To maximize 5G benefits, smaller carriers must evolve 4G networks, Ericsson exec says

Ericsson logo on building
Ericsson's technology chief for regional carriers GS Sickland said smaller operators have the opportunity to follow very close behind Tier 1's in 5G deployments. (Ericsson)

Ericsson was at the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) annual convention in Rhode Island this week, where the vendor’s CTO for regional carriers shared views on the need to shift to 4G networks that are ready for 5G in the future.

“LTE is going to be here for at least 10 years, if not more,” said GS Sickand, Ericsson’s technology chief for regional carriers, speaking at the event, noting the importance of a strong 4G network for Tier 2 and 3 operators. But, while many rural and regional carriers are focused on 4G and VoLTE rollouts, 5G is at least on the minds of most, and in the works for some.

“To maximize what 5G is going to offer for [smaller carriers], you have to learn to evolve your 4G because that’s going to be the workhorse” of the network, Sickand told CCA members.  

Ericsson is among the major telecom equipment vendors helping rural carriers advance to newer technologies and ready their networks to support 5G services when the time comes.

Smaller carriers don’t always have the technical depth or the benefit experimentation done by the larger operators, so have historically been close behind Tier 1 operators in rolling out new wireless generations, Sickand said in an interview.

RELATED: Rural carriers look beyond VoLTE, CCA chief says

However, there are many synergies between 4G and early 5G, he said, so as a generation that’s still young, regional operators can be extremely close behind the big players in terms of 5G.

“There are some [smaller operators] who have taken the route that they basically want to be launching 5G at the same time as some of the Tier Ones,” Sickand said.

Ericsson previously announced network modernization deals with smaller operators like Carolina West Wireless and Nex-Tech wireless, which start with VoLTE launches and help prepare the network for 5G. Just this week the RINA Wireless – the Rural Independent Network Alliance, which provides LTE core hosting and CDMA switching for rural wireless carrier, extended its network contract with Ericsson.  Sickand said that agreement involves providing 4G gear as well as new equipment to enable Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) deployments by RINA’s members.

RELATED: Alaska’s GCI builds a 5G network with help from Ericsson

The FCC on Monday gave the greenlight to Spectrum Access Systems (SASs) operated by Google, Federated Wireless, CommScope, Amdocs, and Sony, and approved the start of initial commercial deployments (ICD) in the 3.5 GHz band. Some providers in rural areas are eyeing CBRS for fixed wireless access deployments, including WISPA members.

When it comes to 5G, Ericsson also inked a network contract with Alaska’s GCI earlier this year. GCI started deploying Ericsson 5G NR hardware to 82 macro cell sites across Anchorage over the summer, with plans to launch initial 5G service in the first half of 2020.

Evolving 4G

In its deals with the likes of Carolina West and Nex-Tech the point is to evolve the carriers’ 4G to a solution that will seamlessly support 5G.

“When [carriers] are ready, and when they have access to devices, they can just turn it on,” he noted about 5G.

Ericsson is helping upgrade to virtualized network cores, which allows operators to later shift to 5G with just some additional software elements, according to Sickland. Upgrades to the radio access network (RAN) include radios and cell site equipment that can support both 4G and 5G.

With the equipment in place, as technology progresses down the line, Ericsson can also evolve the rural carriers to support RAN virtualization in situations where it makes sense, Sickand said.

Competitor Nokia has been a vocal advocate for virtualized RAN, though there remains some industry skepticism.

RELATED: Nokia takes 5G cloud RAN live, works to convert vRAN skeptics

Sickland said there’s still “so much hype” about RAN virtualization, but acknowledged there could be cases where elements on the RAN side might need to scale independently of each other for end-to-end network slicing, and where vRAN would be used.

“But, a non-virtualized RAN solution still supports complete end-to-end slicing,” Sickand said. “We don’t need to virtualize the RAN like some other folks do to actually be able to do end-to-end slicing.”

With slicing, operators can create a virtual separation, with a slice of the network from the RAN to the core. This enables carriers to have virtual networks (or slices) that are aligned and programmed to deliver particular use cases. Sickand pointed to ultra-low latency applications, enhanced mobile broadband, and Massive IoT as all independent use cases that each require the network to be programmed a little bit differently.

Several speakers at the CCA event mentioned eMBB as one of the first 5G applications that rural areas may benefit from.

Dynamic Spectrum Sharing

One technology that could help regional carriers in the future is dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), which allows operators to allocate the same spectrum for both 4G and 5G, rather than needing to refarm or dedicate spectrum to a specific technology. Although, they’ll have to wait for larger players to make the first move.

RELATED: Ericsson makes 5G data call using dynamic spectrum sharing

Verizon executives have cited DSS as key to the carrier’s 5G strategy, and signaled the technology would come into play in 2020, but not provided specific timelines. Ericsson’s standards-based DSS solution will be commercially available by the end of the year, but no carriers have yet announced plans for commercial network deployments.   

Sickand said that since smaller carriers usually have a single-vendor network they could actually roll out DSS technology faster network-wide than Tier 1s, who operate multi-vendor networks and therefore may have to wait for other equipment vendors to develop the same features. Although, to take advantage of DSS, carriers would also need to have deployed New Radio (NR) equipment.

Plus, an ecosystem, including devices to support the technology needs to be in place, Sickand noted, which is usually is created based on Tier 1 operators. Meaning smaller carriers likely won’t be leading the charge in DSS.