Analyst: 5G make-or-break opportunity for Samsung in RAN sector

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According to at least one analyst, 5G is something of a “make-or-break” opportunity for Samsung’s aspirations in the RAN sector, and the vendor knows it.

“The rare RAN-vendor selection event occasioned by 5G is Samsung’s best chance yet to significantly raise its stature in the global RAN space, and the company has several things going for it,” Current Analysis analyst Ed Gubbins wrote in an Oct. 25 report following a 5G Summit the vendor held last week.

One of the things it has going for it is a favorable position in two of the markets expected to be early showcases for 5G: The U.S. and South Korea. Samsung has long enjoyed a deeply entrenched position with operators in its homeland of South Korea, and in the U.S., Nokia’s acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent, combined with longstanding political barriers for China’s Huawei and ZTE, gives Samsung a rare environment where it faces only two real competitors, Gubbins said. (Notably, rival infrastructure vendors Ericsson and Nokia were represented at the summit, along with a slew of others in the 5G ecosystem, including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Qualcomm, Intel and Google.)

Gubbins also notes how Samsung has shown momentum with U.S. operators such as Verizon, which has worked closely with Samsung in the area of small cells and fixed wireless. The Verizon 5G Technology Forum (V5GTF), formed in late 2015, included Samsung among its launch partners, focusing primarily on 28/39 GHz fixed wireless access trials and deployments.

RELATED: Verizon to test 5G at 28 GHz in Texas with Samsung

Another big thing Samsung has going for it is its wide-ranging operations, with tentacles that reach into devices, enterprise IT, public safety and industrial manufacturing. Few, if any, of Samsung’s RAN rivals can match its profile of corporate assets, the report says, but it also notes that it's not yet known what ripple effect the handset division's Galaxy Note 7 will have on the company's brand or to what extent it affects the company's 5G networking ambitions.

In infrastructure, Samsung faces a number of challenges, not the least of which involves the incumbent vendors that have a foothold in LTE. The fact that LTE and 5G will likely share close coexistence for some time suggests that globally, incumbent LTE RAN providers will wield a significant advantage in winning 5G contracts, which spells disadvantage for a challenger like Samsung, Gubbins pointed out.

RELATED: Samsung provides technical demonstrations of millimeter wave for FCC

Samsung’s messaging around 5G to date has focused heavily on millimeter wave technologies – perhaps no surprise given that it has conducted a great deal of R&D in this area. Initially, like some other stakeholders in the 5G game – namely Verizon – Samsung is focused on fixed wireless access, but it wisely is positioning FWA as the “first” 5G opportunity rather than the biggest.

“Samsung makes a persuasive argument that its experience with plug-and-play femtocells will allow it to deliver FWA customer premise equipment that is easy for end-users to self-install,” Gubbins said.

Interestingly, “one remarkable aspect of Samsung’s summit was a presentation by Vodafone showing the results of that operator’s investigation of FWA and its clear determination that – while it might be a good fit for others – FWA was impractical for Vodafone,” Gubbins said.

The European operator cited millimeter wave’s difficulty with penetrating indoors and avoiding atmospheric absorption, along with the tradeoffs involved in short ranges and large antennas.

“That Samsung provided the forum for this message conveyed a level of transparency that would be unusual for any vendor but is especially welcome from one that has a reputation for guardedness,” Gubbins said.

Indeed, Samsung has kept much of its strategy to itself, but it did share that it’s exploring mobile use cases for millimeter wave, including testing handovers and beam-tracking, and it said it anticipates commercial systems eventually will be built on C-RAN architectures.

Samsung didn’t quite reach some its earlier goals in prior years, such as being a top-three global supplier of LTE networks in 2013 and a top-three supplier of mobile networks in 2015 – but if it plays its cards right, it just might have a shot with 5G.