neXt Curve virtually attended the 11th annual Huawei Global Mobile Broadband Forum (MBBF) 2020 which was held from November 12th to the 13th in Shanghai, China. The theme for this year’s event was “5G for Good and Innovate for New Value.” Now that we are approaching year two since the first commercial 5G deployments, Huawei is now focusing on accelerating operator value by making deployments easier and faster, and fostering new-breeds of applications that will enable digital transformation across industries. Even in these early days of 5G, Huawei is looking at what is coming next. Here is what neXt Curve found out.
Since the three Chinese telecom operators lit up their commercial 5G networks a year ago much has happened. According to Huawei’s Rotating Chairman, Ken Hu, China now has over 600K 5G sites deployed across over 300 cities across the country. The Chinese operators are now collectively connecting over 160 subscribers on their 5G networks. These statistics represent a massive expansion of 5G network coverage and capacity as well as connection growth in less than a year since the first Chinese operator launched its 5G services.
Much has been learned. It is safe to say that the telco industry has come to the realization that there is a long way to go before the lofty promises of 5G will be enjoyed in full by consumers and industries. The big question that operators face today is how they can play a bigger role in enabling the new applications that will revolutionize industries and spur the next phase in the evolution of our digital societies and businesses.
Since Huawei Analyst Summit (HAS) was held in May of this year, Huawei continues to evolve the 5G discussion beyond the smartphone and which carrier has the fastest download speeds to more practical matters. Indeed, there are many technical gaps that need to be bridged, business models to be invented, and industry reinvention to occur before the full promise of 5G can be realized. As Ryan Ding, President of Huawei’s Carrier Business Group, stated, “Our focus should be on maximizing the quality of our networks for individuals and industry users.”
Here are our key takeaways from our coverage of Huawei MBBF 2020:
TAKEAWAY 1: Looking at the telco transformation journey beyond connectivity
One of neXt Curve’s growing impressions from Huawei ‘s analyst and technology events this year is the company’s holistic mindset and integrated approach toward supporting the telco operator’s digital transformation. Huawei recognizes that as operators transform into digital service providers, they will need to provide more than connectivity in order to deliver the idea of “good” to their customers both consumer and industrial. As Yang Chaobin, President of Huawei Wireless Network Solution, put it, “To embrace the approaching golden decade of 5G, we need to evolve our networks toward 5G with full spectrum and build on high-bandwidth simplified target networks that ensure ubiquitous connectivity with an on-demand overlay of ‘N’ capabilities.”
This “1+N” perspective was further expounded upon in Chairman Hu’s overview of “5G ToB” which outlined what Huawei considers the life cycle that will foster 5G innovation and benefit across industries. Connectivity is just one of the many capabilities that enterprises will need for their digital transformation. Huawei sees cloud services and development tools and platforms as additional capability layers needed to deliver the industry applications that will express 5G value.
Huawei’s customers seem to have come aboard with the “1+N” concept. Several carrier executives from within and outside of China mentioned the idea of 5G+, the notion that industry demand could only be met by the applications that will be deployed on top of a converged IT/CT cloud capability set operating on top of 5G communications infrastructure. For China Unicom, this means 5G + ABC (AI, Big Data and Cloud Computing) according to Miao Shouye, Director of 5G Co-construction and Sharing.
While its competitors require a constellation of partners to support an operator with their “1+N” 5G transformation, Huawei is uniquely positioned to provide the entire stack of converged IT/CT technologies and solutions as well as the frameworks and tools to help carriers implement their 5G infrastructure and offer cloud-based platforms that enterprises can use to develop new breeds of intelligent industrial applications.
TAKEAWAY 2: You have to talk about problems with 5G before you can come up with solutions
While the deployments and uptake of 5G over the last two years have exceeded expectations, the hype has begun to subside as inflated consumer expectations have hit the wall of reality. Operators have struggled to deliver gigabit speeds with any meaningful coverage and quality of service. With a few exceptions such as LG U+, operators have not broadly experienced the highly anticipated 5G ARPU uplift. Whether the industry realizes it or not, 5G is just entering the trough of disillusionment.
