SoftBank picks Ericsson for 5G core

Ericsson secured a contract to supply its cloud-native 5G core for SoftBank Corp., enabling the mobile operator to launch standalone (SA) 5G services in Japan.

SoftBank already chose Ericsson as its primary radio access network (RAN) vendor in May 2019. Rival telecom gear supplier Nokia also secured a RAN contract with SoftBank, providing its 5G AirScale solution.  

SoftBank plans to use Ericsson’s dual-mode core for 5G, which brings together the vendor’s Evolved Packet Core (EPC) and 5G Core network functions onto a common cloud-native platform. It supports both 5G NR standalone (SA) and non-standalone (NSA), as well as 4G, 3G, and 2G access technologies.

Ericsson in Q2 earnings last week reported plans for accelerated R&D investments in digital services to capture new business opportunities. Executives noted “great traction” in the vendor’s new portfolio, including the 5G core.  

CEO Börje Ekholm said that as the market evolves further into 5G, there are a couple different areas where Ericsson can capture “a lot of market opportunities. “

Though “the key driver here is within the 5G core, and that is where the most allocation will be,” said Ekholm about where the increased R&D attention in digital services will focus, according to a SeekingAlpha transcript.

Ekholm pointed to additional investments in areas like BSS, as an example, to capture the 5G billing opportunity.  

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“So there are a number of areas where we are, thanks to the ramp and the market traction of 5G, that we have decided to increase our investments,” but “the biggest part is in the 5G core,” said Ekholm.  

A May 2020 product assessment (PDF) by GlobalData on Ericsson’s dual-mode 5G mobile core called out the capability of supporting continued growth in 4GLTE services with new 5G services using a common operational model.

“This simplifies operations and reduces TTCP without the complexity of supporting separate SA and NSA deployment models, as well as earlier generations,” the report stated.

SoftBank eyes consumer and enterprise 5G

SoftBank is using the Swedish vendor’s Cloud Packet Core, Cloud Unified Data Management and Policy, and Ericsson’s NFVI. Together, “these will play a key role in SoftBank’s operational transformation,” Ericsson said.

Zero-touch operation was cited as a key feature, including continuous delivery and integration process (CI/CD), thanks to container-based microservice architecture and automation abilities. Softbank is looking to develop 5G users for both new consumer and enterprise applications.

“Ericsson’s cloud native dual-mode 5G Core provides the cutting-edge container-based microservice architecture that will help SoftBank to both develop new business models towards consumers, enterprise and industry partners as well as to move onto the next level of network operational efficiency,” said Luca Orsini, head of Ericsson Japan, in a statement.

SoftBank has access to both mid- and high-band spectrum for 5G, awarded in the 3.7 GHz and 28 GHz frequencies.

In an April report on Japan's mobile experience, Opensignal’s VP of Analysis Ian Fogg pointed out that Japanese operators each hold at least 100 MHz of prime mid-band spectrum, “which is extremely rare in other countries,” along with mmWave spectrum. SoftBank Group, the former parent of Sprint, decided to shrink its stake in T-Mobile US after the two U.S. carriers successfully merged earlier this year.

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In Japan, mobile operators SoftBank, KDDI and NTT Docomo planned to introduce initial 5G service in the country in late March. One month later in April, Bloomberg News in Tokyo carried out its own limited tests showing peak download speeds of 1.1 Gbps on SoftBank’s network but very little coverage.

SoftBank and KDDI this spring established a joint venture to accelerate 5G buildouts in rural areas of Japan, with an initial budget of $4.7 million That includes sharing certain base station assets and conducting construction design and management for 5G base stations.

Rakuten Mobile, meanwhile, launched its greenfield fully virtualized 4G network in Japan also in April. It was targeting June launch date for 5G services, but pushed that back by three months due to impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. At the end of June, Rakuten had more than 1 million applicants for its unlimited 4G LTE service, which also relies on roaming on KDDI’s network.

Rakuten has worked with Japanese equipment vendor NEC to develop a container-based standalone 5G core network, with plans for SA 5G service the country in 2021.