Nokia looks beyond 5G delays

Nokia got some of the blame for making Sprint late in launching 5G in four of its markets last week, but the head of network marketing at the infrastructure provider said 5G product delays are a thing of the past.

“We’re very happy with the performance of the network,” said Sandro Tavares, Nokia’s global head of Mobile Networks Marketing, after last week’s launches. As Fierce Wireless and other news outlets found, finding a 5G connection in a Sprint market is relatively easy; the carrier is using its 2.5 GHz spectrum.

Sprint launched 5G service last week in parts of Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix and Washington D.C., using 64T64R (64 transmitters 64 receivers) 5G Massive MIMO radios from Nokia. Its earlier markets, which include Atlanta, Kansas City, Dallas-Ft. Worth and Houston, used infrastructure from Ericsson. In the Chicago market, which launched in July, Sprint used gear from Samsung Networks.

Sprint so far is focused on these nine markets, and Tavares declined to say if there are any other markets where Nokia is working with Sprint. The operator earlier this year said it would launch in nine of some of the largest cities in the country in first half of the year, but the four that launched last week didn’t quite make that deadline.

RELATED: Sprint delivers 5G coverage in NYC, despite delayed rollout

Sprint CTO John Saw told reporters last week that site construction wasn’t difficult, but ensuring the 5G service worked “really well” was, including work on the carrier's dual-mode technology, as well as E-UTRAN New Radio (ENDC), which allows devices to access both LTE and 5G at the same time. He added that Sprint’s nine 5G markets are the carrier’s largest in terms of LTE usage and Sprint wanted to make sure users didn’t have a faulty LTE experience.

Nokia earlier this year confessed to delays in 5G in general—not necessarily anything tied to Sprint—and before the launch with Sprint, Nokia already had about 10 other networks around the world that were live and hosting commercial traffic, Tavares noted.

By the second quarter of this year, it was able to recognize the revenues for 5G. “This is behind us now,” Tavares said. Of course, technology continues to evolve, and “we continue doing the best to make sure we are providing the right solutions for our customers at the right time.” At the end of the day, a couple weeks delay in a cycle that is supposed to last quite a lot of years is not that significant, he added.   

He said the decision with Sprint was actually about making sure that for these markets, “which were actually some of the most complex in terms of propagation, population, coverage and so on,” including traffic density, “that we really made sure that this network was launched with the right level of performance. That basically made us together with Sprint really focus on getting the engineering aspects right” and tuning to have it launched properly.

During the staged launch events, a team in New York held a virtual reality call with the team in Los Angeles. In California, they also ran an event with gamers where they did a Fornite tournament using 5G to stress how the latency and throughput of the network make it ideal for things like gaming.

So far, operators launching commercial networks are using Non-Standalone (NSA), and that’s for several reasons, such as device availability, and the fact they can deploy the 5G network leveraging the installed LTE core, which makes the process slightly more straightforward than the Standalone (SA) version of the 5G standard.

“I would say that most of these operators that are deploying NSA now at some point in the future they’re going to evolve to SA,” Tavares said. Operators in China have explored going to SA first, but lately it appears they may be leaning toward NSA first and then SA, although that could always change.

Sprint’s 5G Massive MIMO radios are deployed on Sprint’s existing 4G cell sites, providing a nearly identical footprint for both 2.5 GHz LTE and 5G NR coverage. The 5G boxes are actually smaller than the previous LTE gear; the antenna is on the front and the radio transceivers are on the back, and it’s all in a single box. “It’s the evolution of the technology,” he said.

Nokia had to work with Sprint to engineer for the different terrains—New York is a very vertical market, while Los Angeles, for example, is also very dense but more spread out with valleys to consider.

“Each one of them has its own quirks,” he said of the four markets. Nokia will continue to work on adding new base stations to the footprint and basically optimizing the network. “We always make sure we’re getting the best out of the network that we’re delivering to our customers.”

A Sprint spokesperson confirmed that Sprint has soft-launched VoLTE in nearly all markets and it has nationwide commercial availability on capable devices.

“Our customers are now able to use voice and data simultaneously as we continue to optimize the experience,” the spokesperson told Fierce Wireless. “Sprint is the first carrier to launch VoLTE on a fully virtualized core,” and customers should be able to notice the difference, especially when the device on the other end also uses VoLTE for high-definition voice quality.