The Swedish telecommunications giant, Ericsson, is positioning itself as the partner of choice for operators in their efforts to accelerate the commercial deployment of 5G networks. Ericsson has been a pioneering force in the ICT industry for decades, and has established itself as a global brand visible in almost every major market worldwide.

Ericsson is playing a key role globally and has signed a number of 5G commercial contracts and already announced some of those with 10 operators globally: T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and AT&T in the USA, Vodafone UK, Swisscom, Wind3 and Telenor in Europe, and SK Telecom and Telstra. 

The company endured some difficult years from a financial perspective but bounced back to lead the way towards a 5G future. Ericsson has enjoyed phenomenal growth and success in the Middle East and Africa region, largely driven by the dynamic leadership skills of Rafiah Ibrahim, who has been the president of Ericsson Middle East and Africa since 2017. 

Telecom Review managed to secure an exclusive interview with Ibrahim in a bid to understand the reasons behind the resurgence Ericsson has had over the last 12 months.

In a brilliant and engaging interview, Ibrahim highlights how Ericsson is helping operators achieve digital transformation, its overall strategy regarding 5G in the region, what differentiates the vendor from its competitors and what its plans are in 2019. 

Ericsson compiled a comprehensive report that suggested UAE operators who leverage 5G and internet of things can benefit from revenues of $3.3bn by 2026. Can you tell us more about this report and how Ericsson will be a key enabler in helping operators achieve their digital transformation goals? 

This report is entitled ‘5G Industry Digitalization Business Potential’ which is a sequel to a report which we published earlier last year. In this report, we highlight 10 specific areas in which operators can work with industries to be able to maximize their revenue potential. Some of these areas include industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, public safety and healthcare. 

Take agriculture as an example. How can operators benefit from having the agriculture sector as a vertical for them to explore on digitalization? If you look at a country where there is a lot of agriculture, it could be Lebanon or Turkey, sensors or connected devices can be used to make sure the agricultural farms are at their peak. Also, some of these areas are very remote, and devices will send a lot of information through operators’ networks, which will enable farmers to have a dialog about best ways to export their products. From one form of application, it is using digitalization, and at Ericsson, this is one example of what we’re trying to enable. 

We work with industries, and we partner with them to understand how to support this form of digitalization and make use cases out of it. We also work with operators to see how they can implement those use cases in their networks and take it to enterprises.  

How can Ericsson’s cutting-edge solutions and innovations help operators cope with the explosive traffic growth expected in the 5G revolution? 

Where Ericsson comes in, it’s not just the radio basestations. It looks at 5G end-to-end platform and that will require the radio basestations, the core network and the business support systems. By having a comprehensive portfolio, you can understand when traffic comes in and how that is processed towards different parts of the network to capitalize and maximize the output for the end customers.   

Ericsson’s end-to-end 5G platform, across radio, core and transport networks enables operators to evolve to new 5G capabilities at a speed that matches their own business strategy, while enhancing current 4G business by reducing risk and making best use of current infrastructure.

With 5G, telecom operators have a new opportunity to maximize use of their spectrum. Operators will need to develop their spectrum strategies based on their own business focus, and the frequencies available to them, today and in the future.

Ericsson’s network technology enables evolution to full 5G deployment through natural, step-wise implementation – one that balances investment, new revenue streams and competitiveness. When we had 4G, we had the Ericsson radio systems, and we started looking at how we could increase the speed, reduce latency and examine possible use cases for industries. For example, on the consumer part, we examined the youth population and identified that video and online gaming are growing exponentially. How can we make sure that the network is able to handle both consumers and industries? This is where we consider network slicing. We consider this, and continuously work on creating technology products that are easy to adopt, easy to use and scale to help operators tap into new revenue streams, go fully digital and continuously become more efficient in response to skyrocketing data traffic on their networks.

We have identified three common key priorities for all operators: cost leadership, customer experience and finding new revenue streams. We are working with operators to support those priorities and we believe 5G will enable that. 

Ericsson and Etisalat Misr recently launched Egypt’s first VoLTE services. What sort of flexibility and enhanced connectivity quality do VoLTE calls powered by Ericsson provide mobile users with? 

As I mentioned earlier, it’s all about customer experience. When a large amount of data is being pumped on the same bandwidth, operators need to have the technology that caters for voice without impacting data user experience. VoLTE connects in less than two seconds compared to 10 seconds over legacy technologies and delivers sound quality with reduced background noise. TE subscribers will have the flexibility to make calls and use 4G mobile data services simultaneously without compromising 4G data connectivity speed. 

Ericsson recently announced that it had signed an agreement with Mobily in an effort to enhance the quality of services the operator can provide to its customers. Can you tell us more about the significance of this partnership? 

We have a long-standing relationship with Mobily, and that stems from our partnership with Etisalat. Throughout the years, we’ve been providing our latest products and services to Mobily, and recently we partnered for IT managed services. We will manage Mobily’s IT operation services, first-level end user support, information systems and applications, and infrastructure management services. This will complement our managed services offering with IT managed services and provide their subscribers with speed, security and reliability leading to a differentiated customer experience. The project also includes business support system (BSS), network and customer support systems as well as more than 100 technical applications and 2,000 IT infrastructure servers spread across several datacenters.

