Nokia, Ericsson, Cisco Pull US Operators Toward Standalone 5G

Mike Dano

US operators such as T-Mobile and Verizon are taking their first tentative steps toward the "standalone" version of 5G with public tests of the technology. And commercial launches could happen as early as next year.

Most recently, T-Mobile announced it conducted a standalone end-to-end 5G data session with equipment from multiple vendors. "The over-the-air transmission marks a giant leap forward in realizing the true potential of 5G with new services, ultra-low latency, and even greater coverage and capacity than existing networks," the operator crowed in a release.

T-Mobile confirmed to Light Reading its test involved standalone 5G cores from Nokia and Cisco, and that the operator will launch a virtualized, commercial standalone 5G core next year. T-Mobile said it hasn't yet announced the vendor for its standalone 5G core.

T-Mobile's launch timeline for standalone 5G mostly dovetails with that of rival Verizon. The operator recently confirmed it is planning to launch a fully virtualized 5G network core in the next one to two years, a move Verizon said will shift its 5G deployment from a "non-standalone" (NSA) design to the "standalone" design.

Indeed, Verizon recently conducted tests with Ericsson of cloud-native, container-based technology that the operator described as a key part of its move to standalone 5G.

To be clear, the shift to standalone 5G is not exclusive to US operators. For example, Samsung and SK Telecom recently announced their own tests of standalone 5G.

Why this matters
All of today's 5G networks are based on the NSA version of 5G because the "standalone" version of 5G hasn't yet been finalized by the 3GPP, the wireless industry's main standards organization. Standalone 5G is expected to be approved in March 2020, when the 3GPP finishes work on "Release 16."

Today's NSA 5G is viewed as a stepping stone to "true" 5G because NSA 5G uses an LTE core and requires an LTE network as an anchor for the 5G signal. NSA 5G phones must connect to both LTE and 5G simultaneously to work. And NSA 5G mainly just supports faster download speeds.

On the other hand, standalone 5G running in a virtualized setting is expected to support all kinds of bells and whistles, from network slicing to ultra-low latency. T-Mobile, for example, promised standalone 5G will be able to power real-time augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), cloud gaming, smart factories and connected vehicles.

But there's a catch
So when T-Mobile, Verizon and other operators start launching standalone 5G next year, should existing 5G customers expect to see immediate benefits?

Well, no. They'll need to buy new phones first.

"Current 5G devices will only support non-standalone 5G, but devices coming later this year will be capable of supporting standalone 5G when it's deployed next year," T-Mobile explained.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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8/13/2019 | 11:28:16 AM
Re: Partially true but misleading and unrealistic forecast for standards based 5G deployments
For 5G the vendors and wireless nework operators will have to adhere to IMT 2020.  3GPP is one of several organizations that have submitted IMT 2020 RIT/SRIT to ITU-R WP5D for approval. China and South Korea will haave different 5G RITs which were progressed at last months 5D meeting in Brazil. 

3GPP and ITU-R timelinses for IMT 2020:

More importantly, if the IMT 2020 mobile packet core (Stand Alone) is agreed and approved by ITU-R WP5D in late 2020 how could vendors possibly have products out until end of  2020 or early 2021?

Mike Dano
Mike Dano
8/13/2019 | 10:26:40 AM
Re: Partially true but misleading and unrealistic forecast for standards based 5G deployments
Hey! Thanks so much for your comments. 

So, based on my discussions with executives from operators and vendors throughout the years, most wireless network deployments adhere to the releases from the 3GPP.
8/13/2019 | 12:57:33 AM
Partially true but misleading and unrealistic forecast for standards based 5G deployments
This article is partially true, but very misleading:

1.  "3GPP, the wireless industry's main standards organization."

3GPP is not a standards organization which they clearly state on their website.

ITU-R WP 5D is the standards body for IMT 2020 which 3GPP contributes to (mainly via ATIS submissions)

2, If 3GPP release 16 will specify a 5G core (vs NSA- LTE/EPC core) in March 2020, how would it be possible to deploy that until late 2020 when IMT 2020 standard is scheduled for completion?  More likely it will be 2021 before standardized 5G mobile packet cores are deployed.  Note also that 3GPP Release 16 will specify ultra low latency; Release 15 does not.

3.  There are no standards for 5G virtualized RAN, network slicing, network management or security from ITU-R and only functional requirements and reference architectures from ITU-T SGs, which are not implementable.  Hence all of those fuctions, along with roaming, will be proprietary for several years, despite the efforts of various open source consortiums/forums.