PARTNER CONTENT: Fifth generation (5G) networks have brought high-bandwidth connections and much shorter latency to mobile users while enabling new applications for consumers and businesses alike. But the use of 5G equipment in cellular infrastructure also significantly increases its energy consumption.

There are international efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C, and the information and communications technology (ICT) industry is also striving to halve its own carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and achieve net zero carbon by 2050. Which means green, low-carbon 5G infrastructure is likely to play an important role in the construction of a more environmentally friendly digital economy.

Another challenge is to optimize 5G network performance and meet greater expectations around the user experience whilst simultaneously incorporating multi-band radio network technology. Ensuring maximum coverage and capacity, especially with high-band 5G (also known as millimeter wave – mmWave) is particularly difficult because signals are easily blocked by buildings and other obstacles in dense urban areas.

And on top of all this, telcos and mobile network operators (MNOs) are constantly under pressure to build and expand their 5G infrastructure to enable new revenue-generating services whilst improving network efficiency and reducing their total cost of ownership (TCO) to maximize profit.

RAN breaks barriers

The success or failure of that mission will rely in no small measure on the availability of low power 5G transmission equipment from major suppliers. ZTE is one of those, and the company will flesh out its strategy to empower telcos and MNOs at this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) event in Barcelona.

“ZTE aims to deliver superior radio networks for MNOs to enable optimal user experience for mobile consumers and digital transformation for vertical industries,” said Mr. Bai Yanmin, Vice President of ZTE Corporation and General Manager of RAN products. “Specifically, ZTE’s RAN technologies focus on the modernization of radio networks, deepen the integration of 5G and AI, enhance 5G’s capabilities to create new business opportunities for MNOs in both the B2C and B2B markets, and improve 5G’s efficiency and sustainability.”

This year, ZTE plans to help MNOs realize 5G’s potentials across a broad range of verticals by integrating support for specific industry applications into its radio network infrastructure. Boosting equipment processing capabilities and compute power allows AI to run directly on the hardware, for example, while adding sensing capabilities will open yet another door for even more new use cases. Critically, this should pave the way for industry specific 5G applications to not only supporting systems, but also core operations.

ZTE’s UniSite platform enables this integration using a combination of dual-band active antenna units (AAUs) and tri-band ultra-broadband radio (UBR) technology which cut the number of remote radio units needed in the network while maximize signal coverage.

“Building on top of these innovative radio products, the streamlined, highly efficient, all-band and all-scenario UniSite solution can help MNOs achieve RAN modernization and build competitive 5G networks.” Mr. Bai added.

5G green goals

Meanwhile, increasing service and network complexities – challenges highlighted by recent GSMA research – have spurred ZTE to do more around RAN intelligence and automation.

“The problem has reached a point where we have to manage the network together with AI/ML, intelligent software, and automation,” explained Mr. Bai. “AI allows vast amounts of data from different sources to be analyzed and expands the potential for energy-saving opportunities across the whole network. 5G plus AI is quintessential in making 5G greener and helping MNOs to improve network efficiency and achieve their sustainability goals.”

The urgent need to improve energy efficiency and lower electricity consumption in telecommunications networks has prompted ZTE to focus on designing and delivering more power-efficient RAN hardware. That is another feature of the tri-sector low-band or mid-band UBRs which help to reduce costs and the 5G network’s physical and carbon footprint. In addition, ZTE’s PowerPilot Pro solution uses AI algorithms hosted either in the cloud or in the BBUs themselves to shut down parts of the network when they are not in use to save energy.

Deploying AI/ML in the BBUs closer to the data source yields a better real-time response, which also helps ZTE’s PowerPilot Pro and Radio Composer network resource orchestration capabilities. These intelligent algorithms essentially enable the base station to “sense” traffic and patterns of user behavior, then proactively route applications onto the most efficient radio technology or spectrum for their requirements.

Cross-domain information which may affect energy consumption is also fed to the base stations so that they can quickly activate enhanced energy-saving features. ZTE has introduced various shutdown mechanisms and multiple levels of shutdown, including a unique AAU hibernation mode.

“Nowadays in the mobile industry, the deepest power-saving mode for AAU still consumes around 100W, because some modules cannot shut down entirely,” said Mr. Bai. “Our AAU hibernation technology is a ‘zero-load, zero-consumption’ energy-saving technology that integrates software and hardware in a collaborative manner. It shuts down everything except a tiny power module, reducing power consumption from 100W to 5W.”

Intent-driven efficiency

Intelligent orchestration is an important pillar of ZTE’s wireless framework, and like the PowerPilot Pro, ZTE’s Radio Composer solution is powered by AI deployed in the base stations to improve the user experience and management of radio resources.

Launched in 2022, Radio Composer 2.0 relies on intent-driven technology to help operators meet the requirements of specific scenarios and services, deliver resource allocation efficiency, and significantly reduce operating and maintenance costs. “Radio Composer 2.0 allows the network to achieve ‘what you expect is what you get’.” said Mr. Bai.

While PowerPilot Pro helps with energy saving and Radio Composer improves the user experience and network efficiency, ZTE offers a host of other solutions which provide additional capabilities. Dynamic Reconfigurable Intelligent Surface (RIS) helps MNOs improve network coverage, while uSmartNet is designed to increase the efficiency of telco O&M systems. Elsewhere, a 3D coverage solution combines AAU/RRU products and SSB 1+X beam networking technology to reduce or eliminate network blind spots.

A key goal for ZTE’s RAN portfolio is to help operators reduce their total cost of ownership (TCO). To this end, the company plans to accelerate the integration of communications, computing and sensing capabilities into its 5G network infrastructure to meet the needs of specific industries. For example, coupling NodeEngine (a built-in computing engine inside the base station) and SmartEdge (a low-latency edge gateway) allows vertical applications to be deployed directly onto the network infrastructure.

“The value of 5G networks will be better reflected as 5G vertical applications gradually shift from supporting systems to supporting core operations and enabling use cases that are crucial for the industrial production process,” said Mr. Bai. “Deeper integration into the core operations can improve production efficiency in manufacturing and enable smart city applications such as smart transportation in government.”

While the combination of AI and computing power has become an important engine for current network development, it’s also seen a foundation for the development of intelligent RAN for 5G-Advanced and 6G networks in the future. ZTE expects 5G networks will evolve further to have native AI capabilities, whether integrated into the whole system design and/or injected into the core network, access network and physical layer, for example.

More importantly perhaps, ZTE’s RAN intelligence is already enabling operators to tap into advanced network automation capabilities as well as energy-efficient 5G equipment to deliver exceptional user experiences for both B2C and B2B markets.

A good example of what’s possible comes from the local transportation industry in Guangzhou, which together with China Mobile and ZTE, transformed the city’s transportation system into a smart 5G-enabled platform in 2020.

China Mobile and ZTE have also helped cardboard box manufacturer Hotel Star to replace its traditional Wi-Fi-based network with a high-speed private 5G network that supports real-time transmission of large amounts of data to the company’s local data center. The network has improved the manufacturer’s data collection efficiency, reduced deployment and maintenance costs, and increased operational agility.

Multiple operators have deployed ZTE AI powered RAN in multiple cities to enhance user experience, network traffic and network efficiency while reducing customer churn rate and empowering B2B digital transformation. These are just a few among thousands of early 5G adopters’ digitalization journeys, and ZTE expects its enhanced product portfolio to power more of the same going forward