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5G: If you want it this year, Huawei is the only game in town, says Three

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The game of 5G and geopolitics: What’s at stake?
The world’s most promising technology platform has become the grand prize in a game of global trade war. As China seizes prime platform territory, US allies find themselves caught in the crossfire. ZDNet’s Scott Fulton sits down with TechRepublic’s Karen Roby and shows us how anyone wins a game like this. Read more: https://zd.net/2WYnbBj

Mobile network Three is getting ready to switch on its 5G services, but behind that has been a huge digital transformation project for the network operator, from cutting back on a vast sprawl of applications to building a new cloud-based core network.

“We decided the only way to make an impact was to be quite different and quite bold with our technology programme,” Phil Sheppard, director of Network Strategy at Three UK, told ZDNet.

That meant a £2bn rethink of everything involved in Three’s radio network, the transmission network, the core network and IT.

SEE: IT pro’s guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)

On the IT side it meant switching from 350 custom applications to standard software, which has made it easier for Three to sign up customers by cutting the time it takes to sign up for a contract from 30 minutes to five.

Three is also upgrading its core network – the brains of the network that routes calls and traffic – to a cloud-based Nokia system that will make it much easier and cheaper to add new capacity and services.

This virtualised network is needed to deliver the full benefits of 5G down the line, like the network slicing that can offer different quality levels for different services. Three is also moving from three datacenters to 20 datacenters distributed across the country.

More visibly, Three is now upgrading its 14,000 sites, boosting 4G speeds by switching spectrum used for 3G over to 4G and adding more 4G spectrum. And on urban sites, it is now adding 5G.

Unlike its bigger rivals, Three has decided to make its first step into 5G with a home broadband service in central London, and is currently testing the service with customers ahead of the launch next month.

“There are plenty of people in lots of locations that are not happy with their service that they get from their fixed line and don’t have the flexibility and performance that they want, we think we can get a decent part of that market,” says Sheppard.

A mobile 5G service across 25 towns and cities across the UK is also due before the end of the year.

But for now, Three isn’t worried about rushing out the 5G mobile service. “This year it’s going to be relatively small volumes of handsets, the early adopter market and then next year it will be much bigger. What we want to do is launch it right, launch it well,” he says.

No one really knows what 5G is going to be used for yet; Sheppard points to an increase in the consumption of mobile video, streamed gaming, cloud computing and perhaps, further into the future, there will be services taking advantage of the low delay in 5G networks to allow it to be used for factory control and autonomous cars. But even without a new killer app, 5G still makes sense for Three, he says.

Even though it’s expensive to build, it is also much more efficient than the older mobile technologies, which means that 5G is the cheapest option to grow the network and gives the best customer experience as well “so it already has a business case”, says Sheppard – plus the opportunity for new revenue streams.

“We do think it’s a bit of a gamechanger for us,” he said. Three hopes that the combination of the spectrum advantage and technology advantage, plus the fixed broadband service for home customers, will help it to grab more users.

Whereas Three had the smallest allocation of 4G spectrum, the network operator has – at least for now – more than twice as much 5G spectrum as its closest competitor, which it hopes will give it a significant advantage by allowing it to deliver faster speeds for customers. It says at launch its peak mobile speeds will be at least twice as fast as other mobile network operators.

But as with all the UK network operators there is one cloud on the horizon; whether the government will actually allow Huawei’s hardware to be used for 5G services.

Despite having used Huawei kit for years in their existing networks, concerns have been raised – mainly by the US government – about whether the Chinese state could, at some point, use its relationship with Huawei to force the tech company to spy on its customers’ networks.

Huawei has denied any wrongdoing and the US has not presented any evidence to back up this claim. Still, UK telcos are now waiting on a review by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, even as they go ahead with their 5G projects.

Three is rolling out Huawei equipment in its radio access network and Sheppard acknowledges there has been a ‘lot of noise’ about Huawei since it made its decision last year.

“What we are saying along with all the other operators is we will follow the government’s advice, we have given input to their supply chain review. We think they’ve got all the information required,” he says.

He argues that the UK is in a different position to the US, with a large install base of Huawei kit already and processes in place – like the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre, which analyses all Huawei kit used in UK networks.

And if the UK does decide to forbid the use of Huawei kit that would likely cause a 12 to 18 month delay for 5G in the UK and will also have an impact on existing services, too. The way 5G is being rolled out at the moment, is that it effectively sits on top of the 4G equipment from the same vendor.

