The France-based operator Orange recently said it picked Spain as its first market to move to a 5G standalone (SA) core. 

The operator has already launched non-standalone (NSA) 5G across all seven of its European countries. NSA means that it uses 5G in the radio access network, but it still uses 4G technology in its core network.

For its 5G SA core vendors, Orange selected Ericsson in Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg and Poland. And it selected Nokia for France and Slovakia.

Fierce Wireless spoke with Bernard Despres, VP for Core Network, Automation and Security at Orange, last week at MWC in Barcelona. 

Despres said it was smoother to select Ericsson as the 5G SA core vendor in Spain. In France, the 4G core is based on Cisco and Ericsson equipment. But for 5G, Orange will use Nokia in France. It won’t be using Cisco at all for 5G SA core in any markets.

When asked why Orange selected Spain for its first 5G SA core, Despres said, “It’s really a local market decision. It was an occasion in Spain to be the first in the market.”

Orange’s deployment of 5G SA actually beat Telefonica — Spain’s main operator, which is headquartered in Madrid. Telefonica has not yet deployed 5G SA.

Generally speaking, European operators are lagging a bit in terms of 5G SA rollouts.

Freddie Södergren, Ericsson’s head of technology and strategy at Business Area Networks, said, “We have a number of operators that are struggling with monetizing 5G. They are in very competitive markets where their ability to increase the ARPU is really a challenge. As a result, the business case is difficult. It’s a chicken and egg problem.”

He said European operators “need to get a little understanding of what are the consequences of falling behind on 5G.”

In the case of Orange and its roadmap for rolling out 5G SA in the rest of its markets, Despres said, “My role is to have the technical chain ready. When once ready, it’s a local business decision.” He indicated Orange is likely to announce more 5G SA markets this year and in 2024. He said the rollout in Spain was “hard work” and provided a good learning curve for the rest of the company’s markets.

Digital divide in Europe

Orange is the leading fiber operator in Europe with 46 million FTTH passings as of the end of 2022. 

In Europe, operators such as Orange think of their digital divide a little bit differently than they do in the U.S. because they have deployed fiber to a greater percentage of their populations.

While Verizon and T-Mobile are attempting to close the digital divide in the U.S. with the use of fixed wireless access (FWA), Ericsson’s Södergren said FWA isn’t that popular in Europe.

“If you are converged with fixed and mobile, the dynamics are a little different,” said Södergren. “You wouldn’t disrupt fixed with wireless.”

Despres said Orange does a little FWA on its 4G network. And in more remote areas it offers satellite broadband via a partnership with Eutelsat.

“We have this strategy to progressively offer, by fiber mainly, then 4G/5G then last resort satellite,” he said.

Private wireless

Also at MWC, Orange said it was working on a 5G SA private wireless network trial. The trial network is named Pikeo, and it involves partners, including Amazon Web Services (AWS), Amdocs, Arista, Casa Systems, Dell Technologies, HPE, Mavenir and Xiaomi.

Orange said the experimental network runs over two locations in France and is currently used by Orange employees. The Pikeo trial will soon be extended to a third site in Spain for internal use.

The Pikeo 5G SA private network is multi-cloud and is deployed:

  • Either on-premises at Orange Telco Cloud infrastructure, or
  • On AWS or using a hybrid architecture with AWS. The core network is deployed in an AWS Region completely or with an optional local AWS Outpost at Orange locations.

“The successful implementation and operation of this greenfield network for more than one year has provided Orange with invaluable experience and knowledge on the automation of cloud-native 5G SA networks,” stated Orange in its announcement.

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