Nokia to deploy indoor small cells for South Korea’s LG Uplus

LG Uplus will use Nokia's indoor systems at locations across the country, including shopping malls and office buildings. (Getty Images)

South Korea’s LG Uplus plans to deploy Nokia indoor small cells for expanded 5G coverage.

Under an agreement announced Monday, the mobile operator will use gear from Nokia’s AirScale Indoor systems at locations across the country, including places like shopping malls and office buildings.

Nokia said its radios can replace distributed antenna systems (DAS), with quick deployments at strategic locations to boost capacity for both consumers and enterprise.

The Finnish vendor’s indoor system includes a Digital baseband unit and ASiR-pRRH (pico Remote Radio Head) with multi-operator and multi-band support. The aim is for seamless indoor-outdoor 5G connectivity.

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Kyung Mun, principal analyst at research firm Mobile Experts, called the deal with LG Uplus a meaningful development for Nokia.

“Being able to install a small cell footprint in an operator network that’s primarily served by another vendor’s macro footprint (in this case, Huawei) is a major accomplish,” Mun told Fierce via email.

Nokia, which is still one of the three leading RAN vendors, is working to complete a turnaround in its mobile networks unit and refocus after a challenging start in 5G.  LG Uplus will start commercial deployment of the Nokia small cells in May, according to a Nokia spokesperson, supporting 3.42-3.5 GHz frequencies.

Ericsson also is a supplier for LG UPlus, winning a 5G radio access network (RAN) deal in 2019.  

Consistent outdoor/indoor experience a ‘table stake’

As people spend a lot of time indoors, in-building coverage is important for the 5G user experience. Nokia previously pegged 80% of mobile sessions as originating from inside homes and businesses.

But the use of higher bands for 5G service mean signals have a harder time penetrating buildings, with indoor small cells poised to help fill the gap.

Mun said he “expects indoor small cells to play a more significant role as operators expand 5G coverage indoors at key venues to match expanding 5G coverage outdoors."

U.S. operator Verizon tapped Corning and South Korea’s Samsung for indoor mmWave small cells to boost in-building 5G connectivity, including at certain WeWork office locations.

“Consistent user experience indoors and outdoors is a table stake for operators,” Mun said. “It has always been that, and 5G is no different.”

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South Korea has been an early mover on 5G, with praise from testing and benchmarking companies for speed performance compared to other countries. 

“Nokia’s AirScale system will help provide seamless 5G connectivity in indoor locations and environments. Its cost-effective, flexibility and compact design enables us to enhance our 5G offering,” said DaeHee Kim, SVP and head of Infra Technology Group at LG Uplus, in statement.

Ookla’s March 2021 Speedtest Global Index ranked South Korea as second globally for mobile download speeds overall (not 5G exclusively). Download speeds in the country in March were 170.52 Mbps, with uploads of 22.5 Mbps and latency of 30 milliseconds. South Korea was among the fastest globally for median 5G download speeds in Q3, according to Ookla at 411.21 Mbps, and median 5G uploads of 45.21 Mbps.

However, as reported by LightReading, some consumers appear to be unhappy with the price of 5G relative to service, mounting legal action last month citing uneven coverage and speeds similar to 4G.

Updated with timing of commercial deployment and frequency.