The GCC nations were among the first in the world to launch fully commercialised 5G services in 2019 and the GSMA has routinely tipped telcos in the region to lead on 5G, alongside their contemporaries in China and South Korea.
Now, one of the world’s biggest network equipment providers, ZTE, is tipping operators in the region to be among the first in the world to transition from non-standalone (NSA) to full standalone (SA) 5G.
Zhao Peng, general manager for the Middle East and Africa at ZTE believes that operators in the GCC have established an early leadership position when it comes to 5G and will retain that early mover status as they move towards the implementation of full standalone 5G technology.
“The GCC region has taken an early lead in the commercial launch of 5G. Based on the consideration of the early freezing of the NSA standard and the pace of terminal support, it was inevitable to choose NSA as the first choice for deployment. Indeed, the deployment of NSA has accelerated the commercial process of 5G, but the technical limitations of NSA have also restricted the rapid development of 5G, especially in the deployment phase, the adjustments between 4G and 5G, which restrict and influence each other, greatly increase the cost of network deployment,” he said.
“NSA also affects the full utilisation of the business potential of 5G. New technological applications, such as URLLC new services, new slicing applications, new QoS mechanisms, and edge computing, all ultimately require the implementation of the SA 5G standard in order to be achieved. Following the freezing of the SA standard and terminal support, the global mobile communication industry has reached a consensus that SA is the ultimate goal and form of 5G deployment.
Peng also believes that operators here in the Middle East can learn from the colossal 5G rollouts happening in China.
“China Mobile's 5G deployment pace is similar to that of leading operators in the Middle East, and its experience from NSA to full SA deployment is worth learning. Their three phases are NSA->NSA+SA->SA.
In July of this year, ZTE and China Mobile jointly created the world's first 5G NSA and SA commercial dual-mode station contiguous coverage boutique network.
“In the past few years, ZTE has also participated in a lot of exploration and cooperation on 5G NR, 5G Core, 5G terminals, and 5G use cases with many operators in GCC, such as STC, du and Etisalat,” he added.
Peng sees the GCC and the wider Middle East as a key market for ZTE and one that will allow it to showcase its cutting edge SA 5G technologies to the world.
“In the future, we will continue to increase investment in the region and work with operators and industry partners to build the GCC a 5G construction and ecological highlands, to accelerate the regional economic diversification and sustainable growth,” he said.
The challenges of leading on 5G
As operators in the Middle East strive to make the capital investments that will enable the evolution of their next generation networks to full SA 5G, they will inevitably need to balance their investment with the significant operational expense of maintaining their legacy telecommunications networks. Operators must simultaneously showcase their cutting edge network offering, while continuing to offer excellent levels of service and availability across their existing infrastructure. In doing this, managing their core operations becomes of paramount importance – something ZTE is perfectly placed to assist with.
“With the introduction of 5G and the long-term coexistence of 2G, 3G, 4G and fixed access technology, operators are facing the challenge of diverse network architectures and rising cost. ZTE Common Core is a convergent core for all kinds of access based on a complete cloud native architecture. It supports NSA, SA, NSA and SA deployment at the same time to simplify the network and improve the experience of end users,” Peng explained.
“ZTE Common Core realises deep convergence of 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G and fixed access on both sessions and micro-services level, to achieve maximum sharing and reuse of resources.
“In addition, ZTE has developed a unique technology named UDIWF（User Data Interworking Function), which has already been patented. With this solution, 4G users can reuse their 4G USIM card and phone number when migrating to 5G. There is also no data migration on the network side, no impact on STP/DRA and BOSS systems. This will reduce the Opex for operators without comprising the satisfaction of their customers.
Securing the assets
As operators move towards the use of the 5G core, security will continue to be top of min among governments and consumers alike. ZTE recently passed the first phase of the GSMA’s 5G Network Equipment Security Assurance Scheme (NESAS) and is leading the way on secure 5G core solutions.
“ZTE is one of the top global network equipment suppliers that passed the NESAS audit for its development and product lifecycle processes. It means that ZTE's High Performance Product Development (HPPD) process, and the development process for ZTE's 5G New Radio (NR) and 5G Common Core (5GC) products, which are assessed during the audit, are proved to be in full compliance with the requirements defined in NESAS.
“As NESAS is jointly defined by 3GPP and GSMA, and provides an industry-wide security assurance framework to facilitate improvement in security levels across the mobile industry, meeting NESAS requirements confirms ZTE's commitment to providing secure products and services to the industry and customers. This entails ZTE's R&D investment in core areas of 5G, making important contribution to global 5G technology research and standard setting, and engaging actively in industry collaborations,” he explained.
Opportunities in Africa
While operators in the Middle East look to evolve their next generation mobile network infrastructure to full SA 5G, Peng believes that opportunities will abound for ZTE in Africa, as operators there look to ramp up the reach of their 4G networks.
“Africa is a continent full of opportunities in this important period of digital transformation. People's demands on networks are greater than ever before.
“Firstly, the 4G penetration rate is still low, 4G network coverage and capacity need to be further improved.
“Secondly, as the 5G ecosystem matures gradually, more and more operators in the region plan to initiate 5G network deployment. 5G networks help operators to find new service for business growth. For example, the 5G FWA technology allows operators to rapidly deploy home broadband access services, which will help operators quickly seize the home broadband market. At the same time, core network modernisation is also indispensable. The virtualised and unified common core network facilitates operators' rapid service deployment.
“Finally, the increase of mobile network traffic drives the backbone transport network upgrade to 100G and beyond,” he said.
ZTE remains committed to working closely with telecoms operators in Africa, in order to help them build adaptive networks, carry out their digital transformation initiatives and provide end-to-end commercial 5G deployment.
Peng also believes that boosting the availability of mobile networks will be a key step in the evolution of Africa’s digital telecoms sector.
“Mobile network penetration in Africa is still behind that in other regions such as Europe and Asia. Geographical network coverage, especially in rural areas, still needs to be improved. In the near future, firstly, 4G network expansion and coverage improvement will be further accelerated. During the epidemic, the demand on higher bandwidth and better coverage will encourage operators to upgrade their network.
“Secondly, operators are gradually increasing their investments in network automation and intelligence, and seeking to use AI to achieve all-round network cost reduction, efficiency improvement and business opportunity exploration.
“Finally, more regional leading operators consider to deploy 5G SA, explore the application of 5G+ to empower the vertical industry,” he explained.
In 2020, ZTE launched its "Autonomous Evolving Network" solution, which combined extensive practice experience in global telecoms network with Big Data and AI capabilities such as deep learning and RCA (Root Cause Analysis). The solution implements automatic network optimisation, self-organisation and autonomous evolution for 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G networks.
“Its AI and Big data-based network O&M knowledge library will greatly simplify the complexity of network O&M and effectively avoid human network failures,” explained Peng.
ZTE has now developed partnerships with more than 500 partners in 15 industries, from culture and tourism to education, health, environmental protection, energy and transportation.
The company has explored 86 innovative 5G application scenarios and has successfully launched over 60 demonstration projects worldwide.
“ZTE will continue to share its experience with African partners to deeply innovate and implement 5G, and promote the development of digital connectivity and digital economy in Africa and across the Middle East,” said Peng.