In a slow race to launch standalone 5G, T-Mobile stands alone for now
The 5G service that most Americans experience can feel a lot more like 4.5G, and not just because of the limited speed improvements delivered on the lowband service that almost always constitutes the 5G experience at AT&T and Verizon.
Those two carriers also have yet to deploy standalone 5G, leaving their 5G offerings – even on much faster but exceptionally scarce millimeter-wave frequencies – operating on a 4G core. T-Mobile, meanwhile, followed up its lead on midband 5G by launching standalone (SA) 5G last August.
T-Mobile's SA 5G itself still falls short of the full potential of that upgrade – its own announcement called that debut "just the beginning of what can be done with standalone 5G," with further speed improvements and the eventual launch of network slicing further off.
"The light version of 5G standalone," summed up analyst Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics.
But that beats the pace at AT&T and Verizon, which he suggested might only light up their own standalone service at the end of the year.
Anshel Sag, senior analyst for mobility, 5G and extended reality at Moor Insights & Strategy, offered a later forecast for their standalone deployments.
"I think the issue is that they've both dragged their feet on deploying SA and haven't seen the value of having it before C-band," he wrote in an email, pointing to AT&T and Verizon's pending deployment of midband 5G using their new C-band spectrum licenses. "Now I believe we might see a phased rollout that could happen throughout 2022 and 2023 as they both build out their new midband coverage."
T-Mobile forges ahead
For T-Mobile, the immediate incentive and upside to deploy SA 5G was making its midband 2.5GHz 5G more relevant, Entner said. As in, keeping its lowband 600MHz 5G non-standalone as the pilot signal would lead to fewer phone screens lighting up with its midband 5G, especially indoors.
"Now that 2.5GHz signal can piggyback on the 600 pilot," he said. "With that, they get better penetration in the building with 2.5."
Karri Kuoppamaki, SVP of radio network technology and strategy at T-Mobile, said that "the vast majority" of the carrier's 5G customers had SA-ready SIMs, but he didn't offer more specifics about the state of its standalone deployment.
Those customers may not necessarily realize they've gotten anything special from SA 5G at T-Mobile, but that may not matter either, given the superiority of the carrier's midband 5G.
"Standalone 5G is a means to an end," emailed Craig Moffett, analyst with MoffettNathanson. "Ultimately, what matters is network capability. Being first gives T-Mobile just one more edge in network performance."
Avi Greengart, founder and lead analyst at Techsponential, concurred.
"For now, smartphone buyers should focus on finding the best combination of speed and coverage that is available in their area," he said in an email. "That is often T-Mobile's 5G network, but the technical underpinnings are somewhat less important to average consumers than the amount and frequency of the spectrum that T-Mobile has to deploy thanks to its acquisition of Sprint."
Neither mentioned a less-obvious advantage of standalone 5G: better security.
AT&T and Verizon: on hold
T-Mobile's two chief rivals weren't exactly promising an aggressive rollout last summer, but the pace seems to have slowed even further.
AT&T has remained quiet about its plans since Light Reading senior editor Jeff Baumgartner quizzed Gordon Mansfield, the carrier's vice president of converged access and device technology, in a video interview at the Big 5G Event in Denver.
"We're making great progress with our standalone core," Mansfield said. "We're really waiting for our ecosystem."
Adding that "there's a lot of moving parts," he suggested that 2021 would be a realistic time frame. "Next year is really when the maturity will start to show up."
AT&T spokesperson Tiffany Heikkila said in an email that the company had no news beyond Mansfield's comments on timing for a standalone launch.
Verizon, meanwhile, announced its first trials of standalone 5G in July of 2020 but has yet to ship that for consumers.
"Our timeline has not changed," emailed spokesperson Karen Schulz. "We currently have traffic running on our 5G SA core and will continue to align its larger rollout with the ecosystem advancements in applications and solutions that will eventually require the advanced capabilities a standalone core will enable."
Sag wrote that he expects both AT&T and Verizon's standalone 5G will have to wait for sufficient midband coverage.
"I believe that we may see both AT&T and Verizon deploy standalone once they believe they've covered enough of their customers to offer SA as an added benefit," he wrote. "I believe that this approach is a mistake, but I can understand that AT&T and Verizon have limited budgets on capital spending."
Entner, meanwhile, suggested that both carriers stand to exceed customer expectations by launching standalone alongside C-band: "People will be very surprised at how good the coverage is with C-band."
Standout standalone? Stay tuned
At all three carriers, the long-term payoff of standalone 5G – the ability to offer mobile-edge-computing services on network slices, plus significantly lower latencies – will await the deployment of full-fledged standalone 5G network cores.
"If you do a fully fledged standalone, the latency will be able to come down below 10 milliseconds," Entner said. "With that, a whole lot of applications open up."
He cited one use case in particular, nausea-free augmented and virtual reality, where standalone 5G would be a prerequisite for Apple entering that market. "Apple will not sell you something that will make you throw up," he said.
"That's the upside for the carriers," Entner continued: "It's laying the foundation for these next-generation business models to be developed."
Sag warned that a slow walk of complete standalone-5G support could trip up customer adoption at some level: "I do believe that the lack of SA will make it harder for application developers to launch new services that take advantage of SA's lower latency and network slicing capabilities and could hurt consumers as they wait for 5G applications that take advantage of 5G's promised capabilities."
But, he wrote in the next paragraph, we'll probably wait for full-stack standalone 5G anyway: "Long term, I believe we probably won't see all carriers having full SA capabilities with network slicing, edge computing, and ultra-low latencies probably until 2023 at the very earliest, possibly even 2024 based on how things are currently going."
— Rob Pegoraro, special to Light Reading. Follow him @robpegoraro.