NZ Fry Up: Inside Samsung’s New Zealand 5G network; Air NZ CDO signs off

New Zealand IT, tech, and telco news and views from our editor in Auckland.

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Inside Samsung’s New Zealand 5G network

Samsung’s eight cell sites for Spark, now live in central Christchurch, mark only the third network the South Korean company has built (behind South Korea itself and the US) using C-band MIMO technology. We spoke to Todd Selwyn, Samsung’s New Zealand head of networks, to find out more about the deployment.

Samsung is one of two network partners Spark has contracted for it 5G rollout (the other is Nokia). Its local network division comprises of just seven people with roles in engineering and sales, although Selwyn expects that number to grow as Spark’s 5G network expands.

Samsung’s NZ network edge

He describes one of Samsung’s points of difference as its 5G RAN (radio access network) system which includes Massive MIMO radio, whose beam-forming technology targets signals directly to a user’s device. “On 4G, it rains signal, whereas with 5G it will send it straight to the device.”

Another difference: “We’ve been virtualising the environment. What that means is that the compute becomes separate to the radio, so you can start to have data centre hosting, … and that’s been the first time that’s really happened in New Zealand,” he says.

In other words, the radio and the compute power are in different locations—the former on the tower, the latter in a data centre. “As you scale in a virtualised environment you can just add new storage or new capacity wherever you are hosting, plus maintenance is a lot easier because a person can go to a datacentre rather than go to the cell tower.”

Selwyn describes the New Zealand deployment as a hybrid environment. “We still have the baseband units at the towers, but we are running most of that compute capacity at a data centre with Spark. When they grow and traffic gets bigger, they can just add more servers and storage at their data centres.”

The next logical step will be moving to the public cloud, and Selwyn says this is just starting to occur in other markets, but mostly to cater to extra storage or capacity requirements.

IT and radio skill sets merging

As with almost everything else, software is taking over, and Selwyn says that “it’s interesting to see the evolution of people’s skill sets. The technology is emerging, so when you talk about virtualisation, previously you used to be a radio expert or an IT expert. Now those two categories are merging.”

He explains, “An analogy is like an electrician. All they used to use was a screwdriver and now they have to know-how to use a computer to configure all your fancy light switches in your smart home. It’s the same thing in the radio space. They used to be installation or performance specialists and now they have to understand IT.”

5G for data, 4G for voice

Samsung’s New Zealand 5G network for Spark is non-standalone (NSA) which means that 4G is for voice and 5G is for data. This solves the problem of handover between 4G towers and 5G-enabled towers, Selwyn says. “What happens now is you approach the tower, your phone is already on 4G, then it switches to another frequency, which is a trigger for the phone to know to migrate to 5G as well.”

A pure 5G environment will be when both voice and data are carried, but this is currently possible mainly in greenfield environments. While most operators around the world have a migration strategy towards a standalone environment, it is starting to occur today in densely populated places in China and South Korea, with Germany also trialling this technology.

In a standalone 5G network, the fun really starts for the operators because then they can enable network slicing, Selwyn says. “That’s when they can have different tariffs and different fees to different customers, and they can sell private networks. So there are quite a few revenue streams in that standalone space, but there is no urgent need in New Zealand because our capacity requirements are quite low.”

With its low latency and high speeds, standalone 5G may also herald the much-hyped era of self-driving cars, although the first industries likely see the benefits are in the utility space, via internet of things (IoT) deployments and private networks, Selwyn says.

Goodbye Huawei, hello Samsung

Spark was forced to reconsider its technology vendors after the New Zealand government effectively ruled out the use of China’s Huawei to build a national 5G network over security concerns. While Selwyn says this created an opportunity for Samsung, it was their technology that won them the contract. “We are very much a challenger,” he says.

While better known for consumer electronics and smart devices, Selwyn says that becoming a 5G network vendor makes sense for Samsung, as the company’s technology derives from its in-house chipset capability. “That’s where we tend to focus our business initiatives, where we can vertically integrate from the chip all the way to the finished product,” he says.

Air NZ CDO signs off

In other news, Air New Zealand has begun a global search for a new chief digital officer, with Jennifer Sepull leaving the airline this week and returning to the United States. She will consult to Air New Zealand until October 2021.

Sepull moved to New Zealand to take up the role in 2019 and was part of the executive team as it coped with massive disruption due to the COVID-19, when the borders closed. She told CIO New Zealand earlier this month that the digital team of about 500 people is leading the airline’s recovery and is now in the second year of a five-year transformation strategy.

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