“If you are not going to use Huawei for 5G then you cannot use it for 4G on those sites, so you are going to have to rip out that kit and replace it and obviously that’s a cost, it’s also a big time investment as well, so 5G will appear later.”

Sheppard says he believes the systems being procured are safe and secure for many reasons, but wants the government review to be published soon.

“The reason we all chose Huawei for 5G launch this year is that they are well ahead of everybody else, so if you want to launch 5G this year they’re the only game in town.”

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GM is throwing even more money at EVs and autonomous vehicles

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General Motors plans to dramatically increase its spend on electric vehicles and autonomous driving, pledging $35 billion through 2025 as it races to bring new EVs to market. The company had previously said it would spend $27 billion in the same period, and will now pull forward battery manufacturing plans for its Ultium platform.

The goal now is to build two battery cell manufacturing plants in the US by mid-decade, to join the first plants that are currently under construction in Tennessee and Ohio. Right now, GM isn’t saying where it expects the new facilities to be located, or how much capacity they’re likely to have, with those details still to be confirmed.

As for the vehicles that will actually use those batteries, there GM is expanding its goals too. In November 2020, the automaker had said it planned 30 new EVs by 2025 globally; two-thirds of that range would be available in North America. Now, though, it’s adding new commercial products.

“GM will add to its North America plan new electric commercial trucks and other products that will take advantage of the creative design opportunities and flexibility enabled by the Ultium Platform,” the automaker said today. “In addition, GM will add additional US assembly capacity for EV SUVs.”

That US manufacturing component is key, given signs from the American government that future incentives and credits available to electric vehicle buyers will be dependent – in part – on where the car, SUV, or truck was built. According to the latest proposals, the maximum incentive of $12,500 would only be accessible for a vehicle priced at under $80,000, built in the US, and in a factory where workers are part of, or represented by, a labor union.

Location isn’t the only issue there. Although GM has revealed two Ultium-based vehicles, the GMC Hummer EV and Cadillac Lyriq, only the Cadillac looks set to come in at under that $80k ceiling. For GM to continue benefiting from the maximum incentives, it needs to figure out a way to make more affordable electric vehicles.

On the autonomous side of things, there GM has a number of fingers in the pie. Cruise, of which GM is the majority owner, already announced this week that it had secured $5 billion in credit from GM Financial in order to place a bulk order of the Origin AVs specially designed for its ride-hailing service. Revealed early last year, Origin – which has no traditional car controls – will be among the first Ultium-based EVs to go into production.

Cruise is also working with Honda, which co-developed the Origin, on an AV testing program in Japan. Honda, meanwhile, is co-developing two electric EVs with GM that will be based on Ultium. One of those will be branded as a Honda in the US, and the other an Acura.

It’s a time of big promises for automakers right now, as they tool up to try to carve out space in the growing electric vehicle category. Recent chip supply-chain struggles have threatened to put a dampener on those efforts, at least temporarily – GM said earlier this month that it would be cutting some features from its current vehicles, to work around shortages in hardware – but the reality is that none of the car companies can afford to slow down if they’re to meet both their self-imposed efforts and the requirements of legislators around things like emissions reductions.

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BMW X5-based hydrogen fuel cell prototype begins testing in Europe

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BMW has begun testing an X5-based prototype running a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain. Affectionately referred to as the BMW i Hydrogen NEXT, the prototype is an all-electric vehicle fueled by the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen in a fuel cell. The German automaker firmly believes that hydrogen fuel cell technology can replace internal combustion engines, plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), and battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) as the future of mobility.

“Hydrogen fuel cell technology can be an attractive option for sustainable drive trains – especially in larger vehicle classes,” explained Frank Weber, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG responsible for Development. “That is why road testing of near-standard vehicles with a hydrogen fuel cell drivetrain is an important milestone in our research and development efforts.”

BMW has unveiled plans of releasing a limited series of hydrogen fuel cell SUVs in 2022. The carmaker is on track to debut a small production run of hydrogen-powered BMW X5 SUVs by later next year. Proof of this is the launch of a real-world testing program for the BMW I Hydrogen NEXT.

Unbeknownst to many, BMW’s been dabbling with hydrogen technology since the early 2000s. The automaker released a limited production run of the BMW Hydrogen 7 luxury car based on a V12-powered 7 Series limousine. But instead of having a fuel cell and electric motors, the Hydrogen 7 had the same 6.0-liter gasoline V12 engine that runs on both hydrogen and gasoline, officially making it the world’s first production-ready hydrogen vehicle.

