AT&T is testing the standalone version of 5G now and plans to launch it later this year, according to Igal Elbaz, SVP of wireless and access technology for the operator. Speaking Tuesday at the Big 5G Event hosted by Light Reading, Elbaz said AT&T would work on "scaling" the technology throughout 2021.
AT&T has not previously disclosed its standalone 5G launch timeline. However, the operator's plans line up almost exactly with those of Verizon, its main rival. Verizon disclosed its standalone 5G launch plans in July; the operator plans to move traffic to its new standalone 5G core sometime in the second half of 2020, and said it will fully commercialize the technology in 2021.
T-Mobile, for its part, commercially launched standalone 5G in August with vendors Cisco and Nokia. Importantly, subsequent tests of T-Mobile's standalone 5G by Signals Research Group found difficulties obtaining a standalone 5G signal. According to T-Mobile engineers who spoke with SRG's Mike Thelander, the company is specifically pushing its 5G phones off of SA mode and into "non standalone" (NSA) mode in areas where it already offers speedy and reliable 4G LTE connections. That way, customers' speeds aren't slowed by the new technology.
Importantly, Elbaz did not disclose AT&T's standalone 5G vendors. Verizon also has not disclosed its standalone 5G vendors. However, Dish Network recently said Nokia would supply its forthcoming standalone 5G core.
Elbaz described AT&T's move toward standalone 5G as another important step. "Like anything else in 5G, this is a journey," he explained. He said standalone 5G can support network slicing, improved latency and improved coverage; he said customers would immediately see some of those benefits but would have to wait for others.
All of the global wireless industry's early 5G networks use the "non-standalone" version of 5G (5G NSA). That version requires a 4G LTE network to handle things like authentication. However, the "standalone" version of 5G eliminates that requirement, which ought to mitigate challenges such as the latency involved in handoffs from 4G to 5G and the intermodulation issues that can create signal distortion.
Standalone 5G is supported within the 3GPP's new "Release 16" batch of technologies, finalized in July.