As the president of market area in MEA for Ericsson, you’ve overseen a number of 5G tests and trials all over the region. How have these trials progressed from a commercial perspective over the last 12 months? 

We started conducting 5G trials in the past two years. We were very progressive in terms of our approach to 5G and were one of the first vendors globally to start signing 5G MoUs with operators, now we have 10 commercial 5G deals signed already with leading operators globally and regional operators are pushing to soon announce the same. 

Operators have their current networks but how do they evolve from 4G to 5G? It is a stepwise approach. It is also looking at whether they can benefit in certain areas of a country or consider countrywide. We also look at the details of the network architecture, the evolution, the roadmap and examine use cases. 

Let me share with you some global examples. Earlier in July 2018, and together with Telstra and Intel, we completed the first end-to-end 5G non-standalone (NSA) 3GPP data call on a commercial mobile network. In September 2018, we achieved a standard-based, over-the-air, non-standalone (NSA) 5G NR lab data call on 28 GHz band.  

Most recently, we’ve taken yet another step to drive 5G commercial readiness by contracting Wistron NeWeb Corporation (WNC) to deliver 5G mobile hotspot routers to be used in customer trials starting in November 2018.

Those are a few examples on global level, and here in the region, we have been working closely with leading operators to keep them ahead in technology and thought leadership in 5G. We have been conducting trials for quite some time now and have trialed 5G for speed, mobility, beamforming, etc., with multiple operators across the region. Operators in our region are leading from the front when it comes to 5G trials and commercial rollout plans. They have conducted trials with Ericsson, not only in mid band (3.5 Ghz) but also in high band (millimeter wave). One recent example is 5G launch by MTN in 28 Ghz band; this was announced in AfricaCom in November 2018. 

And to help increase the level of engagement further, we have established Innovation Hubs in the region. The hubs will engage not only the telecom operators but also key stakeholders in the market such as academics and students who are willing to try new applications and SMEs who want to form partnerships. These cross-industry collaborations are very important and our role is to facilitate this ecosystem. 

Globally, Ericsson has expanded its 4G LTE collaboration with Verizon in preparation for 5G. When will Verizon and Ericsson commercially launch 5G services in the US? 

Ericsson and Verizon have already conducted a series of launches of commercial 5G in selected cities across the United States. Our extended partnership with Verizon includes Ericsson Radio System 4G LTE equipment which, in addition to enabling the latest advances in 4G LTE capabilities, will provide a 5G-ready platform that will allow Verizon to rapidly transition sites to 5G when they deploy the service in those markets.

To prepare for 5G, Ericsson has released its first commercial 5G RAN software, allowing operators to turn on 5G in commercial networks when ready. In addition, the installed base of Ericsson Radio System radios from 2015 onwards can run 5G NR technology with a simple remote software installation. Another area to consider is the spectrum for 5G which is quite different. There is a low band and a high band. The US is starting with the high band, which is the millimeter wave, 28GHz. However, if you want to go into the lower band, where you will need smartphones, then you need to wait for the right time when the devices become available in large volumes, so it becomes affordable.

Ericsson has been a pioneering force in ICT industry for decades and is positioning itself to be a leader in 5G. In your expert opinion, what is it that differentiates Ericsson from other vendors?

Thanks to Ericsson’s research, Ericsson is leading the race in 3GPP 5G standardization with its active contribution. Operators with Ericsson will have a major TTM advantage as they will be able to launch 5G over a wider geography as all Ericsson radio system (ERS) sites can be upgraded to support 5G with software only. The existing network build with ERS can be upgraded to support 5G with software. 

We believe that along with FWA, eMBB will also be one of the critical use cases for 5G for operators and as we know, mobility is a must for eMBB use cases. In view of that, Ericsson has always ensured that mobility is tested in all the 5G trials as a first step. 

We are focusing on 5G, primarily from operators’ monetization perspective. You will agree that in order to launch commercial services, operators need to ensure that deployed networks can work with a wide variety of devices in the market. Hence, we have been putting forward a lot of effort to ensure successful inter-operability tests with independent chipset suppliers like Intel and Qualcomm, so that uniform interpretation of 3GPP specs can be ensured and ecosystems can be built to help operators’ monetization.   

The Middle East is considering the 3.5GHz band and is also mulling over the 26GHz, whilst in Africa, its considering 28GHz. So, there are many parts of the full spectrum that operators need to support for customers. I think what we’ve done well is to understand the customers’ requirements and the country’s requirements. We actively engaged directly with the regulators and discussed ways to re-farm certain types of spectrum, so it is made available for specific operators. 

Together with our partners, we are continuously testing, learning and pushing the boundaries of how 5G can meet the diverse needs of today and the future.

Can you outline to us what your primary objectives and goals are for 2019? 

I’ve been in this role for over two years now, and I’ve developed a much better understanding of how the market is evolving and changing. I’m always learning. In 2019, we will continue to focus on key customers across Middle East and Africa, and nurture our partnerships by supporting their priorities. The strategies for each one will be very dependent on how they want to progress in their country and how we can fulfill their needs and requirements. We share knowledge and gain insights into how new technologies such as 5G can be leveraged as an innovation platform when industries go digital.

In conclusion, my primary objective this year is to focus on my key customers, look at the country requirements and then look at how we can help them grow from the strategies and plans they’ve already developed.

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