As Ryan Ding, President of Huawei’s Carrier BG, stated at the Forum, “5G will be the major mobile communications technology until 2030 and will likely be in service until 2040.” Bottomline, we are in the first couple of innings of the 5G ball game and we have the rest of the ball game yet to play, a sentiment shared by Chris Pearson, President of 5G Americas, in an interview with neXt Curve.
This year’s Huawei MBBF event carried a refreshingly practical tone and a sense of urgency to address the problems that lie along the path to the 5G promise land. This is a very important and necessary shift in discourse that will steer the industry toward more constructive and grounded discussions focused on the technological gaps and the daunting transformation that operators will have to undergo as part of their 5G reinvention.
The Forum had many honest moments from Huawei’s customers who did not hold back in citing the real world challenges with the current state of 5G technology. One challenge area that got quite a deal of attention throughout the Forum was related to one of the more exciting features of 5G, end-to-end network slicing. The network slicing summit session delved into the key technical shortcomings that will require further technology development, advancements in network engineering practices and operational maturity. QoS assurance came up to the forefront of concern among operators working with their enterprise customers in deliver the deterministic, high performance networks needed for critical wireless industrial applications.
Simply put, operators are realizing 5G is not easy. There are many problems to be solved especially as operators start to set their gaze toward industrial opportunities. Huawei seems to be taking important steps forward with its customers toward surfacing critical problems and developing industrial solutions that will make 5G the catalyst for industry digital transformation we hope it will be.
TAKEAWAY 3: 5.5G, surprisingly not another buzzword
One of the more thought-provoking moments of this year’s MBBF was when David Wang, Huawei’s Executive Director, presented what Huawei dubs “5.5G”. You may recall that Huawei created fanfare about “4.5G” back in 2016 referring to LTE Advance Pro specified in 3GPP release 13 and 14 (which AT&T infamously designated ‘5Ge’). Was this Huawei contributing to an already crowded field of buzzwords? No, Huawei seems to have really thought things through.
Mr. Wang unveiled the 5.5G Hexagram which represents Huawei’s vision for the next stages of 5G’s evolution that focus on industry applications and digital transformation. It builds upon the familiar ITU-T 5G/IMT 2020 usage scenario triangle by introducing three cleverly conceived scenarios:
- Uplink Centric Broadband Communications (UCBC) – Important for HD video uploading, and high-speed transfer of data from endpoint devices at the edge to the cloud data center.
- Harmonized Communications and Sensing (HCS) – Important for precision positioning, V2X (vehicle-to-everything) and contextual computing.
- Real-Time Broadband Communications (RTBC) – Important for immersive media and communications such as XR (extended reality) and holographic applications as well as the fabled remote surgery.
Why is this important and interesting? It represents a mindset shift toward the practical and an evolved lens for perceiving the capability gaps that 3GPP release 17 and beyond will need to address. It is also a simple representation of how the industry needs to extend its thinking about 5G and its relevance to industries. It also highlights the need to consider the new classes of technology challenges that must be addressed over the next few years of 5G’s evolution.
The 5.5G Hexagram feels more enterprise and industry oriented rather than operator oriented. It is a solid attempt at framing new categories of industry-specific requirements for 5G. The new 5.5G usage scenarios seem informed and defined by the real challenges and the deficiencies in the current state of technology that Huawei and its customers have experienced applying cellular technologies across a wide range of industrial use cases. It was apparent through many of the executive presentations and panel discussions that Huawei and its customers believe deep collaboration with industries will be crucial in surfacing the requirements and priorities that will guide the development of standards and the technologies for UCBC, HCS and RTBC.
If anything, 5.5G gives the impression that 5G will continue to become more complex but outlines an expanded field of possibilities for creating new societal and industry value. It also suggests that new threads of innovation and invention are needed to realize the broadening promise of 5G.
TAKEAWAY 4: Don’t show up to industrial IoT with just connectivity
While MBBF is an event focused on Huawei’s carrier customers, Huawei did not ignore the IoT opportunity that their carrier customers are prospecting after. Chairman Ken Hu articulated Huawei’s distillation of the “real, practical needs” for industrial scenarios which are:
- Remote control
- Machine vision
- Video backhaul
- Real-time positioning
The four real, practical needs are key aspects of neXt Curve’s framework for autonomous control which we call the Closed Loop of Autonomy composed of cognitive functions, intelligence functions and control functions. These elements come together to enable intelligent automation. With 5G, operators are well positioned to provide the distributed intelligence that can bring the benefits of autonomous operations across industries.
