puzzle" -- due to its characteristics of low latency, high bandwidth, network slicing architecture, and massive machine type communications -- Wong said Optus is well positioned to deliver a 5G network thanks to its holdings in the 3.5GHz spectrum band.
"We are in a unique position to deliver 5G; the reason's because Optus, we have our 3.5GHz band," Wong said.
"And this is important for us, because we are able to bring it to the showcase, onto the road, onto the mobility, and showcase it to the public. And we test the performance of 5G in the real world, and then therefore we can develop new services as we go along."
Disclosure: Corinne Reichert travelled to the Gold Coast as a guest of Optus
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