Orange mulls 5G decisions as live trials begin in 2018

Trials of 5G core and RAN to begin in mid-2018, as operator road tests deployment options.

Orange’s technical leads lift the lid a little on its 5G engineering.

Orange will begin “end to end trials” of 5G networks in mid-2018, in Lille and Douai, using equipment from Ericsson. It will operate services over 700MHz and 3.4-3.8 GHz bands, using standards compatible 5G NR from the vendor. The trials are part of a timeline that will see the operator look to launch initial commercial 5G services from 2020.

Separately, the company said it is working with Nokia and Kathrein to solve deployment issues to do with adding new antennas to towers and cell sites. The companies are working on a prototype to mechanically connect 5G active antennas with 4G antennas to be able to install just one antenna per site. This will save on weight, space and power at the tower or cell site. Wherever it can the operator will look to reuse 4G sites for 5G, so it has tasked the antenna manufacturers to come up with a solution that combines an active M-MIMO 5G antenna from Nokia with passive 4G antennas from Kathrein.

Meanwhile, Orange Romania will begin customer trials in late 2018 of FWA services at 26 GHz using base stations from Samsung. Orange says it believes the trials will be the first in Europe service a commercial customer base. (Samsung is also the provider to Arqiva in the UK for trials it carried out in the second half of 2017, and has also been involved with Verizon’s FWA development in the USA. Although called 5G FWA, these deployments are based on the 5GTF technology that sits outside of 3GPP specifications.)

One company that was all but missing from the operator’s “meet the engineering geeks” 5G day was Huawei. That’s not to say that Huawei won’t yet be involved – after all one thing that came out of the day is that there is still a lot to play for.

All friends together but where’s Huawei?

Up for grabs

Orange is still evaluating exactly what flavour of 5G NR – Standalone /or Non Stand Alone mode – it will go for on release. It said that “most probably” it would launch in NSA mode, but that is not “fully decided yet”. As the SA mode requires a new 5G core, that would put launch back to when the 5G core can be ready.

One thing Orange did claim was that it was hoping that devices and chipsets will support both modes pretty much from “day one”. If that’s the case, then Orange would need to have its 5G core in place as it launched 5G. And you’d also have to wonder why Qualcomm and its adherents made such great efforts to accelerate to NSA in the first place, if the first devices are all going to ship supporting both modes in any case.

The operator is also still looking at what flavour (split) of vRAN to deploy. It didn’t want to give a number when asked how many mini data centres it plans to deploy within its overall architecture. (Orange calls these Central Offices Next Generation Points of Presence – NG PoPs). The NG PoP is the data centre – often also called the Central Office – within which virtualised and pooled BBUs could be located, as well as distributed core network functions, and MEC-type compute and applications.

Many of these issues will be involved in the Lille and Douai trials, said head of Arnaud Vamparys, Director de Project 5G, Orange. The trials will involve a vRAN test as well as a 5G core trial in an “end to end” test.

Orange is also deciding on how exactly to deliver network slices and to automate the optimisation of the network – something that will be critical for the operation of 5G networks at scale. Marie-Noele Jego-Laveissiere, Executive Director of Innovation, Marketing and Technologies, said that she did not expect to see commercial services based on network slicing until 2022. “Standards are coming next summer. Then it’s a year to equipment then another year to deploy the new 5G core that is required. Then we have to operate the old and new core together,” said Emmanuel Lugagne-Delpon, Director of Orange Labs Networks.

Many of these “operational” issues are being worked out in a separate programme called 5G Cockpit – where the operator will work out how to run networks and services.

Jego-Laveissiere was also cautious about the adoption of the use of unlicensed spectrum, stating that operators would be unwilling to trust the delivery of high bandwidth and high value services to an unlicensed environment.

All of these decision points are being similarly discussed by the majority of operators. They are not academic talking points. The project with Nokia and Kathrein to look for an engineering-led deployment solution for antennas shows that Orange is giving proper thought to how it will physically support an antenna upgrade programme, for example. The FWA trials in Romania will involve real customers. It’s also worth nothing that Orange is not a “bolter” when it comes to technology decisions. It is methodical and usually cautious, expanding out from limited use cases. It began looking at 5G, for instance, in 2012.

With the publicity that early adopter operators are attracting, and the big fuss made of 5G NR NSA specification, it’s instructive to see quite how many decisions remain to be made, across the network.