Since autumn 2019, Orange France has been conducting full-scale 5G experiments in multiple pilot cities. The teams that will be mobilized to deploy the new technology are participating in the process. The tests involve equipment manufacturers, Orange customers, the Government and the local authorities. What are their goals, and what lessons have they learned? We hear from Marc Blanchet.
What kinds of questions go through the mind of an operator like Orange as it prepares to roll out its 5G network in France?
The operator is, of course, faced with industrial questions, 5G being a technology that is more disruptive than previous generations of mobile. It also wonders about strategic and financial choices:
- Should it deploy 5G more or less all over, to quickly signal to a broad population that coverage is on the way? Or would it do better to focus the promise of 5G on a few areas where it will offer a truly different experience than with 4G?
- How many frequency blocks should it acquire to be sure it can meet capacity demands in 10 years, considering that, in some countries, the cost of frequencies is very high?
Given that the future uses of 5G are precisely in the future, all of these decisions will have to be made on assumptions alone regarding the services ultimately developed, speed of development, amount of data consumed by new uses, capacity to develop new services in the B2C and B2B markets, etc.
While we try to envision the new 5G environment, however, we cannot let ourselves lose sight of our customers’ no. 1 expectation: quality high-speed mobile broadband coverage, all over the country. 5G will not be the only way to meet that demand. Yes, it will help decongest the 4G network in urban areas and support the growth of data. However, parallel to its deployment, we will need to continue to increase the density of our 4G network, particularly in rural areas.
What stages can we expect to see in the deployment of Orange’s 5G network in France?
Like other countries, Orange France has chosen to launch 5G in NSA mode, in the 3.5 GHz band, keeping to the pathway chosen by a large number of operators. In 2020, we will deploy 5G antennae systems on a 4G network core, after a substantial phase of full-scale tests initiated in 2019. 5G SA will come onto the scene two or three years later, with all its promises for latency and slicing aimed at the B2B market.
What objectives has Orange set for the experiments initiated in several pilot cities since autumn 2019?
We’re not looking to see whether 5G technology works. That has been confirmed in the laboratory. The large-scale tests that we are carrying out now in 6 pilot cities have two objectives :
- First of all, we want to pave the way for the industrial roll-out of 5G on thousands of sites. This way, the teams at our 5 Regional Network Management Units will be able to gain an operational understanding of their everyday work once the roll-out has been completed: they will assess its impact on our processes, operating modes and physical reality of each of our sites. The tests focus on very concrete aspects: territorial coverage, continuity of service in different types of configuration, integration of equipment on roof terraces, which type of configuration to choose, power supply and energy consumption studies, etc.
- Secondly, we want to raise awareness about this new technology among Orange employees, the general public and companies, by showcasing its first innovative uses. Our experiments will enable these future users to experience things they never imagined. At the same time, they will position Orange as a leading operator on 5G.
What types of tests are you conducting, and what were your criteria for choosing your pilot cities and sites?
We are running two types of experiments, mainly in the 3.5 GHz band, though a few sites are covered by 26 GHz:
- There is small-scale testing at specific sites: one of our largest company site in the south of Paris, the Linas-Montlhéry motor circuit, the Rennes rail station, etc.
- Full-scale experiments in the peri-urban areas of 6 pilot cities covering the 5 Orange regional intervention zones: the Opera district in Paris, Lille and Douai (North and North-East), Nantes (West), Marseille (South) and Montpellier (South-West). We have equipped each of these cities with a mesh of 50 to 80 5G radio sites.
What other players are you involving in these experiments?
We are working with our historical partners: the equipment manufacturers Nokia and Ericsson, as well as Samsung and ZTE at Group level. We have also brought in Orange customers, the local authorities concerned and the government and government agencies – ARCEP and the French National Frequencies Agency (ANFR) – the latter having voiced their curiosity about the new technology.
Having run the tests for one quarter now, what have you learned?
The experiments have clearly shown that rolling out 5G will not be a mere matter of picking up where 4G left off. We will need to rework all of our processes, and thus also retrain all of our teams so that they have the necessary skills sets.
They have prompted us to do a lot of work on specific technical aspects that will become key cost-reduction enablers in the deployment process: the sizing and power of the antennas we install, as well as optimized energy consumption at the sites.
Will rolling out the 5G network require more substantial investments, compared to the 4G network? Will the return on investment time be longer?
The cost of deploying 5G will probably be higher than that of deploying 4G. We are only at the beginning of this adventure though, and expect it to be a long one. The investments we make, like the value we gain, will therefore be spread over time. Yes, the business models are tricky. The services involved have yet to be invented. We will need to work on the methods for monetizing the features specific to 5G, which will be the keys to ROI. However, if we are able, today, to gain greater value from Internet access on fiber compared to ADSL, there is no reason why, on a market as developed and competitive as France, we should not be able to do the same with 5G innovations.
The continuing growth in data consumption on mobile, the need for coverage and the potential of future 5G uses all confirm that investing, not only in the new network but also in very high speed in all its facets -- 4G/5G/fiber -- is the right way to go. The key criterion that should guide the operator in every investment decision is: serving the customer’s need for connectivity everywhere. Seen from that perspective, 5G is just one component of a far broader promise.
 Arcep is France’s Electronic Communications, Postal and Print media distribution Regulatory Authority