Samsung ramps network reach, signs New Zealand 5G deal

Samsung Networks continues to grow its infrastructure reach, most recently expanding into New Zealand with a 5G deal to help mobile operator Spark build its next-generation network.

Samsung has been trialing 5G with Spark since last year and will supply 5G New Radio (NR) solutions including Massive MIMO radios, which the vendor said are designed with a slim profile to save space on top of towers.

While likely best known for its leading smartphone business, Samsung’s infrastructure unit continues to make a bigger name for itself. Samsung has been heavily involved in rollouts in early 5G countries like the U.S. and South Korea, but has also scored wins in Canada with Videotron, as well as Japan.

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Speaking to FierceWireless earlier this year, Alok Shah, Samsung Networks VP of Networks Strategy, said the company felt very strong momentum-wise in those markets and that the vendor’s made a lot of progress “not just on 5G, but even 4G penetration,” particularly in the U.S.  In the U.S. Samsung, alongside Nokia and Ericsson, is a 5G supplier for major operators including AT&T, Sprint and Verizon.  

In 2018, Samsung Electronics committed to spending $22 billion over three years on R&D and capital expenses for 5G networking and technologies like AI, with the goal of securing a 20% market share in network equipment by 2020.

In the recent weeks Samsung’s made a number of network-related announcements, including a collaboration with Marvell for radio unit architectures; demoing 5G peak download speeds of 4.2 Gbps on Verizon’s live network in Texas; and signing a deal to supply LTE and 5G solutions to U.S. Cellular, the nation’s fifth-largest carrier.

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Daryl Schoolar, practice leader of Ovum’s Intelligent Networks team, told FierceWireless last month that Samsung is doing pretty well in North America, and gives operators another alternative to equipment giants Ericsson and Nokia. Compared to smaller or newer RAN entrants like Alitostar, Parallel Wireless or Mavenir who are championing open interfaces, Samsung has some advantage in that it’s part of a very large, well-funded, multi-billion global corporation, and has experience in deploying mobile networks at scale, Schoolar said.

When it comes to making multi-million dollar investments in RAN, he noted that from an operator perspective, “there’s naturally a certain amount of due diligence and concern that goes into selecting your vendor,” and there’s already a level of comfort with the likes of Nokia and Ericsson.

“Samsung does have an advantage of being a known entity to these operators already,” he added. “Samsung’s done 3G work, it’s done 4G networks, and now they’re doing 5G networks.”

With the U.S. Cellular win, Samsung is expanding its grasp on the U.S. market, and turning attention beyond the big four. Shah previously noted that traditionally, the vendor targeted the largest, most technology-forward operators for its equipment.

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“What we’re finding of course as we establish our foothold and deepen that foothold in a market like the U.S., there are more technology-forward operators out there that are a little bit smaller…and so we do feel good about our push into Tier 2 and Tier 3 markets in the U.S,” Shah said.

Samsung’s January acquisition of network services provider TeleWorld Solutions (TWS) could also bolster that Tier 2, Tier 3 push, as Schoolar pointed out smaller operators have less resources for integration work and often look toward their vendors for more help.

“With Samsung ramping up their services arm, it should strengthen them with the smaller operators,” he said.

An ‘interesting sweet spot’ for O-RAN

Multi-vendor networks with open interfaces is another area where Samsung is seeing excitement, Shah said, and acknowledged some opportunity utilize TeleWorld’s expertise in network integration and optimization.

“As we move to these multi-vendor networks, operators will absolutely need more support from service vendors around system integration, around ensuring spec compliance for different interfaces, and we do feel like that’s a great place for TeleWorld to expand and grow its capabilities,” Shah said.

RELATED: Samsung to bolster network services with TeleWorld acquisition

Samsung is a big believer in open interfaces and an active participant in the O-RAN alliance. In the U.S., for example, Samsung was chosen in 2018 as a 4G supplier to help Verizon in its LTE Open RAN initiative.  

Shah said there are no real barriers to smaller or regional players deciding to transition to an O-RAN, but as with other operators, need to ensure they have the resources like a strong engineering staff to manage interoperability to effectively manage the transition. While Samsung is seeing excitement for O-RAN architecture in several regions, Shah noted not all are on board yet.

“It’s not for everyone,” he said. “Certain operators may prefer to wait a little bit longer until they make the transition, but what we’re finding is that there are a number of operators that are looking to move fast and we think they view Samsung even more positively because of our support for O-RAN interfaces.”

RELATED: Vodafone leads the early adopter phase of O-RAN

Abroad, Shah said Samsung is seeing O-RAN interest from operators in Japan including NT Docomo, and in Europe, pushed by operators like Vodafone. Last November, Vodafone called out Samsung’s capabilities in its response to the operator’s RFI for 5G that included conditions such as support for the O-RAN specification and multi-vendor environments.

“There is one company that is particularly bright, and that is Samsung,” said Santiago Tenorio, Vodafone’s head of network strategy and architecture at the time. “Their level of compliance to our requirements is spectacular; it’s beyond 80%. That tells us that if we want to put 5G into open RAN and take it to suburban and urban areas, we are probably more ready than we thought.”

Other vendors that Samsung beat out included companies like Mavenir, Parallel Wireless and Radisys.

While Shah couldn’t specifically comment on the Vodafone criteria, he said in general that Samsung views itself “in an interesting sweet spot when it comes to multi-vendor networks and Open RAN,” compared to smaller players and large incumbents.

“We have scale, we’re a pretty substantial player in the infrastructure market, but we’re a challenger and we’re very comfortable being a disruptor,” Shah explained. “So we’re in a position where we can offer operators financial strength and scale, and at the same time a willingness to help them improve the efficiency and flexibility of their networks in a way that maybe some of the incumbents aren’t as comfortable doing.”