Tipping point for 5G SA could come in 2023
It's fair to say that the march to the standalone (SA) version of 5G technology has been somewhat on the slow side. Dubbed "real 5G" or even "pure 5G" by some marketers, and branded 5G+ by mobile network operators (MNOs) such as Vodafone Germany in the hope that users will be interested enough to upgrade, 5G SA comes with new core network technology, promising benefits that its older, non-standalone (NSA) sibling cannot support.
As things stand, the SA variant has remained conspicuous by its absence in many countries. Reasons for this will vary, but one cited by Telefónica Deutschland (O2) is that there are not enough compatible devices in the market, among other aspects. 5G SA by its nature is more complicated, in part because it removes anchors to the 4G environment and sends operators into less familiar waters.
However, recent reports indicate that 5G SA launches are starting to increase in frequency, opening the possibility that 2023 could be the year when this more advanced version of 5G starts to take hold.
For instance, the November update from the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) indicated that at least 36 operators in 21 countries and territories have launched public 5G SA networks. That compares to just 20 operators at the end of 2021.
The GSA also found that at least 20 operators are deploying or piloting 5G SA for public networks, while 32 are planning to deploy the technology. A further 20 operators are understood to be involved in evaluations, tests or trials of 5G SA. Overall, the GSA has identified 111 operators in 52 countries and territories worldwide that have been investing in public 5G SA networks in the form of trials, planned or actual deployments.
Research firm Dell'Oro asserted that nine MNOs launched new 5G SA networks in the third quarter of 2022 alone. It also estimates that 36 have now been deployed. Those MNOs to have recently embraced the technology include Bell Canada, AT&T and Verizon, STC Bahrain, Deutsche Telekom, Optus in Australia and Brazilian operators Claro, TIM and Vivo.
Meanwhile, Deloitte said it expects the number of MNOs investing in 5G SA networks to double from more than 100 operators in 2022 to at least 200 by the end of 2023. For its part, Rethink Technology Research predicts that there will be a "substantial base" of 5G SA infrastructure by 2024.
Slicing it up
Deloitte places a focus on how 5G SA can "unlock 5G's long-heralded benefits, opening the door to disruptive use cases," thereby creating revenue opportunities for MNOs and their enterprise customers.
"Tailored network slices with guaranteed service levels," are particularly highlighted here, along with "near-zero latency and massive device density."
Indeed, as confidence about the pace of 5G SA launches grows, the potential of networking slicing is again attracting coverage and attention.
A freshly minted report from Rethink Technology Research, titled "Network slicing will unleash full potential of 5G," has even attempted to pin down revenue forecasts, predicting that network slicing will accrue additional revenues of $16.1 billion by 2029, over and above what the infrastructure would have earned otherwise.
"After 2024, 5G network slicing growth will take off first in leading economies of North America, Europe and Asia Pacific, including China, while developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, will pick up towards the end of the decade," the report suggests.
To be sure, some who have experienced the mobile industry's endless cycles of hype and disappointment have tried to inject a note of caution about the promise of network slicing for new 5G SA networks.
For instance, Dean Bubley, an analyst with Disruptive Wireless, warned that slicing should be treated more as an "internal toolset" to help manage network resources rather than as an actual "product."
Rethink Technology Research acknowledges that there are obstacles to overcome. For example, it cites the impact of network neutrality rules on 5G slicing, "since they prohibit favoring one application, or user group, over any other, which is precisely what network slicing appears to do."
"However, the belief that network neutrality rules need revising for the era of 5G where wireless networks combine spectrum across a broad frequency range catering for very different use cases seems to be gaining ground among regulators and governments around the world," the report said.
The coming year should certainly provide further indications on MNO progress with 5G SA and the services it is expected to support.
According to Deloitte, the real question is not whether MNOs will migrate to 5G SA, but when and how. "The challenges are significant, but the benefits are undeniable: a fully mature 5G capability that unlocks 5G's full potential for enterprise and underpins MNOs' pursuit of greater efficiency, innovation and value," the research company concludes.
- After two-year delay, Verizon begins move to standalone 5G
- 13 African states join ITU council, Zimbabwe in key role
- Why is 5G SA taking so long?
- The slow march to standalone 5G
- BT's Howard Watson on why the 'standalone evolution' matters
— Anne Morris, contributing editor, special to Light Reading