First things first

As 5G launches get closer, we are seeing an increasing number of Firsts. But what is a 5G First, and what value is there in claiming one?

What was the first 5G network to go live in the world? That should be easy to determine, right? It must be Verizon, which made a huge song and dance about its 5G switch-on 1 October. But wait, here are some competing claims, all from actual company press releases.

14 May: Ooredoo has today announced that the company is the first operator in the world to launch a live 5G network on the 3.5GHz spectrum band. ”Ooredoo 5G is ready now, and we’re officially the first-in-the-world to launch it on a commercially available network.”

Also 14 May: Etisalat announced the launch of the first commercial 5G network.The company claims it will be the first telecom service in the world to provide 5G, though it will be fixed wireless services, and will be available from September.

27 June: Elisa has become the first operator in the world to begin commercial use of a 5G network and starts selling 5G subscriptions.

1 October:  Verizon says “the first commercial 5G network in the world goes live today” 

1 December: Three South Korean operators launch commercial 5G networks.

3 December: Helsinki Airport becomes the first 5G airport in the world – Telia

17 December: TIM announces that 5G switch on in San Marino makes it the the first 5G full-coverage State

21 December: AT&T launches 5G commercially in 12 US cities. “First to make mobile 5G live in the US.”

Can they all be first? Obviously not, but also yes. So what is going on? Well, simply put, each is “a” first but none is “the” first.  Verizon’s announcement is of commercial service with real customers, but of course it is the FWA service it has launched using its own proprietary specification (5GTF). This spec does not deploy a new waveform, coding and frame structure as specified in 3GPP R15’s 5G NR standard. Instead it is the OFDM waveform with massive MIMO over the 28GHz band.

Elisa’s First is slightly more easily dealt with. It’s not a commercial service as Finland has not yet released the frequency licenses that would allow commercial operation. It’s a commercial network in that it is part-deployed using commercial equipment – and is ready and waiting for switch on. So the same goes for Telia.

Etisalat’s announcement is of FWA, and in any case was backdated to a September launch.

Ooredoo’s is a little more intriguing. It’s on commercial 5G NR equipment from ZTE, in the 3.5GHz band. It’s more than a single cell site – it covers different areas of Doha and the operator says it has 1,200 sites that it will evolve to 5G. Yet you cannot order service via the website. Of course, Ooredoo has been restricted in terms of devices it can offer customers (there aren’t any). It says, “We are already able to use the 5G network on specially adapted devices and test samples, such as home gateways, drones and other equipment – these ‘cases’ are world-firsts and we plan to have more 5G demos in the very near future. More 5G-adapted devices will become available in the coming months and we look forward to sharing them with you in terms of public announcements, public trials and selected customer trials.”

But if you cannot onboard customers onto the network or offer them a means of doing so, can you claim a commercial service?

The same – sort of – goes for the more recent AT&T and the South Korean launches. Both have been of standards based 5G NR, but in neither country can a normal consumer yet walk into a store, or go on a website, and order service. Both are offering a limited range of services to select customers.

TIM has rolled out and turned on a commercial 5G NR network across eight macro sites with 3.5GHz and 26 GHz mmWave bands both supported. But San Marino’s 60,000 residents are not yet able to be fully fledged customers.

So we await our true 5G commercial first. Who will it be?

Defining a first

Keeping track of 5G “firsts” seems like a mug’s game. There’s a lot of variables and it’s not too hard to put a few of those together in a unique configuration to claim a 5G first.

Consider the options. Are you in a lab or in a field trial, in test or in live spectrum, is your base station indoor or outdoor. Are you pre-standards, standards-compliant or post-standards. Are you using pre-commercial or commercial equipment.

Then there’s every spectrum band to account for, are you the first to do something in sub 1GHz, or 3.5 GHz, or in 26 or 28GHz .

Consider also if you are testing a FWA or a mobile use case. What about architecture mode, are you standalone or non-standalone, using an EPC or NG5G core.

Then there’s the country or territory you are doing the trial in – if your specific trial has been done elsewhere but not in Europe, then your “first” is that you have Europe’s first trial.

Perhaps you are able to claim a specific deployment model as a first – perhaps this is the first in a cloud RAN, or private network, or rural or deployment. Finally, you could specify your use case: this is the first test designed to enable MMTC, or connected cars, or industrial automation, or immersive VR video.

