ZTE opens smart site and network playbook for 5G

ZTE readies for commercial 5G deployments at scale with algebraic playbook. But does it add up?

ZTE has used MWC Shanghai to signal-boost its range of cell site antenna and radio products for 5G, as well as a supporting cast of core, backhaul and management capabilities. It says the line-up puts it well in place to exploit commercialisation of 5G over 2019 and into 2020.

At the top level, ZTE says it has 25 commercial contracts for 5G, and that it has “shipped” 50,000 5G base stations. That puts it at about half Huawei’s public number for contracts and also behind Nokia and Ericsson. Although ZTE leans heavily on its development work with China’s three operators for reference, it also notes its work with Wind Tre in Italy and Hutchison in Austria. The crucial test for ZTE will be if it can make headway in markets where incumbent 4G suppliers hold sway. Nokia, for example, has said it is yet to lose a 4G customer to an alternative 5G supplier. If ZTE is to make ground it will have to offer operators clear differentiation on cost and ease of deployment.

ZTE’s trio of Chinese operator developments. Recent tests include SA mode in the field, and dual mode NSA-SA UE testing in the field.

In terms of its messaging to back up the product positioning, the company took the wraps off a new marketing strategy for 5G – referencing Algebra for an “Add, Subtract, Divide, Multiply” piece of marketing rhetoric that need not detain us too long. No doubt the eponymous Al Jibran would be proud. You can read about that here.

Proof point

Demonstrating the fruits of its work in China, the vendor treated journalists to three 5G demos during a short bus ride. The bus drove between three live commercial sites operated by China Telecom near ZTE’s R&D facility in Shanghai. The sites are operating at 3.5GHz with 100Mhz of bandwidth. The bus drove at a steady pace, carrying a 5G video call over the China Telecom network. There was also a streaming video of 16x 4k video channels. Rates were, we were told, limited by the CPE, but there was a steady data rate over well over 500Mbps as we drove along.

Citing site smarts

On the 5G site itself, ZTE uses the term UniSite for its new deployment options. It heralds a single antenna for all sub 3GHz antennas, thereby saving space for the 5G AAUs. And on its booth is showing an integrated passive/active antenna (see passim) which looks from the outside like two antennas within an enclosure, rather than something more integrated.

An array of antennas, featuring antenna arrays.

ZTE claims to be the first to launch tri-band integrated remote radio units (it calls these antenna+RF units UBRs) – launched at MWC Barcelona. It also says it has the highest capacity BBU on the market, that is says is an “all standard” IT BBU platform.

As is the case for most of the vendors there is an array of sizes and frequency band support in the antennas. As well as those UBRs, there are 32T/R 2.6GHz and 3.5GHz antennas. Qcell is its in-building solution, with 4TR quadband support for 900/1800/1800/2.3GHz and 2.5GHz support.

Qcell indoor solution

The company also claims to have launched the first base station that can support 4/5G dual-mode and 5G NSA&SA dual-mode. It has also launched a common core that can support NSA and SA from the same core. It claims that too is a first although other vendors have also talked of a common 5G core for NSA and SA mode.

Within the network infrastructure itself, the company said it is working on new chip technology – mentioning an integrated 5nm chip coming by 2021, along with new filter, power amp and materials for heat dissipation in the same time frame. All of this is intended to provide a lower weight,size and power demand profile for base station antenna. The second generation of M-MIMO antennas are already more efficient than first generation versions with surface mounted connectivity between the antenna and RF elements reducing the number of signal connections that need to be made within the unit.

It will have evolved its baseband chip to a 5nM DPD integrated chip by 2021. PAs will be 60% more efficient by 2021, with support for 400MHz bandwidth. Second gen filters are 50% smaller and 30% lighter than their first generation version. Taken in total, it’s an R&D drive towards site deployment flexibility and lower operational cost.

It is also true end-to-end approach, relying on internal R&D as well as partner development. So how does that play against a market that is increasingly expressing a desire for more open, disaggregated networks, with open interfaces between elements, vRAN running as software on commercial hardware, and core networks composed of microservices that can make up functions in the cloud? If you want examples, look for the heavy engagement of China Mobile in the O-RAN Alliance, for example.

Speaking to journalists in a round table, VP Wireless, Zhang Wanchun, SVP ZTE, President Wireless Product, said the vendor was indeed committed to openness, as well as to being a true end to end supplier. The vendor is a “key” member of O-RAN Alliance, he said, although he counselled that some Working Groups within O-RAN are proceeding faster than others. As for V-RAN, ZTE can support the CU-DU split, he said, with the CU in the cloud. But Wanchun warned that vRAN still requires dedicated hardware for “performance”. Rakuten, Intel and QCT may disagree, although those companies did require intensive work on hardware acceleration to get Rakuten and Altiostar’s vRAN software working on the Intel hardware platform.

“We are definitely very keen on Open RAN and vRAN solutions and will continue to invest in those,” he said.

(Disclosure: ZTE sponsored Keith Dyer, Editor of TMN, to attend MWC Shanghai)