• 5G-Advanced and energy efficiency were two prominent themes among RAN vendors at MWC Shanghai.
• ZTE introduced a new offering for private networks that features integrated RAN and core functions.
In June 2023, Mobile World Congress (MWC) Shanghai celebrated its 10th anniversary as an Asian counterpart to the MWC held annually in Barcelona, Spain. As usual, China’s two biggest RAN vendors, Huawei and ZTE, loomed large over the proceedings, but neither vendor made major new RAN product announcements at the show.
The event came as China’s massive rollout of 5G continues to spread. As of May 2023, China had more than 2.8 million 5G base stations, but due to the nation’s immense size, that number only represents a quarter of the mobile base stations in China. Meanwhile, the global industry is preparing to take the next step in 5G technology’s evolution to 5G-Advanced, which is likely to be commercialized in networking equipment starting in 2024.
Huawei’s promotion of 5G-Advanced – which Huawei calls ‘5.5G’ – at the show is timely but also a continuation of a highly vocal campaign the vendor has been conducting for years. In addition to emphasizing four key features of 5.5G in Shanghai – 10 Gbps downlink, 1 Gbps uplink, 100 billion connections, and native AI – Huawei vowed in June 2023 to launch a “full set” of commercial 5.5G networking equipment in 2024. That promise isn’t surprising, given expectations for 5G-Advanced standards to be finalized and early chipsets to begin to emerge in 2023. In fact, Huawei probably won’t be alone among its peers in unveiling such gear in 2024.
Huawei and ZTE also leaned into another pervasive topic in the industry right now: energy efficiency. Huawei promoted its “zero-bit, zero-watt” energy-efficiency solutions, including radios that can power down when network traffic is low – to nearly 5 W. This incrementally advances claims of “less than 10 W” radio power consumption made by Huawei earlier in 2023. Meanwhile, ZTE launched new capabilities for shutting down user plane functions in the 5G core during low-traffic periods. And in characteristic fashion, each company made its announcements in conjunction with a major Chinese operator: China Mobile.
ZTE also unveiled its UniEngine V1100A, a product that integrates the functions of a 5G RAN and core in addition to simplified operations and management. With a small scale suitable for private enterprise networks and computing power to process third-party applications, the UniEngine builds upon the concept embodied in the Node Engine that ZTE previously promoted for private-enterprise use. The Node Engine is a computing card that slots into a baseband unit; unlike UniEngine, it can be used with or without a separate 5G core. So, the transition from those discreet units to the more integrated UniEngine follows a branded strategy of increased integration that ZTE has also promoted in its integrated UniSite macrocell base station solutions. Integration is typically marketed as another form of increased energy efficiency, evident in everything from overall site design to multi-band radios.
ZTE also reported on a trial of millimeter-wave technology with Thai operator AIS, notable for two reasons: First, it included chips from US vendor Qualcomm (illustrating a distinction between ZTE and its chief rival Huawei, which has met barriers to US chip technology). Second, the millimeter-wave ecosystem in China is expected to accelerate in 2024, giving RAN vendors another reason to be eager for next year to arrive.