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Looking ahead: 5G standalone still pretty lonely

5G standalone remains difficult to deploy, but even so the industry is moving along to another set of technologies that fall under the '5G Advanced' moniker.

Mike Dano

December 18, 2023

4 Min Read
People talking on old payphones in Havana

5G non-standalone (NSA) is the first iteration of the networking technology. It essentially requires a 4G core network to serve as an anchor for a new 5G radio access network (RAN). According to one estimate, 5G NSA is now supporting over a billion subscribers worldwide.

But the next iteration of 5G technology known as 5G standalone (SA) isn't faring as well. While 5G SA eliminates the need for a 4G anchor network and supports technologies like Voice over 5G New Radio (VoNR) and network slicing, it has proven difficult to deploy.

Status of 5G SA deployment

"Reliance Jio, China Telecom-Macau and Globe Telecom came to the rescue in the fourth quarter to push 2022 over 2021 for the number of 5G SA eMMB [Enhanced Mobile Broadband] networks launched," wrote Dave Bolan, research director at Dell'Oro Group.

Earlier this year, the firm counted only 39 operators internationally that have deployed 5G SA. "This was a disappointment in contrast with over 200 5G non-standalone (5G NSA) networks and over 700 LTE networks that could be implementing 5G SA networks," Bolan wrote.

T-Mobile in the US was one of the first big operators to launch 5G SA, and others including Dish Network, Telefónica and KDDI have done so since. But other network operators have explained why it is not an easy shift.

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"The reason it is taking quite a while to roll out the 5G [SA] core is that's a sea change in the underlying infrastructure," BT CTO Howard Watson said last year.

Meanwhile, Verizon's networking chief, Joe Russo, had this to say about his company's ongoing SA 5G delay: "It is absolutely a capability that we think will be another enabler to new use cases. But ... the reliability and performance of Verizon's network is what we stand for, and I don't put technology out into the network that is a step back. It has to be a step forward. And all of the data that I see – both internal testing and with external testing that happens out there in the market – tells me that SA [standalone] needs a little bit more time."

VoNR rolls out slowly

Voice calling appears to be an afterthought in the world of 5G. On most 5G NSA networks, voice calling remains squarely relegated to 4G.

5G SA opens up the potential to run voice calls over 5G, but some of the companies early to deploy the technology have moved slowly toward VoNR. AT&T was still testing the technology in May, for example, while T-Mobile slowly expanded its VoNR services after launching 5G SA in 2020.

But other companies don't have the ability to rely on 4G for voice calling. Dish Network does not operate a 4G network and therefore has been forced to get VoNR working on its 5G SA network.

Dish executives have bemoaned the challenges in rolling out VoNR. "It is not good enough, in my opinion, for the customer experience that you have to have in voice. It is hampering our ability to put users on our network unless they're data users," Dish's Charlie Ergen said of VoNR in 2022.

But those troubles have eased in recent months as Dish expands its VoNR services to more markets.

Aiming for network slicing

Of the many services supported by 5G SA technology, network slicing may be among the most anticipated. That's because it potentially allows network operators to carve out chunks of their network capacity for specific customers and use cases, and will let them provide faster and more reliable services than the connections available on their public networks.

UScellular CTO Mike Irizarry said earlier this year that part of the reason the operator is moving to 5G SA is to apply network slicing technology to its new fixed wireless access (FWA) service.

"Within SA slicing, there's a whole bunch of dials you can tweak for each slice. And my team is working on what the best configuration is," Irizarry explained.

T-Mobile recently said it created a dedicated network slice for race operations at the Las Vegas Grand Prix Pit Building, the new Formula 1 headquarters in North America.

Next up: 5G Advanced

But 5G SA isn't the last stop on the development train for the network technology. The 3GPP – the standards group behind 5G – confirmed to Light Reading in 2021 that "5G-Advanced" is the official new name for the group's Release 18 and beyond.

The 3GPP issues packages, or releases, of specifications for new wireless networking technologies roughly once a year. 5G first showed up in the group's Release 15 in 2017. Release 18 is currently scheduled for full release in early 2024.

According to the 3GPP, the Release 18 package of 5G specifications should include technologies like improved network energy efficiency and AI networking applications.

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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