We've heard plenty about 3GPP standards-based 5G New Radio (NR) trials, tests and product developments in the past six months since the first set of specifications, for non-standalone (NSA) 5G, were approved in late December 2017. (See 5G Is Official: First 3GPP Specs Approved.)
Actually, we heard about quite a lot of 5G tests and trials even before the standard was hammered out, but there's more meaning and significance to any activity or announcement once there are agreed-upon specifications to adhere to.
Then, just a few weeks ago, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) announced it had finalized specifications for the standalone (SA) variant of 5G, including next-generation core (NGC). This would enable the development of an end-to-end 5G network that, unlike non-standalone 5G networks, wouldn't need a 4G/LTE network for support. (See 3GPP Done With 5G SA Specs. Now the Hard Work Begins.)
With that standards milestone met, we can now expect much more test and trial activity related to next-generation core, as well as ongoing 5G radio access action, as operators seek assurances that 5G is actually something a bit special and search hard for the "killer app." (See Looking for 5G's Killer Apps? Make a Start Here.)
Not that there hasn't been any action around 5G core network testing: Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. has been working hard with China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL) for some time, using draft specifications ahead of the frozen SA standard. Huawei announced the completion of a technical specification test in January this year that "covered service-based architecture (SBA), network slicing, edge computing, 5G standalone networking, and other basic service procedures." (See Huawei Claims 5G Core Test Success at China Mobile.)
And at MWC this year, China Mobile and Huawei demonstrated what they claimed was "the world's first microservice-based 5G core network constructed on top of service-based architecture (SBA)." (Whereas a traditional core network comprises closely integrated functions in a dedicated platform, an SBA refers to cloud-based, loosely coupled, self-contained, reusable functions that can be independently managed and combined as needed using a standard interface. Tricky stuff!)
Now South Korean operator SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) says it has successfully demonstrated a standards-based 5G NGC developed in partnership with Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC). Features include "control and user plane separation, network slicing and virtualized network functions (VNF) deployed on containers, the latest in virtualization technology. This is the first trial of 5G NC [NGC] in the world that implements VNFs based on 3GPP standards-compliant, service-based architecture," the partners boasted. (See SK Telecom, Samsung Demo 5G Next-Generation Core.)
Such capabilities will enable the full potential of 5G to be realized, notes Gabriel Brown, principal analyst for mobile networks and 5G, at Heavy Reading . "Operators will need a 5G core to deliver some advanced 5G services -- end-to-end network slicing is a prime example -- so in that sense this is an encouraging announcement. It shows the industry is moving beyond the RAN to a full 5G system architecture."
But don't get too excited, cautions the analyst. "I'm not sure how much we can read into it commercially. It's an announcement of a lab test. Useful and positive, but not necessarily significant in the market. Samsung used the same kind of playbook with EPC [evolved packet core] in 4G, but hasn't really managed to develop significant market share. You could argue that maybe this time it's different, but it has a lot of work to do, outside its domestic South Korean market, to build the long-term relationships you need to succeed in the core," adds Brown.
— Ray Le Maistre, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading