The Digital Road to the 5G Ecosystem

ZTE’s 5G Summit and User Congress

On 24 November 2021, ZTE hosted its annual event online and livestreamed from Shenzhen. Industry thought leaders, including representatives from the GSMA, China Mobile, China Telecom, Hutchison Drei Austria and CCS Insight, gathered to offer perspectives on progress and future challenges in 5G communications.

Xu Ziyang, CEO of ZTE, opened the event by outlining how the company’s portfolio of solutions, including radio access, core and transport networks for 5G, IP data and optical networks, computing and cloud infrastructure, digital applications and terminals, all help network operators lay the foundations for digital transformation as part of a rapidly growing ecosystem of solutions — the theme of the event overall. As a measure of that ecosystem growth, Mr Xutated that ZTE works with more than 500 partners, defining over 100 5G application scenarios across 15 vertical markets: manufacturing, energy, transportation, new media, education and digital transformation, to name a few.

And the emerging mobile ecosystem is a great enabler across whole economies, as John Hoffman, CEO of GSMA Ltd, said at the event in his overview of the 5G era so far. He stated that there are over 170 operators in around 70 countries that have launched 5G services, and that 5G subscribers account for 6% of global mobile customers, most of them in China, South Korea, Japan, the US and Western Europe.

The mobile industry has 5.2 billion unique subscribers and contributes $4.4 trillion to global GDP. It’s a powerful platform. In addition, global revenue from the Internet of things is expected to triple by 2025 to just over $900 billion, contributing to the global digital economy. In fact, the pandemic has increased the urgency of digital transformation among enterprises and demand for connected devices among consumers.

Looking to the future, Mr Hoffman explained that 5G communications, together with the Internet of things, big data, artificial intelligence and edge computing, bring us to the era of intelligent connectivity. Much commentary at ZTE’s event focussed on the relationship between 5G and digital transformation, and in particular, in industry-specific applications. According to Mr Hoffman, “Over the next decade, a wave of mobile-led technology unicorns will be born from 5G and will drive our future economies”.

Of course, “unicorns” is business speak for privately held start-up companies valued at over $1 billion. But if I think about the other unicorns, those fabulous creations of imagination previously believed impossible, this image has merit too as I consider the various presentations by ZTE during the summit. Here’s three “magical” examples of intelligent applications derived from 5G that were showcased during various presentations by ZTE during the summit.

  • In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, ZTE, in conjunction with operator China Telecom, installed 5G in various hospitals in China and launched a complete set of smart healthcare management and telemedicine solutions, including remote consultation and diagnosis using virtual reality devices, high-resolution imaging and visitor management for intensive care units.
  • ZTE deployed a standalone 5G network for Hutchison Drei Austria, which, through access to network slicing and edge computing solutions, has become an enabling platform for different sectors, such as smart agriculture, Industry 4.0 and smart buildings. For more analysis of the operator’s pilot cloud-native standalone 5G network, see The Power of Standalone 5G.
  • With its Italian partner Wind Tre, ZTE has deployed a large-scale non-standalone 5G network. Collaboration with the University of L’Aquila has enabled a structural-health monitoring platform, a sensor-based innovation that can monitor the effect of earthquakes on buildings and structures, improving safety and maintenance costs. For more on this initiative, see 5G Proves Its Value As a Disaster Prevention Platform.

But although 5G alongside other digital technologies has the potential to boost more inclusive and sustainable growth, innovation, efficiencies and improved services, the success of digital transformation depends on one essential requirement: breaking down silos.

Shaun Collins, Executive Chairman at CCS Insight, speaking at the 5G Summit and User Congress, said that “5G is so much more than the next ‘G’. It is a foundational technology. To succeed, we should recognize that 5G has become a team game — carriers, hyperscalers, equipment providers, systems integrators, software developers will be key to success as 5G matures”.

In other words, this is not simply about the right combination of technologies to build solutions, it’s about the right combination of solution providers, and that requires some rethinking in the commercial value chain as well as the technological landscape. As the 5G era evolves, industrial customers will select solutions not just based on the quality of a product, but on the quality of a provider’s partners.

Sustainability — the deployment of greener networks and best practices within the industry — was another theme of the 5G Summit. There are many dimensions to sustainability in 5G networks and ZTE addressed several of them, referencing its own solutions:

  • Designing smaller, less power-hungry 5G radio access network equipment. The energy consumption of ZTE’s 5G UniSite+ product has been reduced by 10% to 15% by using new materials, new processes and new technologies. It features dual-band and tri-band remote radio units and active antenna units to simplify the site solution, and zero-footprint outdoor baseband units.
  • Adopting new network equipment cooling technology. ZTE has developed innovative two-phase liquid-cooling, which it has applied in its large-capacity core router equipment, increasing the heat dissipation efficiency of the equipment by 2.5 times.
  • Incorporating renewable energy sources at the cell site. ZTE’s Green Power supply system uses solar energy from high-efficiency photovoltaic energy storage and an ultraefficient conversion module, giving a 37% reduction in energy consumption in the power supply and air conditioning of the network.
  • Making network operations more energy efficient. By making use of artificial intelligence and big data, ZTE’s PowerPilot solution can reduce mobile network energy consumption by more than 20%, by directing certain services to the most energy-efficient network or band. By June 2021, PowerPilot was deployed commercially in more than 30 networks and over 800,000 sites, saving operators almost $1 billion in electricity costs.

Although greener networks still have a long way to go, it has been actions along these lines that have seen the telecom industry recognized by the United Nations as the first breakthrough sector in its Race to Zero, which was announced in 2019. Sustainability in the tech industry is an area CCS Insight has been analysing closely in recent years and will continue to report on regularly.

5G stands for diversity of opportunity, economic equality, technology scale, data security and a more sustainable digital world. Overall, the ZTE 5G Summit showcased many good examples of how changing needs drive the evolution of technology, which in turn prompts change in society, in industry and the workplace.

The changes forced by a global pandemic have highlighted the need to accelerate adoption of 5G and digital technologies; at the same time, financial stability is still a challenge for the telecom industry, and several speakers noted the need for more-effective universal service funds and government funding for broadband infrastructure deployment. This will help foster the broader base of service providers, as well as new players, especially those from the software development community, and help proliferate the next-generation digital services that the event showed 5G can offer. And perhaps then unicorns won’t be quite so rare!