Verizon and Samsung racing to build C Band vRAN 5G network (Analyst Angle)

While the media is abuzz with the news of Samsung Foldable smartphones, being a network engineer at heart, I am more excited about Verizon and Samsung’s recent announcement about the successful completion of 5G virtual RAN (vRAN) trials using the C Band spectrum. Verizon’s adoption of vRAN for its network build, and Samsung’s support for advanced features such as Massive MIMO (mMIMO) for its vRAN portfolio bodes very well for the rapid 5G expansion in the USA. I recently spoke to Bill Stone, VP of technology development and planning at Verizon, and Magnus Ojert, VP and GM at Samsung’s Network Business, regarding the announcement as well as the progress of C Band 5G deployments.  

The joint trial

The trials were conducted over Verizon’s live networks in Texas, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Since the spectrum is still being cleared for use, Verizon had to get a special clearance from FCC. The trials used Samsung’s containerized, cloud-native, fully virtualized RAN software and hardware solutions supporting 64T64R mMIMO configuration for trials. This configuration is extremely important to Verizon for many reasons that I will explain later in the article. This trial is yet another critical milestone in Verizon’s race to build the C Band 5G network. 

Verizon’s race to deploy C Band 5G network 

After spending $53B on C Band auctions, Verizon is in a race against itself and its competition to put the new spectrum to use. It needs to have a robust network in place before the strong 5G demand outpaces the capacity of its current network. As many of you might know, Verizon is currently using the Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) technique to opportunistically use its 4G spectrum for 5G, along with focused mmWave deployments. Verizon also needs an expansive coverage footprint to effectively compete against T-Mobile, which is capitalizing on the spectrum-trove it got through the Sprint acquisition.

Verizon is busy like a beehive—signing deals with tower companies, site-prep work for deployments, working closely with its vendors, running many trials, and so on. Owning a significant portion of the fiber backhaul to sites is helping Verizon expedite the buildout. Stone confirmed that vRAN will be the mainstay for their C Band deployments, and they are firmly on the path to transition to virtual and Open RAN across the entire network. This will give Verizon more flexibility, agility, and cost-efficiency in enabling new services in the future, especially during the later phases of 5G, when the service expands beyond the smartphone and mobile broadband market. He added that the trials like this one are a great step in that direction. Although their vRAN equipment supports open interfaces, the initial deployments will only be single-vendor. I think the—single-vendor vRAN followed by multi-vendor Open RAN— is a smart strategy that will be adopted by many operators.

The most interesting C Band development all the industry is watching is how Verizon’s plan to use its AWS band (1.7 GHz) site-grid for C Band (3.5 GHz) will pan out. According to Stone, one way Verizon is looking to compensate for C Band’s smaller coverage footprint is to use the 64T64R antenna configuration. He expects this to improve the uplink coverage, which is the limiting factor. He added that the initial results from the trial are very encouraging. 

The coverage benefit will necessitate a rather expensive 64T64R configuration across most of its outdoor macro sites. Verizon is also looking at small cells, indoor solutions, and other options to provide comprehensive coverage. He aptly said, “All the above” is his mantra when it comes to using these options to expand coverage. Considering that robust network and coverage are Verizon’s key differentiators, there is not much margin for error in its C Band deployments.  

Samsung leading with its mMIMO and vRAN portfolio 

After scalping a surprise win by getting a substantial share of Verizon’s 5G contract, Samsung has been consolidating its position by continuously expanding its RAN portfolio. Ojert emphasized that they are working very closely with Verizon for a speedy and successful C Band rollout. 

Side note: To know more about Samsung’s network business, please listen to this Tantra’s Mantra podcast interview of Alok Shah, VP Samsung Networks.

Being a disruptor, Samsung has been an early adopter of vRAN and Open RAN architectures. It understands that the key success factor for these new architectures is providing performance that meets or exceeds that of legacy networks. The 64T64R has almost become a litmus test for whether the new approaches can easily evolve to support complex features such as mMIMO.   

There have already been commercial deployments of legacy networks supporting 64T64R. Hence, it becomes a de facto bar for any new large-scale vRAN deployments. The telecom industry is hard at work to make it a reality. Verizon’s plan to use it to close the coverage gap of the C Band makes it almost mandatory for all its vendors. 

Running these trials on live networks, that too at multiple locations makes a great proof-point for the readiness of Samsung’s gear for large-scale deployments. Ojert emphasized that by being a major supplier for cutting-edge 5G networks in Korea that use a similar spectrum, Samsung better understands the characteristics of the band. He added that they will utilize the entire portfolio of Samsung solutions including small cells, indoor solutions, and others in helping Verizon build a robust network.

C Band commercial deployments and service

FCC is expected to clear up to 60 megahertz of the total up to 200 megahertz of C Band spectrum later this year. Verizon is projecting to have C Band 5G service in the initial 46 markets in the first quarter of 2022, covering up to 100 million people. It will expand that as the additional spectrum is cleared, to reach an estimated 175 million people by 2024. 

The initial deployments will be based on the Rel. 15 version of 5G, with the ability to do a firmware upgrade to Rel. 16, and beyond, for services such as URLLC, as well as Stand-Alone configuration. 

C Band (along with its mmWave) spectrum indeed is a potent option for Verizon to substantially expand 5G services, effectively compete, and prepare for the strong evolution of 5G. It will be interesting to watch how the rollout will change the market landscape.

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