Nokia’s mobile chief Uitto admits ‘we got 5G wrong’ two years ago

Nokia’s mobile chief Uitto admits ‘we got 5G wrong’ two years ago

Tommi Uitto Nokia mobile.jpg

Nokia got it wrong with its first attempt to develop 5G equipment, but now thinks it’s turned itself around, the company has admitted.

This frank admission comes from Tommi Uitto (pictured), who took over as president of mobile networks at the company in late 2018.

“Nokia had a bit of a difficult start in 5G,” he said, in masterly understatement. “We had a two-year turnaround programme.” It was like conducting “open-heart surgery while still running the business”, he said.

Now, the company is planning what he calls “the biggest product launch in many years” at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona next week — though Uitto will be among the thousands who don’t turn up in the flesh. The continuing pandemic means the event will mainly be virtual: how many are really there has yet to be seen.

“We will be launching a new radio transmission platform and a new baseband platform,” Uitto told Capacity in a preview of Nokia’s plans for the event.

The company has purpose-designed chips for 5G, too. “We previously used field-programmable gate arrays, which were flexible but more expensive.” FPGAs are a are a sort of pick-and-mix approach to chips, with logic gates that can be programmed and then re-programmed if the first attempt isn’t right.

Why? “It was a bit of a bet, and we got it wrong,” said Uitto, who’s been with Nokia since 1996, when the mobile industry was in its second generation — its first digital generation, that was — and was still dreaming about 3G.

The bet a couple of years ago was on how long the 5G standard, from 3GPP, would take to mature. It was faster than Nokia expected, said Uitto candidly. And the FGPA, despite its apparent ability to be programmable, “was not flexible”. And the company’s chip partner “had some issues”, he said, repeating that Nokia “had some issues” as well.

But the biggest issue was that “the whole [5G] industry accelerated”, Uitto told Capacity. “Nokia got a little bit taken by surprise.”

Nokia now sources its chips from Broadcom, Intel and Marvell Technology. And it was one of those three that had the “issues”, as he called them, though he wouldn’t say which. “They have improved the performance.”

As a result of the last two years’ catch-up, Nokia now has a 5G platform that delivers massive multiple input, multiple output (massive MIMO) and yet is only 17kg. “Our competitor’s is 18-20kg.” That’s important, because they sit on top of a mast, and there’s a limit to how much weight an operator can put up there.

The new solution is “fully open RAN ready”, he said, referring to the open radio access network which is now being embraced by much of the industry, including Europe’s big five groups, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica, TIM and Vodafone.

Nokia and its European rival Ericsson are desperately trying to join the open RAN race as operators select relatively new vendors to the mobile industry such as Altiostar, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless, and returning vendors such as NEC.

Nokia equipment “will work with other vendors’ equipment”, Uitto told Capacity. That is an absolute requirement of the operators, no longer wanting to be locked in to using Ericsson or Nokia, or, where they can, Huawei or ZTE.

Nokia’s new baseband equipment is already in commercial operation with “two operators in the eastern hemisphere”, said Uitto. “East of China, a very progressive market,” he said — a clue that points to Japan or South Korea.

Operators in the rest of the world will get deliveries from “July, August and September”, he said.

For the RAN equipment, that’s a bit later: the first customers will be trialling in October.

There’s time, he said. “5G is still in the very early stage of its lifecycle,” said Uitto. South Korea “was a bit premature” when it started its 5G networks in April 2019, “and all suppliers have had a problem”, he said. “Not much has been deployed yet. There’s plenty of 5G business still to be done.”

Uitto took over as head of mobile when he replaced Marc Rouanne, who’d joined the Finnish group when Nokia bought Alcatel-Lucent in 2016. Rouanne, who had earlier been chairman of the board at Alcatel-Lucent, is now chief network officer at Dish Network in the US, a venture to build a fourth competitor to AT&T, T-Mobile US and Verizon.

Rajeev Suri, who’d been CEO of Nokia and its predecessor, Nokia Siemens Networks, since 2009, lasted a little longer: he left last year and is now CEO of Inmarsat.



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