However, Chairman Hu stated that it behooves the operator to identify the “practical scenarios” to invest in first. He recommended that operators use four criteria to prioritize the 5G IoT opportunities they pursue across vertical markets:
- Technical relevance of 5G: Is 5G the right technology? Will it make a difference and have impact?
- Business potential of 5G enabled solutions: Can you replicate a solution and the business model? Can you scale the solution?
- Value chain maturity: Are devices available and easy to integrate? Is there sufficient openness to garner interoperability?
- Standardization: Are there sufficient industry standards that make it easy to adopt 5G?
According to Chairman Hu, operators need to press their role in providing the end-to-end solutions that their industrial and enterprise customers are looking for to enable their digital transformations. These solutions will transverse the IT, CT and OT domain requiring operators to come to the table with more than connectivity to situate themselves close to where the industry value is realized.
TAKEAWAY 5: Downlink is great for streaming media but industries needs uplink
The key metric for 5G has been download speed. It is effectively the sole performance measure by which all networks are judged since 3G. Honestly, does the industry talk about anything else? We know that 5G is about much more than download speeds but the industry is still fixated on the smartphone and the ability for a consumer to download a 4K movie in seconds to their mobile device.
It turns out that metrics for latency and reliability are not as marketable at the moment though these attributes are arguably as if not more important than download speeds as we look to take 5G to the enterprise and position it as a catalyst and enabler of the next industrial revolution.
The industry generally speaks very little of the uplink side of things though it is commonly known in Internet of Things circles that most of the data that will be generated in the future will be sourced from sensors and devices located across the “edge”. For many critical industrial control applications that are increasingly incorporating AI-enabled endpoints and intelligent sensors, data goes up not down. 5G will need to deliver low-latency, high-speed, ultra-reliable uplink capabilities that will be necessary to support the sensory and contextual computing platforms that will be the foundation of autonomous industrial systems.
Back in June of 2019, Huawei and China Telecom announced that they had co-developed Super Uplink which uses both TDD (time division duplex) and FDD (frequency division duplex) time and frequency domain aggregation across high and low-band spectrum to improve uplink speeds and latency.
Since Super Uplink was introduced, Huawei has run trials of the technology for industrial and carrier customers. In August of this year, Huawei announced that China Unicom launched the first pilot site by an operator using Super Uplink. Earlier in the year, Huawei teamed up with China Telecom Anhui to implement a 5G Super Uplink service for the Conch Group to support its smart cement factory transformation.
5G uplink will be an exciting domain of innovation and invention to keep an eye out on. Huawei’s carrier clients seem committed to tackle the challenges in achieving low-latency Gbit+ uplink performance for their industrial customers as exemplified by China Unicom’s Smart Uplink. Super Uplink and technologies like it will also be critical in making consumer applications for cloud gaming and XR possible. It’s safe to say that the future of 5G lies in uplink.
Implications for Business and Technology Leaders
It is not a mystery. China is diligently pursing the digital transformation of its economy with national initiatives such as Internet + setting the stage for a broad push for industry digitization in the coming years. In many ways, China is becoming a crucible of 5G innovation. China’s operators have a great opportunity to define what it means to be a digital service provider. It is very evident that Huawei is important partner for the Chinese operator in their journey of reinvention.
As China’s operators set their sights on the nascent enterprise and industrial 5G opportunities, it is apparent that Huawei is looking forward beyond the current state of the technology. In a sense, they are leading the conversation for where 5G will be going next as operators seek new revenue opportunities while carving out a more compelling niche for themselves in a very rapidly changing ICT landscape.
While the prevailing geopolitical circumstances threaten to bifurcate the ICT industry and splinter the ongoing evolution of 5G, it is quite apparent that China and Huawei continue to innovate and drive thought leadership that is strongly influencing the present and future of 5G. It’s difficult to deny their contributions which begs the question, are there ways to continue the constructive collaboration and sharing across the global ICT industry that have been the hallmarks of 5G?