Of course, the simplest way to get a “first” is to define your geography. You may not have a world first, but you may be first in a particular market. An early example of this surfaced 2-3 years ago as vendors took their test equipment around operator labs, plugged them in and re-performed the same tests they had done elsewhere. As they did this, each lab test became, in the publicity, the “first 5G connection over the air in X country or region”.

Now we are seeing it for network launches. For example this from August: “Vodacom Group launched Africa’s first commercial 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) network, in Lesotho”. Or this, in Europe: “With TIM and NOKIA, San Marino is the first 5G State in Europe”.

And in June, the UK’s EE claimed a UK first for something that hadn’t even happened yet. It was making the first announcement for what it said would be the first live trials of 5G in the UK – in October – across a few sites in East London. Those sites are now live. 

But the concept of a 5G first gets even more complicated when one considers the technical claims that can be made for each pilot or trial.

August 2018: A joint Verizon-Nokia press release said they had demonstrated “for the first time” handover of a connected 5G NR device in a moving vehicle between to two 5G radio Distributed Units (DUs).  The test, at 28GHz, saw a vehicle travel between two radios units, each fed by the same GnB (5G radio).

According to Verizon: “The vehicle traveled between the two radios, achieving seamless 5G NR Layer 3 3GPP-compliant mobility handoff of the signal between the two sectors (intra-gNB and inter-DU).”

But was this a first, as the release claimed?

Back in May this year, NTTDOCOMO and NEC said they had achieved handover between two radio Distributed Units as a car raced by at 300kph. In that test, too, the operator was using some test 28GHz spectrum.

So what was the “first” that Verizon was trading on? Well, perhaps it was leaning heavily on the standards element of it – the 3GPP-compliant handover.

Also in August, T-Mobile said it had achieved the first bi-directional call in the US at 28GHz, using commercial base station kit. Verizon’s PR unit took to social media said they had already done this.

Or take this “First” from May: Deutsche Telekom announced the “first 5G antennas in Europe” are now live, as the operator updated on progress it has made towards its plans to launch the technology in 2020. In a statement, Deutsche Telekom said the antennas, located in six cells across the city of Berlin, supported “the new communications standard” and were now operating in real-world conditions on its network.

One can also play with devices to get a first. Qualcomm has achieved several firsts, first with its test platform and then with its smartphone form factor reference design.

Then there are use case firsts. Here’s an example of the “use case” first from July 2018: “Advanced 5G network deployment has begun at Millbrook Proving Ground as part of the AutoAir project, a consortium of 5G testbed partners led by Airspan Networks.

According to Millbrook, as the “UK’s first transport 5G network”, it signals the future of testing and validation of connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) technologies.”

Or here’s one from 2017: Telia Company is deploying the first public 5G live network use cases in Europe in collaboration with Ericsson and Intel. This includes a high speed 5G connection to a commercial passenger cruise ship delivering internet connectivity to the ship and its passengers while in port.

We’ve also seen the first 5G factory, the first 5G shipping port, and so on.

As you see, it can be tough to see through 5G launch announcements and claims of a “first”  to identify what is a real first, and therefore what has actually been achieved.

Does it matter?

Ulises Olvera-Hernandez, Principal Engineer at InterDigital, points out that with the standards freeze in September 2018, it’s not really possible to have standards compatible launches before 2019.  One thing that may be driving the rush to be first with services that are proto-5G or non standard 5G, such as Verizon’s FWA launch, is the hope of customer conversion. “Operators are hoping that customers they capture to early services will then migrate with the operator to the more mature 5G services that are launched later,” he says.

But there is a danger of a subtle loss when telcos claim 5G Firsts based on a pre-standards deployment, or solely on a limited eMBB use case. 5G is about a lot more than super-charging connectivity feeds and speeds.

If the industry is in a rush to claim firsts based on commercial services of eMBB use cases, they risk losing out on being able to communicate the principal long term benefit of 5G – that it will enable them to act as platform partners for an ecosystem that is much closer to customers than it has been before.

BearingPoint’s Angus Ward, CEO, Digital Platform Solutions, says that 5G gives telcos an opportunity to actually transform – to get closer to the customer by attracting partners to their platform, rather than just launch more and more services, or to act as merely a wholesale connectivity partner. He sees the IoT acting as a stepping stone to 5G, in that it brings telcos closer to providing data insight to customers. 5G would then enable operators to build more advanced capabilities into their platform offer.

“It’s the difference between being the first to launch a service and the first to meet a use case that provides insight to a customer using data within an ecosystem. Operators have to drive closer to the customer,” Ward says.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Issue 23 of TMN Quarterly.