5G handset marks the first moves to the new generation

Geralyn Samia
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ZTE chief scientist Xiang Jiying hails the display of the first pre-5G handset, ready for a global standard next year. But the Americans made its arrival at Mobile World Congress a close-run thing, writes Alan Burkitt-Gray

Mobile speeds are set to increase to gigabit rates, with what’s believed to be the first-ever 1Gbps smartphone, unveiled in Barcelona at this year’s Mobile World Congress.

Chinese vendor ZTE is claiming to have won the race to demonstrate the first phone that will use the still emerging 5G standards, in collaboration with US chipmaker Qualcomm. China Mobile is likely to be among the first customers. 

ZTE is officially calling it “pre-5G”, but the industry is moving towards a universal agreed 5G standard, says the company’s chief scientist Xiang Jiying, the person heading the company’s 5G research. 

“The target is a global standard for 5G next year,” says Xiang. “We’re finding more and more convergence. Next year we will have a pre-commercial product for 5G.”

Xiang describes the device that ZTE announced at the Barcelona event as “a prototype handset” but adds: “This is the very first [5G] handset.”

He says that “there are no significant disagreements” between companies in the mobile industry, with just some “small” differences needing to be resolved between now and 2018. “Before the standard is frozen we will already know the architecture”, so ZTE will be able to start work on network equipment. Any changes that are needed will be taken care of in software, he adds. “We will be very fast making changes.”

Qualcomm Snapdragon chip

The pre-5G smartphone uses Qualcomm Snapdragon chip technology, says ZTE – emphasising the importance of ZTE’s continued relationship with US technology companies. That relationship nearly came to an end last year, when US authorities found that the company had set up elaborate ways to sell equipment into Iran with American hardware and software – including Qualcomm chips. 

Another ZTE announcement at Barcelona hailed the development of a 5G software-defined baseband unit, using Intel technology. It was, said the company, the world’s first 5G radio access network system using software-defined networking and network function virtualisation. 

ZTE had broken the licence conditions under which it used the US technology. Days before the Barcelona event started, news emerged that a settlement was close to agreement: otherwise, it is hard to see how it could have included that pre-5G phone with the Qualcomm chip or the Intel-equipped base-band unit on its vast exhibition stand at the show. 

As it is, the details of the agreement will be hard for ZTE: an immediate fine of $892 million, plus another $300 million suspended for seven years, a total of almost $1.2 billion. At the same time, the management team responsible for the scam have been removed: their signatures were literally on the paperwork that was leaked by the US. 

Export compliance 

A new team is in place. The former CTO, Zhao Xianming, became chairman and president immediately in the wake of the scandal. In March, Yin Yimin became chairman, leaving Zhao to focus on his CEO-like role. An American lawyer, Matt Bell, is global head of export compliance. 

And now, with the mess finally cleared up, ZTE can refocus on its role in the move to 5G. “Last year we finished off the phase one prototype with China Mobile,” says Xiang. “Now we are in phase two. This will support a much higher bandwidth and higher throughput than phase one.” The latest trial transmitted data at 50Gbps on just 1.2GHz of bandwidth in the 28GHz band. 

The most important 5G development, he says, is SDMA. In an industry that loves its abbreviations, that’s a relatively new one. It means spatial division multiple access. In simple terms, it means bandwidth can be shared between terminals that are in different places within a cell site’s coverage area. 

That’s why he’s talking of 50Gbps of data. No handset or other terminal could conceivably consume so much; but that data could be shared between a thousand or more devices, with each targeted by its beam. “Many users and many handsets will share the same frequency,” he says. 

This is unlike 4G, he says, where all the users in a cell’s footprint have to share the bandwidth. 

One of the challenges of 4G and 5G is making devices work on many different frequencies at once, to build up the bandwidth that’s available. The technical term – warning, more abbreviations – is multiple input, multiple output or MIMO. Even better, massive MIMO. 

ZTE has already achieved it with a time-division duplex approach, says Xiang. “This year we will have frequency division massive MIMO. That’s much more complex, because of the different frequencies,” he says. “We have been working on this for two years, to solve the problems with the uplink and the downlink.”

Frozen standards 

So when will we see commercial operations? “It depends on the standard,” he says. “We expect that this will be frozen in the second quarter of 2018, and then we will move to a commercial product. But it’s almost complete.”

But does that mean uncertainty for the next year, until the standard for 5G is agreed and frozen? No, says Xiang, because of those earlier decisions on the architecture. ZTE is taking a software-defined approach, so will be able to adapt more quickly to any later tweaks and changes, he suggests. 

Let’s move on to the crucial question about the commercialisation of 5G: what will it be used for to make a return on the huge investment by ZTE and all the other equipment vendors, and potential future investment by the operators. 

The internet of things (IoT), says Xiang, without hesitation. “There will be two types of IoT, and the first will be massive IoT with many connections.” Most people believe that mobile broadband using wireless instead of fibre will fit into this category, he notes. 

“The second variety will be ultra-reliance, low-latency communications, latency as short of 0.5ms – robots with very fast responses, for example.” He’s also thinking of virtual reality and augmented reality applications. 

China Mobile “is very interested” in such 5G applications. “Yes, we can find some applications for 5G, and operators are seeking applications.”

Challenged to name one potential application for 5G, Xiang rather surprisingly offers Mobike, the Chinese cycle hiring scheme that has recently spread to Singapore. It’s an entirely cashless system, where people hire bikes and pay for the service via smartphone. When they’ve finished with a bike, there’s no need to put it into a hiring station – Londoners will know the frustration when these are full – but can leave it locked anywhere safe, to be picked up by the next hirer. 

But the 3G system that Mobike uses at the moment takes time to unlock and lock a bike, says Xiang, who believes that 5G technology can speed up the process. “The requirement is very clear,” he says. 

Narrowband IoT 

We turn back to IoT, and Xiang wants to express surprise at the industry’s infatuation with narrowband IoT (NB IoT). “It is a small modification on top of 4G technology,” says the head of ZTE’s 5G innovation. “But it’s not 5G IoT,” he smiles. “I am a little surprised that so many people are interested in it.” 

He points out that IoT has existed with GSM, 3G and now 4G, and he apparently thinks it a backwards step to focus so much innovative work on a development of 4G. 

“We should be looking for the potential in 5G because 5G would be so much better regarding latency, connectivity and coverage,” he adds. 

But, perhaps answering his questions, he accepts that we’ll be waiting another two years before there is a 5G standard for IoT. “But there is a market requirement,” he says.

Meanwhile “the target is a global standard for 5G next year”, says Xiang. ZTE is an active member of 3GPP, the international standards body that is a forum for all work on mobile technology. 

“We’re finding more and more convergence,” he says, meaning convergence between the different participants. “We work with 3GPP, and we’ve proposed a lot of standards, massive MIMO for example.” 

Within the group, there are “no big disagreements, but small ones”, he says. “Next year we will have a pre-commercial product for 5G.” It will be commercial “maybe in 2019”, but that depends on the commercial requirements and the availability of handsets. That’s why ZTE regards the demonstration of its pre-5G phone in Barcelona as so significant. 

“We are working with Qualcomm, and China Mobile is the target for this first 5G standard prototype handset,” says Xiang triumphantly. “This is the very first handset.”