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Digital Transformation Empowers the Building of ‘5G Capital’

by Guang Yang | Nov 19, 2021

On October 1st – the first day of the ‘Golden Week Holiday’ in China – more than 25 thousand people visited the Universal Beijing Resort. Excited visitors shared video clips and photos through their smartphones, vloggers made the live video streaming, and young people played online games when they waited in long queues. To support all these applications, China Unicom had deployed 36 5G macro base stations and a number of 5G small cells. The 5G system carried over 50% of data traffic over China Unicom’s network in the resort. Meanwhile, dedicated network slices – enabled by 5G Standalone Architecture – were set up for real-time gaming and live video broadcasting to guarantee the user experience. The 5G network can also provide the precise positi
oning service to help visitors locate themselves in the large campus and navigate to the places for playing, eating, or shopping.
5G capital_2021

The 5G deployment in the Universal Beijing Resort is a snapshot of China Unicom’s ‘5G Capital’ program that is not only about the network rollout but also a digital transformation of the network design, optimization, and operation. Recently, a talk with Mr. Fan Liqun – the general manager of China Unicom Beijing’s network development department, gave me more insights into the program. China Unicom Beijing is exploring a new paradigm for mobile network deployment in a mega-city, which should be valuable for the sustainable growth of a mobile operator in the 5G era.  

  • Precise coverage key for 5G taking off

A precise 5G coverage can effectively improve the user experience in the high traffic area. The good experience can in turn attract customers and accelerate the user migration from 4G to 5G. Traditionally, mobile operators pay much attention to the precision of cell site locations. However, it often takes a long time to acquire a cell site. This will lead to high cell site costs and also delay the network rollout. China Unicom Beijing has transformed the network rollout approach from pursuing precise cell site locations to implementing good coverage within a given area. They relax the requirement on the precision of cell site locations, and instead leverage the advanced features of 5G radio access networks, such as massive MIMO and network automation, to achieve comprehensive coverage in a service area. This approach significantly shortens the negotiation process of cell sites and accelerates the network rollout, while keeping the network experience at a high level. It helps China Unicom Beijing complete the deployment of 10 thousand 5G base stations in around 2 years since the license was awarded. 

  • Accurate network optimization and E2E service capability critical for user experience

The advanced features of 5G RAN should be fully exploited, particularly the massive MIMO, to guarantee the user experience. This requires the network solution to be flexible, agile, and has strong automation capability. At the same time, the network optimization process must be enhanced to enable the optimization not only for a cell cluster, but also for a single cell, a single beam, or even a dedicated group of users.

It should also be noticed that the user experience is decided by the entire service chain rather than only by the radio access network. Especially for the B2B services, the device, edge computing platform, transport network, core network functions, etc. can all impact the user experience. An end-to-end service and management capability is critical for a mobile operator to guarantee the 5G user experience.

China Unicom Beijing has developed a smart operation platform to improve the capabilities of network optimization and service management. Network operation and signalling data are collected and analysed by the platform. Based on unified optimization rules, customized optimization measures can be taken for a single cell, a single beam, or a set of cell parameters. This can significantly improve the accuracy of network optimization. The smart operation platform can also continuously optimize the network service chain to guarantee the Service Level Agreement (SLA), speed up the response to customer demands, and provide enterprise customers the necessary visibility of network resources. 

  • Organizational transformation as a foundation of 5G business success

The smart operation platform is essential for China Unicom Beijing to guarantee the 5G user experience. Behind the platform, a steady transformation of the organization and process plays a key role in the journey toward smart operation. China Unicom Beijing re-organized its network deployment, optimization, and IT departments, when the ‘5G Capital’ program was kicked off. The original ‘silo’ organizations were merged into integrated teams with multi-discipline competence. When network designers, cell site negotiators, data analysts, and software developers work in a single team, the efficiency of network deployment, optimization, and operation is improved significantly. 

With the new approach, China Unicom Beijing is transforming its business strategy from a ‘network-centric’ point of view to a ‘user-centric’ perspective. This significantly improves China Unicom Beijing’s competitiveness in the market. China Unicom Beijing has become the most profitable city-level business unit across China Unicom nationwide. Even though China Unicom’s overall service revenue is just less than 40% of China Mobile’s, China Unicom Beijing owns the equivalent market share with China Mobile in the capital city market. In the 5G B2B market, China Unicom Beijing’s revenue has been up to more than RMB 400 million YTD 2021, a 160% growth over the same period of 2020.  

The initial success of ‘5G Capital’ program makes China Unicom more confident in its digital transformation strategy. Mr. Fan Liqun believes a quality 5G network is key for their business success in the mega-city market. C-Band is the best frequency band for 5G deployment in this case to achieve the balance of coverage, capacity, and user experience. Mr. Fan also underscored the importance of the industry partnership in the ‘5G Capital’ program. For example, the close collaboration with Huawei – the main supplier of 5G network solutions – was essential for the development of China Unicom Beijing’s smart operation platform.

So far, Chinese operators have built the largest 5G networks in the world. They are actively developing 5G markets of consumers and enterprises. The experience and lessons in China will be valuable for the 5G development in the rest of the world. China Unicom Beijing’s practice about 5G rollout and digital transformation is such a case. It could be a reference model for operators who are rolling out 5G in big cities. We will continue to follow the progress and provide our insights about the ‘5G Capital’ program and other strategic initiatives of Chinese operators. 

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