Race to be first splits 5G pack as Nokia backs Verizon 5GTF FTW

Nokia stands alone as it announces 5G FIRST, but leaves name off release calling for early 3GPP 5G specs.

5G may be the marketing buzzword of Mobile World Congress but there are some interesting cracks opening up beneath the glossy surface as operators and vendors push to be the first to launch 5G services.

One of those widened further today, as Nokia announced the first 5G end to end platform, built to Verizon’s 5G Technical Forum specifications. Simultaneously, a group of operators and vendors – but notably not including Nokia, Samsung or Verizon – called for 3GPP to accelerate its timetable for specifying one aspect of 5G New Radio.

The schism is opening up around competing ways to launch “5G” to market before 2020, which for a long time has been the accepted launch date for standardised, commercial 5G services.

Verizon’s approach sees it developing Fixed Wireless Access services using beam forming and massive MIMO on the radio to be able to direct very high bandwidth links to houses and offices. Developed within its “5G Technical Forum”, the specs it has developed – along with Korea Telecom – are known as 5GTF New Radio. They exist outside of 3GPP current specification efforts.

Meanwhile, 3GPP continues its work to define the 5G New Radio interface that will provide mobile 5G services. 

Operators with the spectrum to deploy fixed wireless access services – say at 28GHz, are more interested in using that to go to market with FWA “5G”. Those that don’t have that opportunity, say AT&T, are committed instead to the purist 3GPP approach – and urge the industry not to “fragment” 5G standards.

The problem for the 3GPP purists is that it is going to take time –  3GPP is not scheduled to freeze work on 5GNR until 3Q 2018 – and in the interim operators with a more laissez faire approach (and appropriate spectrum) will already have deployed networks they can badge as 5G.

Last summer, at a 3GPP meeting, a group of operators pushed for there to be a two phase approach to standardising specifications of 5G New Radio. This would see Phase One incorporate a mode known as Non StandAlone (NSA) – where the control of the 5G radio service is “anchored” in the LTE Evolved Packet Core. This phase would close in late 2017 while the second phase would then see a StandAlone mode, with 5G radio networks anchored by new 5G cores, come along in 2018.

Splitting the standards freeze into two stages would mean that it would be possible to deploy “5G” services earlier than if vendors and device manufacturers had to wait for the full specs to be frozen. However, 3GPP chose then to stick to its approach to freeze both 5G New Radio modes at the same time – in 3Q 2018.

That “NSA-first” group of operators and vendors did not give up on its ambition, however, and today a “contingent” of operators and vendors called for 3GPP to, once more consider the two speed approach. This group included Ericsson, Huawei and ZTE, amongst vendors – but not Nokia or Samsung.

Now, Nokia and Samsung just happen to be the two most high profile vendors working with Verizon as it seeks to move its 5GTF trials into the field. Just last week Verizon said it would be rolling out pre-commercial trials in 11 cities in 2017. And of course Nokia has used this as the foundation for its 5G FIRST announcement. The obvious question is to ask why has Nokia not joined the group of operators and vendors calling for early NSA specs? Did Verizon apply pressure on the vendor not to join?

Speaking at his company press conference prior to the opening of Mobile World Congress Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri was asked why Nokia did not commit to the two-phase approach, and failed to give a convincing answer. He said Nokia was committed to 3GPP and to the NR specs. But he did not address why, if this is the case, the vendor has not joined the “NSA-first” consortium.

Suri did say, responding to another question, “Our strategy is to play with early adopters and at some point intercept with the 3GPP environment so [things] don’t fragment. Our strategy is to play both those games.”

A Nokia spokesperson that there has been nothing “nefarious” going on. Simply put, the 5G FIRST announcement is a big commercial deal for Nokia and it didn’t want to distract from it by adding its name to simultaneous 5G announcement.

Of course, committing to 5GTF gives Nokia the opportunity to say it is first to market with an end-to-end 5G capability, as it indeed did so today. The name for that approach? 5G FIRST.

You may think the “FIRST” bit is at least as important as the “5G” bit in that name.