With evolving technologies, new trends have emerged, shaping the mobile communications industry. Nokia has been a leader in that space with new technologies uplifting the overall ICT industry. In order to discuss Nokia’s mobile networks business and activities, Telecom Review spoke to Tommi Uitto, President of Mobile Networks, Nokia; and Bernard Najm, SVP, Mobile Networks, Nokia Middle East and Africa.
How is Nokia shaping the mobile communications industry globally and in Middle East and Africa in particular? And how is your commitment to Middle East and Africa reflected?
Tommi Uitto: Nokia is actively shaping the future of the mobile communications industry on many fronts. We are a global leader in 4G and 5G. We are the global leader in private wireless networks for enterprise customers. We were part of the first 5G launches in the world on April 3, 2019, in South Korea where we supply all three networks. Since then, we have launched 5G networks in 39GHz, 28GHz, 26GHz, 3.5GHz, 2.5GHz, 850MHz, 700MHz and 600MHz, in all continents except the Antarctic.
Further, we are shaping the market with many exciting innovations within 4G and 5G technology. For example, we were the first in the world to pioneer end-to-end 4G and 5G network slicing across RAN, transport and core networks. Slicing enables operators to deliver unique, isolated ‘slices’ of the network to their customers, tailored to specific applications and meeting specific performance requirements. In February 2021, Nokia’s 4G/5G slicing solution received a prestigious award from GTI in the 'Innovative Breakthrough in Mobile Technology’ category.
We recently announced a 4G/5G network slicing trial with Mobily in Saudi Arabia, which enables the operator to offer new Fixed Wireless Access services to priority consumer and enterprise customers.
Overall, expanding the 5G market to new enterprise segments is a key strategic focus area for Nokia as asset-heavy industries and industry verticals are starting to make use of wireless technology and Internet-of-Things (IoT) to automate their business processes. Our Bell Labs colleagues say that most industries have been able to improve their productivity, thanks to computers and digitalization by an average of up to 3% over the past decades. But the so-called physical industries -- industries where something moves, changes form or needs to be controlled -- have lagged behind with less than 1% productivity growth CAGR. The reason is that there was no proper technology to connect objects in a wireless and reliable manner. 5G is totally changing this and it is, therefore, opening new exciting opportunities for operators to enter new markets and grow revenues with existing customers.
Bernard Najm: There has been a lot of press coverage about 5G launches in the US and South Korea however, Nokia is also part of the largest 5G launch in the Middle East and Africa that is really focused on delivering broad socio-economic benefits to all. The 5G launch with Zain in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) leads the way for the whole continent and plays an important role in contributing to the country’s vision. Also, with our long-term partner stc in Saudi, we reached another milestone in the 5G commercial network development, demonstrating New Radio (NR) with 8 carrier aggregation (CA) using Nokia advanced mmWave technology. Our mmWave technology has enabled the fastest 5G speed in the country and this achievement demonstrates the capacity of our commercially deployed 5G solutions.
MEA is a very diverse region; some countries are at the forefront of 5G adoption while others are preparing for 5G. At the same time, there are many countries in the region where 2G, 3G and/or LTE are the key technologies. Many of our customers are investing now in LTE and LTE advanced technologies. As a leader in LTE network performance globally, according to independent third-party research like that of Tutela, Ookla, RootMetrics and OpenSignal, Nokia’s focus is to help our customers build their networks and future proof their investments, by providing them with our comprehensive portfolio. Nokia is fully committed to Middle East and Africa region with its wide range of product portfolio in different technologies. Today we have nine publicly announced commercial 5G deals across the region with leading operators and we have deployed hundreds of thousands of 4G sites.
Tommi Uitto: Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) is another area where we have notable achievements, having delivered the industry’s first DSS solution in April 2020 that supports spectrum sharing between 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G. We were also the first network equipment provider to make its 5G standalone (SA) private wireless technology commercially available in July 2020. Nokia introduced the world’s first commercial liquid cooling 5G AirScale Base Station solution which helped Finnish mobile operator, Elisa, reduce the potential energy expenses of its base station by 30 percent and CO2 emissions by approximately 80 percent.