However, BMW only built 100 examples of the Hydrogen 7, and all were available for lease to selected high-profile clients only. BMW will aim for more than 100 private lease clients for its next-gen hydrogen fuel cell SUV, and the proof is in the pudding.

BMW claims the i Hydrogen NEXT prototype combines hydrogen fuel cell technology with BMW’s fifth-gen eDrive technology, the latter also found in the BMW iX3 and incoming iX and i4 models. Capable of generating a maximum of 374 horsepower, BMW’s hydrogen fuel cell prototype is churning out the same power level as the brand’s six-cylinder inline petrol engines.

Similar to Jaguar Land Rover’s Defender hydrogen prototype, the i Hydrogen NEXT has a performance battery pack that boosts power when accelerating while recovering energy from braking and coasting. The prototype has two 700-bar storage tanks made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) that collectively hold six kilograms of hydrogen.

BMW has partnered with Japanese auto giant Toyota in developing the fuel cell for its i Hydrogen NEXT prototype. The two carmakers have been working since 2013 to study and optimize the scalability of hydrogen fuel cells in future vehicle offerings.

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Lincoln pledges full electrification by 2030

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Lincoln will electrify its entire range by 2030, the automaker has announced, joining the industry shift toward ousting combustion engines in favor of zero-emissions. It comes after launching plug-in hybrid versions of several of its SUVs, with Lincoln promising to debut its first all-electric model in 2022.

By midway through this decade, meanwhile, Lincoln says it expects half of its global sales volume to be of zero-emissions vehicles. That’s ambitious, given right now the company doesn’t even have one such car to sell. Models like the Corsair Grand Touring offer a PHEV drivetrain, but the reality is that you only get 25 miles of electric range before the gas engine kicks in full-time.

Lincoln’s answer will be a new platform. It’s a newly flexible architecture, the automaker says, capable of underpinning rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive battery-electric models: Lincoln plans to use it for four “new and distinct” EVs. This is, it’s worth noting, different from the Rivian skateboard platform; Lincoln had originally intended to use that for its EV, but that project has been put on hold.

Exactly what form its first electric model will take, Lincoln is coy on. The obvious option would be an SUV or crossover, of course. Not only is that the direction in which the market – and Lincoln’s existing sales – is trending, bigger cars offer more space to accommodate larger battery packs.

However Lincoln has been flirting with other possibilities, at least in concept form. The Zephyr Reflection was a design exercise with the tastes of the Chinese market – a huge one for the automaker – in mind, revealed at Auto Shanghai 2021 back in April. Evolving the recognizable cues of the discontinued Lincoln Continental, but with altogether bolder styling, it was billed as a preview of what the brand could do in the future. Lincoln’s exterior tease of the new EV’s front light graphics seems to line up with what we’ve seen from Zephyr Reflection.

Meanwhile, that concept’s approach chimes with what the automaker is saying about its upcoming EV. “Evolving Lincoln’s design, the fully electric Lincoln will deliver a more spacious interior that creates the ultimate expression of the Lincoln sanctuary,” the company promises. “On approach, the exterior presents a striking, modern aesthetic, while the iconic Lincoln star evolves to meet an electrified future. Thoughtful details inside create a truly rejuvenating space for all, with clever storage solutions and minimalistic panels, while a larger, expansive panoramic vista roof enhances natural light and provides a more open, airy feel throughout.”

That’s a whole lot of design-speak, but there’s no denying that EVs do have clear advantages in luxury vehicles. Instantaneous torque but from a quieter drivetrain, along with less intrusion from mechanical components into the cabin, all make a lot of sense for a high-end vehicle.

Lincoln’s target is more aggressive than that of corporate parent Ford, it’s worth noting. Ford expects to have around 40-percent of its models electric by 2030, though it does a commercial range of work trucks to consider. Lincoln, in contrast, has a much more focused portfolio.

As for charging, Lincoln plans to borrow Ford’s strategy of collating other providers into a central interface. That’ll be the Lincoln Charging Network, with partners like Electrify America and others included into the Lincoln Way app. You’ll presumably also be able to access that through Lincoln’s new infotainment system, which it is building atop Android.

Finally, there’ll be Lincoln ActiveGlide, a hands-free highway driving assistance system. Like Ford BlueCruise, it’ll use driver-attention cameras to make sure the person behind the wheel is paying attention to the road, even if their hands aren’t on the wheel. However it will only operate on stretches of pre-mapped, divided highway. Ford plans an over-the-air update to deliver BlueCruise functionality to Mustang Mach-E and F-150 models with the right hardware package later in 2021.

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