PARTNER INTERVIEW: In the lead up to Mobile World Congress, Mobile World Live spoke to Zhang Jianguo, SVP and GM of wireless product operations for ZTE (pictured, below), who highlighted its pre-commercial 5G milestones as well as the need for operators to embrace the standalone option to maximise the low latency and network slicing benefits of the next-generation technology.

With the 5G standard development process accelerating and operators announcing 5G rollout dates, can you outline the steps ZTE has taken to prepare for future deployments?
ZTE teamed up with many operators and partners in 2017 to actively cooperate in 5G joint verification and pre-commercial deployment and achieved remarkable results. In terms of pre-commercial deployment, ZTE opened the first 5G pre-commercial base station with China Mobile, started the first 5G field test with SoftBank in Japan, and worked with Italy’s Wind Tre to build the first 5G pre-commercial network in Europe. Up to now, ZTE has signed 5G strategic cooperation agreements with more than 20 top operators worldwide.

In terms of joint tests, ZTE has fully passed China’s national 5G two-stage test, with indicators far exceeding ITU standards. In 2017, ZTE established a 5G NR experiment network in Guangzhou with China Mobile to achieve continuous coverage of multiple base stations. It is currently the closest commercial form of a 5G field and pre-commercial network in the world. Together with China Mobile and Qualcomm, we completed the world’s first interoperability tests based on 3GPP Release-15 standard. ZTE also joined Telefonica in completing 5G network architecture and bearer tests.

From commercial 5G end-to-end product and solution releases to joint testing and verification with industry chain partners and the deployment of 5G pre-commercial networks with leading operators, ZTE’s 5G business leadership is being fully showcased.

Given 5G requires a large number of key technologies, what progress has been made in ZTE’s technological innovation to speed up the 5G commercial process?
ZTE regards 5G as its core strategy for the future and continuously increases investment in 5G R&D and related fields. ZTE established a 5G R&D team of more than 4,500 members, invests CNY3 billion ($474 million) into 5G R&D annually and achieved a leading position in 5G technology development.

ZTE’s first application of 5G core technology, Massive MIMO, to 4G networks delivered up to an eight-times improvement in spectral efficiency, while accelerating the Massive MIMO industrialisation process, contributing numerous technical proposals.

In the area of 5G standards, ZTE initiated the 5G NOMA research project in 3GPP with multi-user shared access (MUSA) technology proposed by ZTE expected to become an international standard. The MUSA solution achieved 90 million connections per MHz/hour in the second phase of China’s national 5G test, far exceeding the ITU-defined indicator.

Meanwhile, ZTE has strong chip design and development capabilities and introduced the industry’s highest-integrated next-generation baseband unit based on self-developed, high-performance vector-processing baseband chips. We also introduced the industry’s lightest and smallest 5G active antenna unit (AAU) based on a highly integrated digital IF chip.

5G commercial services are just around the corner. How does ZTE expect 5G deployments to be carried out across the world?
To promote rapid 5G commercial deployment, ZTE recommends 5G New Radio (NR) run on sub-6GHz spectrum first, with special emphasis on 3.5GHz spectrum due to its large bandwidth, wide coverage and mature terminal and industry ecosystem. The 3.5GHz frequency band will be deployed as the main macro station in the first phase of 5G NR to realise independent continuous networking. The 26GHz and other high-frequency bands are proposed to be deployed in high-use urban areas as a hotspot capacity supplement in the second phase of 5G.

5G commercial deployment has two architecture options: non-standalone (NSA) and standalone (SA). Technically, NSA architecture can be regarded as a “slow tactic” for the initial development of 5G because it can reuse existing 4G core networks and does not require continuous coverage. However, because NSA cannot give play to technical features of 5G such as low latency and cannot flexibly support diversified business needs through network slicing, ZTE believes 5G will eventually move to SA networking.

The 5G era is forecast to impact almost all vertical industries and lead to major shifts in business models. How does ZTE view this and how will it be achieved?
The huge changes 5G networks will likely bring can be divided into three scenarios based on typical future applications: enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), ultra-reliable and low latency communications (URLLC ), and massive machine-type communications (mMTC ). Each scenario has rich industrial applications behind it and more vertical industries will be involved. This provides a broader service development field for operators.

ZTE introduced the industry’s first 5G end-to-end network slicing which can deliver end-to-end deployment of wireless, core network, bearer and service in less than one minute, and rapidly respond to bandwidth and latency requirements in different scenarios. In the future, different vertical industry services can run on isolated network slices generated on the same physical infrastructure.

At the same time, with the participation of so many vertical industries, 5G use cases will inevitably fragment and show signs of a long-tail effect. There will be growing differences and even uncertainties in business models across different industries, making it difficult to use a unified network architecture and business model. Based on ZTE’s end-to-end network slicing technology, operators can generate or withdraw logical slices on demand to achieve faster network service customisation, real-time tuning and improvements.