And last, but certainly not least: Open RAN. We are fully committed to ORAN. Nokia was the only large, established supplier who endorsed and help foundation of Open RAN Alliance when it was only five operators. We see a lot of interest from our customer in this and we want to be shaping the future together with them, including designing Open RAN interfaces and defining an adoption plan.
Let’s start with MEA: in 2020, new challenges emerged at the level of mobile networks. How did Nokia manage to face them to maintain a good customer experience?
Bernard Najm: Middle East and Africa is one of the most diversified telecom markets in the world. Stretching from Senegal to Pakistan and from South Africa to Iraq, it spans regions with highly advanced connectivity where 5G rollouts are happening at pace, as well as isolated rural areas with some of the most limited connectivity on the planet. The market represents the wider world; and in 2020, at a time when half of the global population went under confinement, the challenges faced by its mobile networks are representative of those faced across the globe.
Over just few weeks, we saw approximately 30% traffic growth in MEA networks – the same kind of growth that we would usually expect in a year. It is not just the scale of the increase, but also the significant behavioral changes as whole populations moved abruptly to a new digital way of working and living, leaving city centers deserted and placing unprecedented pressure on residential networks.
We, at Nokia, worked closely with operators to help them respond swiftly to the challenges by reducing congestion through network optimization and upgrades; and together, we also worked on scaling the network adding capacity in the new “hot zones” through spectrum expansion and additional sites that help prepare for the uncertainty moving forward, where in-built scalability and flexibility will be key in both access and transport networks. Fixed Wireless Access solutions, built over LTE or 5G, are also providing an effective way to expand broadband access to reach unserved and underserved communities.
Today the priority is shifting from quickly and decisively responding to urgent challenges toward evolving networks in a progressive way, making the most of network automation to create more flexible network architectures that can be run with minimal human intervention.
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What would you consider as the turning point for Nokia’s Mobile Networks?
Tommi Uitto: Certainly, the implementation of our turnaround program in 2019-2020 is a clear turning point. These changes and improvements have set us on the path to win. We are a trusted vendor, repeatedly recognized for ethical business practices and are shaping the market and driving adoption of Open and Virtualized Radio Access Networks. In 2021, we’ll finalize our portfolio renewal and continue benefiting from our momentum in 5G with CSPs and enterprise customers for private wireless networks.
What is the status of Open RAN in the Middle East and Africa region? What are the opportunities it offers?
Tommi Uitto: Nokia has long been a believer in – and champion of – open and interoperable technologies, and we believe that Open RAN technology, by disaggregating hardware and software components and leveraging open interfaces, has the potential to enrich the mobile ecosystem with new solutions and business models, and an expanded multi-vendor ecosystem. There are 27 significant CSPs and many suppliers behind it, including Nokia. The development of an Open RAN is not a matter of “if” and more a discussion of “when”, “how much” and with “whom”. While delivering on our promise to our customers of a competitive 5G RAN, we will lead in O-RAN/vRAN to offer products, solutions and services for best performance and lowest TCO in an open, multivendor environment. It is fair to say that Open RAN is not fully mature yet and the specifications continue evolving. This is a global fact. This said, it makes sense to start trying out the technology regardless of the market.
Bernard Najm: By enabling innovations, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) applied to the RAN with RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), Open RAN will offer many benefits. These include improved network performance; accelerated time-to-market of new services and functions; and more flexible and agile networks.
Open RAN is in the exploration phase in the Middle East and Africa region. While some operators have chosen to conduct some trials based on O-RAN interfaces, it is evident that the maturity of this ecosystem will evolve over a period of time. We expect to see O-RAN deployments in commercial networks within the next couple of years, and we are ready to support our customers in this.
