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Ericsson and Apple 'Need Each Other,' Says CEO Hans Vestberg

Though next-generation networks are still years off, CEO Hans Vestberg says the push for early testing is warranted.

Ina Fried for Re/code

Every year Ericsson has a massive booth in Barcelona demonstrating the latest in cellular gear alongside demos showing what all those base stations and switches can do. That’s true this year, too, but there is one thing you wouldn’t have found last year: iPhones.

Until a December settlement, Ericsson and Apple were in a patent dispute that left the two sides feeling less than amicable. Having patched things up, the two sides are working on a number of efforts.

“I think we need each other,” Vestberg told Re/code in an interview at Mobile World Congress. At Ericsson’s booth they were showing a jointly developed effort to make iPhone battery life better when it is on an Ericsson-powered network.

Another project of particular importance to both is early testing for the next generation of cellular networks, known as 5G.

Although not expected to arrive commercially in phones for several years, Vestberg insists the attention being paid to 5G is not just hype.

There will be testing this year — and there needs to be — Vestberg said, while reiterating that networks fully conforming to the standards themselves won’t be fully ready until 2020.

All that testing is needed because 5G is about so much more than people and their phones and tablets, Vestberg said, whipping out a note pad. On it he sketched a diagram of a car connecting to the network (perhaps because he is Swedish, his car is a bit boxy). If even one part of the path between the network and the car delivers less-than-advertised latency, you have a literal crash, not just one of the software variety.

“All the way to the cloud and back, you need to standardize all of this,” Vestberg said, pointing to the diagram. Past standards, he said, really only needed to cover the device and the interface used to connect to the infrastructure.

“We are building a totally new type of technology,” he said. “We need to understand the use cases.”

Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have all said they plan to start 5G testing this year, with Korean, Chinese, Japanese and European carriers all pushing hard to be early adopters as well.

The 5G test gear on display is not only faster, it’s smaller. Last year, Ericsson had a 5G device the size of a golf cart. This year, Vestberg showed off a 5G base station chip that packed dozens of antennae and radios into something not much bigger than a tortilla chip.

The company also made its annual cellular technology demonstration, designed to showcase potential new applications. Last year’s demo used virtual reality to remotely control a digger located in either Barcelona or Sweden. This year, the company used a simulated 5G network and a force-feedback joystick to fly a drone that could inspect windmills.

Soar too high and the joystick indicates, through tension, that you have reached a no-fly zone. Similarly, the technology won’t allow you to crash into the windmill.

Though designed to be fun, Ericsson notes it’s a real potential business, with windmill inspections predicted to be a multi-billion dollar business in a few years’ time, as use of the alternative energy expands.

For Vestberg, the bet on 5G is even bigger. While a leader in the current generation of networks, Ericsson is being chased by both China’s Huawei and Nokia, which recently acquired Alcatel-Lucent and also has its heart set on being the king of 5G.

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