Samsung joins commercial 5G vRAN party

Samsung’s fully virtualized 5G radio access network (vRAN) product will be commercially available this quarter, in shift away from dedicated hardware in favor of software elements that run on a general-purpose computing platform.

Samsung already commercialized its virtualized Central Unit (vCU) in April 2019, which operates in live networks in Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. Now the 5G kit has expanded to include a virtualized baseband or Distributed Unit (vDU).

When paired with Samsung’s virtualized 4G/5G core, the vendor offers an end-to-end software-based radio and core network that runs on a COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) x86-based platform.

Derek Johnston, Samsung’s head of marketing and 5G business development for the Networks unit, said this comes on the heels of a final validation test performed for customers this past April.

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That test proved performance and feasibility of the commercial solutions, “showing how this 5G NR baseband function and software running on COTS servers really resulted in the exact same performance that you would get out of a hardware-based solution,” Johnston said.

In the U.S. Samsung is one of the suppliers for AT&T and Verizon’s 5G networks, as well as Sprint’s initial (now deactivated) 5G network. Earlier this year the South Korean vendor struck a 5G contract with U.S. Cellular. Field trials of the vRAN kit will happen with North American customers in the second half of 2020, according to Johnston.

Samsung’s commercial vRAN release includes support for dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) in upcoming customer deployments, according to Alok Shah, VP of Networks Strategy and Marketing at Samsung Electronics. The DSS solution was also tested in April.

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“DSS is an important feature that enables operators to accelerate 5G coverage in existing spectrum bands,” Shah said. AT&T has already rolled out DSS in parts of some 5G markets and Verizon in May completed successful DSS tests with Ericsson and Nokia.

While some may stick with a traditional approach, most of the operators that are choosing to virtualize are doing so to get better flexibility and scalability in a more cost-efficient network model. Carriers looking to virtualization can now “dynamically resource and shift capacity or manage and operate their networks on a more efficient basis,” Johnston said.

In addition to the U.S., Samsung supplied 5G networks in South Korea and Japan, the latter with operator KDDI in what Johnston described as very challenging RF environment. The vendor expanded its reach to include deals with Videotron in Canada and Spark in New Zealand.

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Although it counts several international customers, Samsung’s targets don’t include all of the same global markets as the likes of Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei. Nokia recently introduced its own 5G vRAN product, and today said it will offer a full site of O-RAN-defined interfaces by 2021. Ericsson, meanwhile, since June introduced a new RAN compute baseband, antenna-integrated radio solutions for mid-band 5G, and standalone (SA) 5G software.

One aspect Johnston said is unique about Samsung’s value proposition around vRAN, as a RAN challenger compared to some other newer RAN entrants, is the company’s “unmatched financial strength.” That comes thanks to the deep pockets of Samsung Electronics in its entirety, including a leading handset and semiconductor business.

Just today, Samsung released new guidance for Q2, estimating operating profit of about 8.1 trillion South Korean won ($6.78 billion), marking a 23% year over year increase that includes a one-time gain related to its display business.  

In addition to financial strength, Samsung is coming from proven technology with work in 4G and the ability to supply at scale, he noted. The other piece is that Samsung is willing to bring the new architecture to operators that might want to do an open RAN implementation or a traditional approach.

“As this large semiconductor, device and network manufacturer, we’ve got the expertise in the RF layer,” Johnston said. “I think we can pull together the modem ASICs much more quickly than some of the others in the market and that commercialization has really been able to come together in the smaller, faster, more energy efficient RAN solutions that are [commercially] out there today.”

Shifts since COVID-19

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Samsung is seeing differences in how 5G technology may be leveraged and across what landscapes.

“As families continue to work and learn at home, we have seen a significant increase in network usage and a change in consumer habit that we think will accelerate long-term digital transformation,” Johnston said. That includes changes in capacity and throughput needs, he noted, such as healthcare facilities moving to telehealth platforms “adding capacity demands to their facility and to practitioners’ facilities.”

For example, a June 2020 report from industry group CTIA showed that after the COVID-19 crisis spread in the U.S. in mid-March, the Cleveland Clinic saw monthly telehealth visits jump from 3,400 to more than 60,000.

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Samsung’s also seen renewed interest and more discussions around fixed wireless access (FWA) to support the need for greater connectivity reach and reliability across the country.

“We are seeing substantial interest in FWA, based on the understanding that every U.S. household needs competitive options for home broadband,” Shah noted. The two primary FWA scenarios Samsung’s seeing, he said, are millimeter wave 5G for gigabit speeds in metro areas, and mid-band spectrum - usually CBRS - for rural broadband.

In May, Verizon’s chief executive said the coronavirus crisis only reinforced its strategy for FWA. Verizon has launched fixed wireless 5G Home broadband service using mmWave spectrum in a handful of markets, with plans to expand to 10 by the end of 2020. CEO Hans Vestberg said the carrier was waiting on next-gen chipsets for customer premise equipment.