How is OpenRAN helping evolve 5G networks?
Tommi Uitto: Open RAN will help drive innovation, for example with the new network element called RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) which enables exciting use cases with AI/ML. We recently launched Services Enablement Platform (SEP) combining RIC with Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) benefiting from decentralization to network edge. Further, Open RAN will drive more choice, as eventually operators can better mix and match RF and baseband solutions from various suppliers. For instance, in the USA we have replaced our competitor’s base stations at some stadium with a special product, connecting our baseband with a special antenna system from Commscope. This became a win-win-win-win, for our operator customer, the operator, Nokia and Commscope. Furthermore, Open RAN will be a catalyst to start making use of cloud computing in RAN. You see, you can make Open RAN in proprietary platforms with custom silicon, you can make Virtualized RAN (vRAN) that is not Open RAN compliant, but the reason why they are linked is that the new Open RAN baseband suppliers cannot afford to develop their own hardware – nor should they – so they resort to general purpose processors and commercial, off the shelf hardware. This is a good catalyst for operators to start thinking about how to reap the benefits of cloud computing in RAN, just like they have done with their IT workloads and increasingly mobile core network functions.
In terms of 5G, how many customers of Nokia have already transitioned from 4G to 5G? Which region is leading today in 5G deployment?
Tommi Uitto: As of 7th April 2021, we have 152 commercial 5G deals for wide-scale deployment. Our success rate in converting our 4G customers to 5G is approximately 90%, excluding mainland China. Some of the early adopter markets include South Korea, the USA and China. Many of the GCC countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are also pioneering in terms of 5G leadership.
Where does Nokia rank in global 5G deployments? And how important is the Middle East and Africa market for Nokia?
Tommi Uitto: We are the global number two supplier in 5G, excluding mainland China, and third overall. We have over 200 commercial 5G engagements; 152 commercial 5G deals and 63 live networks. As many as 29 of the top 30 mobile operator groups in terms of subscriber base run Nokia base stations. For us, Middle East and Africa is a very important market, and some of my largest customers are in this region.
Bernard Najm: Operators in the Middle East and Africa were among the first ones globally to introduce Nokia 5G technology and the momentum continues. Our 5G public references in MEA include all the operators in Saudi Arabia (stc, Zain Saudi and Mobily) and the UAE (du and Etisalat), as well as Ooredoo Qatar, Vodacom South Africa, Safaricom Kenya and Togocom. In addition, we expect to see the next wave of 5G deployments in North African countries in 2022 and beyond. Overall, the Middle East and Africa region is very important for Nokia with a large number of customers and we expect to see this 5G momentum continuing.
How does Nokia plan on driving its 5G momentum in 2021?
Tommi Uitto: From the start of the year, we brought together the wireless networks and services under one roof to better align with the way that our customers buy. Our number one priority is to close whatever remaining roadmap gaps this year, building on our turnaround of 2019-2020 and further increase in 5G R&D investment. We will continue converting our 4G CSP customers to 5G and win new customers in transition from 4G to 5G. We will also shape the industry and the market with ORAN and vRAN. We will keep our lead in solutions such as private wireless networks, small cells, 4G/LTE field performance, and end-to-end 4G-5G network slicing across RAN, transport and core.
Going forward, in addition to 5G, what will be the main areas of focus in terms of mobile networks?
Tommi Uitto: If 5G as an overall technology is driving growth in our market, then Enterprise as a customer segment is also driving growth. With the improved IoT capabilities of 5G, asset-heavy industry verticals can better automate their business processes. They can use a combination of operators’ commercial networks, slices of the commercial networks, as well as private wireless networks. In other words, Enterprise as a customer segment is a key focus area in 4G and especially in 5G, especially with the URLLC and eMTC capabilities. Looking into more detail and beyond 5G, ORAN and vRAN, key focus areas include further improvements in spectral efficiency, power consumption and use of AI/ML. Progressively, we start increasing our research on 6G as well.