US 'ahead of the pack' on 5G: Ericsson

Nokia and Ericsson debate the merits of the high availability of millimetre-wave spectrum in the US, and whether this puts the nation in front of or behind the global 5G race.

American carriers are ahead of the race on 5G due to the availability of high-band millimetre-wave (mmWave) spectrum, Ericsson VP and head of 5G Commercialisation Thomas Noren has said.

During an interview with ZDNet during Mobile World Congress Americas (MWCA) in Los Angeles, Noren said the US has already been able to iron out the technical challenges and found use cases across mmWave sites.

"I think in general, you could say that the United States is ahead of the pack," he said.

Noren said South Korea is also pushing ahead, having showcased its 5G capabilities during the Winter Olympic Games and already auctioned off both its 3.5GHz mid-band and 28GHz mmWave spectrum bands.

"They have a long tradition of pushing technology, they have very demanding consumers, and they build very dense networks ... [but] they don't have the scale that US operators have, so they can't drive the ecosystem in the same way," he argued.

There are also strong developments in Japan and China, he said, while spectrum has been auctioned off in Spain and the United Kingdom, with Germany, Italy, and Finland to soon follow suit.

"Of course it would have been great to have that [mid-band spectrum], but I think it's pretty clear that millimetre-wave is happening in the US," Noren said.

According to Nokia's North America CTO Mike Murphy, however, while the US is "millimetre rich", China, Korea, and Japan are all bringing both mid-band and mmWave spectrum to market a lot sooner.

"We think that the sweet spot is mid-band," Murphy told ZDNet during MWCA Los Angeles.

"You can deliver something more truly on what we're expecting for a 5G service, and the beauty of the mid-band is -- especially with Massive MIMO -- you can probably reuse most of your existing sites, which means, practically speaking, is you can deploy faster and at a lower cost."

Murphy also said the problem with mmWave is that it requires a lot of cell density -- and in the US, there is an average approval process of 18 months for each small cell deployment.

"Our guys in Nokia, we have a company we bought that that's their only job, site acquisition," Murphy told ZDNet.

"The combination of needing a lot of sites and being very slow to get them is a problem for millimetre wave."

Some of Nokia's customers are consequently working on blanket deals across cities, he said, but not all municipalities will agree to this.

"If you don't have mid-band, like the US, what does that mean? It probably means you're going to have a little bit spotty millimetre wave just because of the cost and how long it takes to get sites," he concluded.

"You'll have this low-band, which is mostly refarming LTE, which gives you the icon but maybe not the true meaning of a 5G service, so you may not get as good a nationwide experience as the countries that auction off mid-band from day one.

"The positive view is that millimetre wave, once you deploy it, will be a truly amazing service."

Speaking on the value of working together with industry and competitors on 5G standardisation through the 3GPP group, Noren said it is very important to have a wide ecosystem in telecommunications, including Ericsson's partnerships with Intel, Juniper, and Qualcomm.

"It starts all the way from standardisation, where many companies participate. You argue for your ideas, the best ideas tend to win, and you get the best solution," he explained.

"So that's the benefit of 3GPP ... we also then need to have a wide ecosystem when it comes to companies that implement solutions based on those standards, and of course Intel is very important in that space."

Noren said Ericsson had been able to predict what 5G would be back in 2015, and consequently ensured its products dating from 2015 would be NR-capable.

"We decided back in 2015 that our products should support 5G, but we didn't know what 5G would be; in December 2017, we could declare success because standards were set and we knew our 2015 onwards radios would work," he said.

"It is important to have foresight and anticipate what the outcome will be as we did with the Ericsson radio system."

Disclosure: Corinne Reichert travelled to the Intel 5G Summit and Mobile World Congress Americas in Los Angeles as a guest of Intel

MWCA Coverage