Industry Voices—Schoolar: From antennas to 5G applications—where I was, and wasn’t, surprised at MWC

Nokia and Sprint were among the companies that discussed massive MIMO technology at the Mobile World Congress trade show. (Nokia)

I like surprises, at least the good ones. Conversely I don’t mind predictability (the nonsurprise), especially given my career calls on me to occasionally make an accurate prediction. Mobile World Congress was certainly filled with both of those things last week, surprises and predictability.

Even though my primary area of research coverage is around the radio access network (base stations) I rarely ever spend much time thinking about antennas. Sure I know they are important and radios don’t work well without them, but passive antennas hanging at the top of a mast really never concerned me much. Well that all changed last week. In all of my pre-MWC predictions I never thought I would come back thinking antennas were one of the biggest infrastructure stories of MWC 2017, but they were. 

For example, Huawei won an infrastructure award at MWC for its active antenna unit. Winning this award means the antenna solution beat out more traditional RAN hot topics like virtualized RAN and small cells. All of the major RAN vendors promoted new antenna innovations this year. Nokia announced a new active antenna portfolio and proudly showed off a 64x64 MIMO antenna solution it had designed for Sprint. Both Huawei and ZTE showed massive MIMO solutions for FDD bands. Ericsson announced new massive MIMO antenna offerings as part of its 5G product line. Even smaller vendors like Blue Danube Systems came to Barcelona to show off their work in using antennas to improve network capacity.

I am sure by now many of you have heard statements like “5G won’t be like the previous generations.” There are many ways that is true, with one of them being the actual base station radio appears to be the least interesting part of this latest mobile generation. What is interesting is the new virtualized packet core, access to new spectrum bands, and advances in antennas with massive MIMO and beam steering.

I am convinced that antennas are about to become a point of competitive differentiation between the major mobile network providers. This gives Huawei and ZTE an inherent advantage as they have a more developed history of focusing on antennas versus Ericsson and Nokia. But, the advantage isn’t overcome-able. Nokia for one is already ramping up its investments in antenna development and production.

What I did see that I wasn’t surprised by was a slew of 5G commercial platform announcements. Nokia and Samsung both announced they had the first commercial end-to-end 5G network solutions. If we base "first on time of press conference, Nokia wins this one as their conference started at 1 p.m. local time Barcelona on Sunday while Samsung’s press conference wasn’t held until a few hours later that day. Ericsson beat those two however, first announcing its commercial 5G radio, core, and transport on February 16. Ericsson skipped the end-to-end label its competitors used.

Given the close proximity of all these announcements, a span of 10 days, I am not really sure what being first here gets these vendors. Maybe it is time they switch to “our first” instead of “the first”.  I assume what was announced won’t be the one and only 5G network solution coming from those three. Of course all three companies are providing kit to Verizon’s first commercial 5G network. Huawei and ZTE also made 5G base station and core network announcements, but aren’t under the same pressure to emphasize the commercial aspect since they aren’t suppliers to Verizon. 

5G applications gave me another nonsurprise last week. Predictably, 5G applications lack technology development. This has been the case with most major network technologies I have followed in my analyst career. The real killer applications don’t appear until after the network is deployed and end-users get hands on experience with the technology. Right now most 5G applications I have seen leave me cold. I really haven’t seen anything yet that gets me excited.

From what I have seen so far I believe enterprise applications will be the real drivers for 5G. And, those applications will be enabled through network virtualization and access to unlicensed and shared spectrum. Those things I believe will drive original thinking when it comes to 5G applications. If 5G is just a faster consumer mobile broadband, it will have failed.  I, however, am confident that won’t be the case. I expect in about two years the news around 5G applications will be much more positive than it was last week.

Daryl Schoolar is Principal Analyst of Wireless Infrastructure for Ovum. Daryl's research includes not only what infrastructure vendors are developing in those areas, but how mobile operators are deploying and using those wireless networking solutions. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him at @DHSchoolar.