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A Reality Check on Standalone 5G: Momentum is Building

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In a recent Fierce Network panel moderated by Prakash Sangam from Tantra Analyst, I had the privilege to discuss the transformative potential of Standalone 5G (5G SA) with Shujaur Mufti from Global Partners Solution Architecture at Red Hat. Our conversation delved into the evolving landscape of 5G technology, exploring its promises, current realities, and the future it holds for us all.

Decoding the Hype Versus Reality of 5G

The initial rollout of 5G technology came with sky-high expectations, fueled by marketing narratives that promised revolutionary changes—from ultra-fast internet speeds enabling remote surgeries to ubiquitous connectivity even in the most remote locations allowing for a perfect shave on top of a mountain. However, the actual deployment of 5G, particularly in its Non-Standalone (NSA) form, has painted a different picture. 5G NSA deployments leverage existing 4G LTE infrastructure, thus falling short of achieving the full spectrum of 5G capabilities, such as network slicing and ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC).

This is not to take away from 5G. The technology offers notable improvements over 4G in terms of speed: in many markets, we see 5G speeds that are three to six times as fast, and several emerging markets see great improvements in gaming and video streaming where 5G is available. Yet, the most transformative applications of 5G remain largely theoretical or in pilot stages. This gap between expectation and reality has led to consumer skepticism and dampening enthusiasm for technological progress.

The Technical Backbone: Why Standalone 5G Matters

Standalone 5G is not just an incremental upgrade—it's a complete overhaul of network architecture. Unlike NSA, SA operates independently of existing 4G networks, utilizing a new 5G core that allows it to fully leverage 5G capabilities. This enables two important advances:

  • Network Slicing: One of SA's standout features is its ability to implement advanced network slicing. This enables operators to create multiple virtual networks that cater to a diverse range of service requirements on a single physical infrastructure. Each slice can be optimized for specific applications, such as high-speed internet or critical communications, enhancing efficiency and service quality. For example, in Singapore during the F1 race, Singtel used network slicing to ensure users of its CAST app had a good experience when streaming video of the race. In an enterprise context, Telekom equipped port terminals in Hamburg, Bremerhaven, and Wilhelmshaven with dual-slice campus networks for digital logistics applications. 
  • Edge Computing: SA's architecture enables seamless integration with edge computing. Edge computing is akin to having a small, powerful computer nearby that can swiftly handle tasks without needing to send data to a distant data center. This is vital for minimizing latency to the millisecond level. Such integration is crucial for applications that demand immediate data processing, such as autonomous vehicles, real-time industrial automation, smart city applications, augmented and virtual reality applications, and telemedicine.

Global Adoption: A Varied Landscape

The adoption of 5G SA is progressing at different rates around the world. According to the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), 49 operators across 29 countries have deployed, launched, or soft-launched 5G SA in public networks. For context, this is 8% of all operators the GSA identified as having invested in 5G.

In the United States, companies like T-Mobile have spearheaded large-scale deployments of 5G SA; T-Mobile was the first mobile network operator in the world to switch on a standalone (SA) 5G network. It turned on its 600 MHz low-band nationwide 5G SA network on August 4, 2020, beating even early adopting Chinese operators like China Mobile. In our analysis of the early T-Mobile 5G SA mobile experience, we found that users’ time connected to 5G significantly increased after the 5G SA network launched, and there was a larger jump in rural connectivity compared with urban usage. We have also found a reduction in latency as the responsiveness of the 5G experience improved. Conversely, we have not yet seen a correlation between the deployment of 5G SA and speed improvements. 5G SA, however, provides better latency compared to 5G NSA.  

In Asia, operators like Reliance Jio in India, and several in China have made significant strides in terms of 5G SA deployments. Unsurprisingly, the transition to 5G SA has been uneven globally. Many operators are still navigating the complexities of upgrading from NSA as they need to justify the business case for upgrading to 5G SA. 

The Future is Finally Now: Real-World Applications Are Driving 5G SA Adoption

Imagine a world where real-time data from sensors installed throughout a city can instantly reroute traffic, manage pollution, and ensure public safety. Or consider a factory where automated guided vehicles and robots communicate seamlessly, drastically improving efficiency and safety. These are not distant realities but near-term possibilities with Standalone 5G, which will be further enhanced by 5G Advanced. However, are these claims realistic?

  • Enterprise and Industrial Applications: The ultra-low latency and high reliability of 5G SA enables new capabilities in augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and automated industrial processes, transforming how businesses operate. Enterprises are already deploying 5G SA networks in a private network scenario as governments worldwide allocate dedicated spectrum for private mobile networks, aligning with industry 4.0 objectives. The hype around 5G SA might be premature as these technologies still face hurdles in proving their efficiency and reliability in real-world settings.
  • IoT and Smart Infrastructure: 5G SA is pivotal for the next wave of IoT applications, from smart cities to advanced healthcare systems, where immediate data processing is critical. RedCap technology simplifies 5G devices, particularly small IoT devices for consumers and ruggedized routers, and environmental or other condition-based monitoring sensors. Alan Loh from mobile operator Zain shared how RedCap's affordable devices widened the market potential for 5G, providing a compelling reason to switch to 5G SA now. Elsewhere, BT Group is evaluating RedCap to support new 5G use cases for EE's business and consumer customer bases. However, widespread adoption hinges on ensuring these solutions' interoperability, security, and scalability.

While these advancements in 5G SA are promising and currently under testing, their actual impact on cities and industries is still unfolding. The journey towards a fully connected 5G world is complex, involving more than just mobile technologies. It requires substantial collaboration, continuous innovation, and addressing the practical challenges of deploying such advanced technology on a large scale. The question remains: Are we ready for the 5G revolution, or is it still more of a futuristic vision than a present reality?

Looking Ahead: What’s Next

Transitioning to 5G SA entails overcoming significant hurdles, including infrastructure investments, technological complexity, and regulatory and spectrum issues. Deploying SA demands substantial upfront investment in new network infrastructure and technologies, alongside the intricate technical integration of new 5G cores, necessitating extensive planning and expertise. Moreover, navigating regulatory environments and securing appropriate spectrum allocations pose additional challenges.

Despite the complexities, the steady progress towards 5G SA underscores the determination of stakeholders to usher in a new era of connectivity and technological advancement heralding an array of societal benefits worldwide. At Opensignal, we continue to track and measure the progress of network advancements, so stay tuned for insights on 5G SA. In the meantime, subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date on our latest analysis.