Nokia highlights turnaround with new 5G RAN gear

Nokia on Thursday unveiled new 5G radio access network (RAN) equipment, that brings features up to speed or ahead of the competition, according to mobile networks president Tommi Uitto.

The new AirScale gear is powered by custom ReefShark 5G System on a Chip (SoC). Equipment includes baseband, radio, and Massive MIMO antennas. It’s Nokia’s biggest product launch in a number of years.

Uitto said the portfolio is the culmination of two years of hard work for a turnaround in Nokia’s mobile networks product.

“The catch-up phase is now over,” he said in an interview with Fierce.

The mobile equipment unit lost share in North America with Verizon and missed out on contracts in China after struggles that included earlier missteps on ReefShark using field programmable gate arrays (FPGA) for 5G products.

In some ways the new gear marks a milestone, said Uitto, who leads the mobile network business that generated about half of Nokia’s sales in 2020 or around EUR 10 billion. As part of the effort Nokia grew the number of 5G engineers by 40% over the last two years, and now has more than 18,000 R&D engineers overall.

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“These types of products put us in a better position to build scale, increase our market share, and also help us frankly offset the impact of not having much share in China and then one of our U.S. customers who did not yet choose us in C-band,” he said. “We can offset that with wins in other markets.” Nokia is supplying AT&T with C-band gear, and in January secured a new five-year 5G contract with T-Mobile.

Many of the design specs of the products were defined with leading customers, and Nokia’s gotten extremely good feedback - it’s even been successful already in helping to win customers, according to Uitto.

Over the past two and half years Nokia won 20 new radio customers the Finnish vendor didn’t have in the 4G era, as well as increased share in more than 20 accounts where it was one of several radio suppliers.

“Some we have actually won because we told them about the product … and this flipped the decision in our advantage as opposed to say Ericsson or Samsung, and especially in cases where operators were replacing Huawei or ZTE,” he said.   

Enhanced capacity, power efficiency

Key features of the Airscale baseband include plug-in cards for enhanced subscriber capacity – ability to connect 90,000; throughput of 84 Gbps; the number of cells that can be served (288); as well as power consumption. Baseband units are now 75% more power efficient for lowered energy consumption per subscriber and cell.

Another feature is broad spectrum support across TDD and FDD bands in a single unit. That aspect is important for both standalone and non-standalone deployments, as operators look to utilize their full portfolio of spectrum for all flavors of 5G deployments.

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There’s also support with single RAN software across 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G. Up until now, Nokia had baseband boards for 5G that were separate from previous technology generations – which Uitto called a disadvantage.

“We finally now tick the box in having common baseband hardware, common multi-radio baseband capable of 5G,” he said.

The AirScale baseband is already shipping, and in a commercial network after validation with a lead customer in progressive mobile market in East Asia.  

Lightweight Massive MIMO

Nokia launched Massive MIMO 32T32R and 64T64R active antennas with beamforming, as well as an 8T8R remote radio head. Those will be available by the end of 2021.

At 17 kilograms, the 32T32R mMIMO radio is the lightest in the industry, according to the vendor.   

Weight and size is key as antennas have to be carried to the tower, rooftop or rural site. By comparison, the first generations of Massive MIMO products were 45-50 kilograms, according to Uitto, which could need a crane to lift. It also impacts wind load on poles or towers, with heavier units potentially requiring reinforcement.

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Massive MIMO has been tipped as a key 5G technology as carriers rollout mid-band, like C-band and 2.5 GHz in the U.S., and other parts of the world.

Nokia already has commercial C-band gear for massive MIMO – the first was FPGA-based used for the digital front end and the software beamforming functionality while the second was based on the first ReefShark SoC but still had some FPGA and narrower bandwidth.

The new product is smaller, lighter, and brings greater bandwidth, supporting 400 MHz – even if it’s not contiguous (or comes in chunks). Output power comes with options of 240 Watts or 320W.

Uitto said Massive MIMO technology is ideal for midband Time Division Duplex (TDD) bands -  it can be used in FDD but doesn’t provide as good gains.

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“In these mid-bands around the world, everywhere, Massive MIMO is really the way to build 5G,” he said, because there’s typically a lot of spectrum. Depending on the country, operators on average could have about 100 MHz channels in a mid-band TDD. “That gives you the gigabit speeds that are sort of table stakes in 5G, that’s why it’s so important.”

Another feature is the products are O-RAN ready.

O-RAN and flexibility

Nokia has said it aims to be the most versatile radio supplier, and part of that is gear that’s O-RAN ready but can also support across the different extremes of operators’ architecture.

For O-RAN, processors of the overall hardware platform are compatible with the O-RAN specification.

RELATED: Nokia’s mobile network head ready to face open RAN competition

“For us to make this fully O-RAN compliant operationally, it’s just a matter of a software upgrade” for the interface between the radio unit and the distributed unit (DU), Uitto said. The baseband ports, chips and other hardware are also O-RAN compliant, with the ability to support interfaces between different network components with software.

In terms of versatility, Uitto pointed to capacity supported by the baseband.

“We can be sure we’re not running into any bottlenecks in any scenario, from the most centralized to the most decentralized” environment, he said.