Orange is planning pan-European trials of 5G as it considers a decision about using the "non-standalone" (NSA) or "standalone" (SA) variants of the next-generation mobile technology, Light Reading has learned.
The French service provider, which has operations in eight European countries, will run pre-commercial trials with customers in various cities, using NSA technology in some and SA in others.
One purpose of the trials, which seem likely to run into next year, will be to help Orange (NYSE: FTE) reach a final decision about using either NSA or SA in the country in question.
With NSA, an operator would use a 5G New Radio in conjunction with a 4G network. The New Radio specifications were frozen at the end of 2018 and technology vendors have been racing to get equipment ready for commercial launch. (See 5G Is Official: First 3GPP Specs Approved and 3GPP Approves Plans to Fast Track 5G NR.)
SA, by contrast, includes a new 5G core and should bring additional functionality for the service providers that use it. Specifications for this variant were finalized as recently as last week. (See 3GPP Done With 5G SA Specs. Now the Hard Work Begins.)
Orange is still undecided about which technology to use and said this could depend on local circumstances. "We are going to test both," said Emmanuel Lugagne Delpon, the senior vice president of Orange Lab Networks, during an interview with Light Reading at last week's 5G World Summit in London.
"There are several Orange cities where we will have pre-commercial trials with final customers and we'll have cities on standalone and cities on non-standalone," he said. "We operate in eight countries and there is room for innovation."
NSA should give Orange a speedier way to address capacity constraints in major European markets. Lugagne Delpon expects NSA-compatible devices to arrive earlier than SA ones and says the easiest way to launch 5G is to roll out NSA with an existing 4G vendor. (See Orange's 5G Plan: Definitely, Maybe.)
In going down this path, an operator would stick with its existing supplier partly because the interfaces used in the radio access network (RAN) are not as "open" as service providers would like, he explains.
Through an organization called the Open RAN Alliance (ORAN Alliance), some of the world's biggest operators, including Orange, are trying to make RAN interfaces more interoperable. That would allow them to mix RAN components from different vendors. "We are pushing to truly open the interfaces," said Lugagne Delpon. (See Major Telcos Pool Efforts to Slash 5G RAN Costs.)
In the absence of openness, equipment vendors are trying to build 4G market share in the expectation this will lead to 5G contracts. Sweden's Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), for instance, has recently landed several deals for baseband equipment that can be "software-upgraded" to support 5G in future, it says. (See Ericsson Beefs Up With Telefónica Argentina as Huawei Goes Hungry, DT Ditches Nokia From Its German Radio Access Network and Ericsson Seals 4G, 5G Deal With Vodafone UK.)
Arun Bansal, the head of Ericsson's business in Europe and Latin America, told Light Reading that operators must currently buy radio gear from their baseband suppliers because the relevant interface is proprietary. (See 5G Is Just a New Lick of Paint, Say Euro Telcos.)
While SA technology seems to promise more scope for service innovation, its introduction looks far more challenging to Lugagne Delpon. "Changing the core will be pretty complex with IT and integration issues," he said.
However, the French operator has also expressed concern that switching from NSA to SA in future could prove difficult. "This is an issue for the whole industry because there are different paths and we haven't yet defined what path we need to select for moving from non-standalone to standalone," he said.
Commenting on recent NSA and SA developments, Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with market research firm Heavy Reading, said various deployment options were on the table for operators planning 5G launches.
"It is clear that a majority of operators will introduce 5G NR [New Radio] in NSA mode, rather than launch in SA mode with a 5GC [5G core], but these are not exclusive options," he said in a comment posted on Light Reading's website. "Some of our latest research at Heavy Reading shows that running NSA and SA modes in parallel is very much under consideration."
Solving the capacity crunch
Despite interest in 5G's ability to support new types of service, many European operators initially see it as a way to cope with soaring usage of mobile data applications by smartphone customers.
Both Orange and Vodafone UK currently expect 5G to be about four times as spectrally efficient as older 4G technology. "We had a lot of doubts about the case for 5G and at the end we basically came back to the basics," said Lugagne Delpon. "It is less costly to deploy based on 5G than on 4G, and that is the first case."
In related 5G developments, Orange was earlier today revealed to be in trials of cloud RAN technology in Poland with Finland's Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK). (See Eurobites: Nokia, Orange Trial Cloud RAN in Poland.)
In a cloud RAN, signal processing is virtualized and run off commodity equipment in a data center, instead of at the radio site. During Orange's trials with Nokia, the radio sites were in the Polish city of Chelm, while the data center was in Lublin, about 70km away. (See Is vRAN Still Too Hot to Handle?)
The move to a cloud RAN is intended to bring automation and efficiency benefits and could receive a boost from the efforts of the ORAN Alliance, according to Lugagne Delpon.
"There are some links between virtualization of the RAN and the opening of the interfaces," he said. "Getting interfaces open would help with that but so far we haven't made our minds up. We are also trialing RAN virtualization to see what kind of efficiency it can bring."
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading