January 18, 2023
The standalone (SA) version of 5G has often been touted as "real" 5G. But if that's the case, today there does not appear to be a huge amount of interest from network operators in real 5G.
The latest findings on 5G SA come from research firm Dell'Oro Group, which has kept a count of all the big mobile network operators around the world that have launched the technology. It reports that only 39 have deployed 5G SA.
"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 analyst Dave Bolan on the firm's website. "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."
Figure 1: The operators that have launched 5G SA Dell'Oro tracks the operators that have launched 5G SA. Click here for a larger version of this image.
5G NSA was widely considered a temporary stopgap for the global wireless industry. Introduced in the 3GPP's first batch of 5G specifications, NSA uses a new 5G radio access network with an existing 4G LTE network core. Because it was quicker and easier to launch, most of the world's network operators used that version of the technology to go to market.
Now, operators are working to shift from 5G NSA to SA, with some moving much more quickly than others.
"There were hopes early in the year that many more [SA networks] would be launched in 2022, but the hopes were lowered as the year progressed," Bolan explained. "By the end of 2022, we had identified 39 MNOs [mobile network operators] that had deployed 5G SA eMMB networks."
"Why is SA taking time to implement and scale?" wrote Heavy Reading analyst Gabriel Brown late last year. Heavy Reading and Light Reading are both owned by Informa. "In a nutshell, in the words of one anonymous operator CTO, 'because it's difficult'."
At a press conference late last year, BT CTO Howard Watson confirmed that assessment. "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," he said.
Touting the benefits of SA
In the US, T-Mobile launched the SA version of 5G in 2020 and has since touted mainly coverage benefits. That's primarily due to the fact that T-Mobile's SA 5G signal can travel farther in its 600MHz spectrum when a 4G anchor signal is not required.
Meanwhile, AT&T and Verizon in the US are slowly moving toward SA 5G, albeit much later than they had originally planned. But the operators are still upbeat about the technology.
Verizon, for example, said its new SA core would "enable the dynamic allocation of the appropriate resources, referred to as network slicing. It will also allow for automated network configuration changes, including the ability to scale up or scale down network function capacity – to provide the right service levels and network resources needed for each use case."
"The coming migration to 5G standalone core networks is expected to allow for increased device density, reliability, and latency, opening the door to advanced enterprise applications," according to several analysts from Deloitte's Technology, Media & Telecommunications industry group.
"5G SA's big attraction for MNOs are the new service and revenue opportunities it creates," they continued. "Along with near-zero latency and massive device density, 5G SA enables MNOs to provide customers – specifically enterprise customers – access at scale to fiber-like speeds, mission-critical reliability, precise location services, and tailored network slices with guaranteed service levels."
Those capabilities will allow enterprises to start exploring advanced 5G use cases like "self-driving vehicles; precision robotics; drone inspection and delivery services; and AI-driven security, quality control, and predictive maintenance systems," the analysts added.
Based on that outlook, Deloitte expects the number of mobile network operators investing in 5G SA networks – with trials, planned deployments, or rollouts – to double from more than 100 operators in 2022 to at least 200 by the end of 2023.
Figure 2: The number of network operators investing in 5G developments globally Citing data from the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), Deloitte offers a look at the interest in 5G SA. Click here for a larger version of this image.
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