5G: A Standalone Future?

Article By : Dan Jones

Standalone 5G is the future of the cellular technology, but don’t expect it to arrive kicking and streaming in 2022.

We’re three years into the 5G era. Swathes of Asia, Europe and North America are covered with the first iteration of 5G mobile, cellular networks.

So far, it’s been underwhelming.

In the U.S., promises of blazing data speeds greater than 4G have largely remained unfulfilled, unless one lives in urban centers or upscale neighborhoods with access to millimeter-wave 5G links. Aside from T-Mobile’s 2.5-GHz network, it appears that mid-band 5G won’t roll out until the middle of next year in the U.S. at the earliest, thanks to the Federal Aviation Administration.

In its latest Speedtest Intelligence analysis for the third quarter, Ookla reports that median download speeds for some of the newest — and most expensive — 5G phones in the U.S. have doubled over 4G maximums.

Source: Ookla (Click on image to enlarge.)

Doubling download speeds to nearly 70 megabits per second sounds impressive, and it is a positive upgrade. Initially, however, carriers promised gigabit 5G speeds, to which, it turns out, nearly no one can connect.

Glimmers of standalone

Globally, initial networks were nearly all non-standalone (NSA) 5G networks, and that remains the case.

T-Mobile became the first carrier in the world to launch standalone 5G in early August 2020. The company says it plans to add capabilities like voice-over-5G, network slicing and multi-user massive manifold antenna arrays to its standalone network.

T-Mobile has also confirmed that it will roll out NR CA (New Radio Carrier Aggregation) on 2.5-GHz standalone 5G for the iPhone 13 by the end of this year. Carrier aggregation combines two or more frequency bands to increase the speed of wireless links. Neville Ray, president of technology at T-Mobile, said more devices will get an NR CA boost in early 2022.

In contrast to standalone, NSA employs a 4G LTE core network to handle data session setup for 5G NR base stations. That means many prized 5G features (lower latency, network slicing) won’t actually be available until standalone 5G is up and running. More on that below.

Cellular population boom

As we enter a new cellular era, 5G coverage is largely calculated by a outdated metric: human population. According to the GSM Association, cellular networks in some form now cover nearly everyone on the globe. As of late September, the trade group reported 94 percent of the world’s population could access a mobile Internet connection.

GSMA asserts that 92 percent of the global population are covered by 3G, although this may change in 2022 as mobile network operators expect to begin closing down 3G networks in parts of Europe and North America. Many in China have already ended 3G services.

Ericsson says 4G LTE covers over 80 percent of the world’s population.

For enterprise 5G applications, however, measuring the percentage of the populace covered by cellular is inaccurate. “Human population coverage isn’t useful for any of the main B2B applications,” said Dean Bubley, founder of Disruptive Analysis. “Nobody lives in an industrial zone of a city, inside the fence along a highway [or] rail track, or at an offshore wind farm – which is where coverage will be needed for many use cases,” Bubley said.

Despite claims by Time magazine Person of the Year Elon Musk and his tech-bro faithful that self-driving Teslas will be cruising down the highway, that scenario isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

There are also flashy presentations on the 5G future of railways. The expectation is that the low latency of 5G networks will enable the reliable delivery of data between trains and networks, eventually leading to more straightforward signaling and better traffic calculation for rolling stock.

Even wind farms are apparently well placed for early 5G adoption, according to IDC.

Meanwhile, there has been a constant drumbeat of vendor support for 5G usage in industry. Large corporations like Volkswagen are launching pilot projects using 5G private networks. It is still, however, early days for enterprise-specific, private 5G networks.

In fact, until standalone 5G starts to roll out, many features promised for autonomous and industrial purposes will not be available. “5G use cases requiring ultra-low latency and much higher capacity will only be feasible with the SA 5G NR and the 3GPP core network architecture for 5G Core,” Ericsson notes.

5G use cases

Basically, 5G user scenarios include futuristic applications like self-driving vehicles, industrial robots and virtual reality. Standalone 5G networks will also enable options such as much-hyped network slicing for enterprise usage, as well as massive IoT — 1 million connected devices per square kilometer – supported by 5G. Other technical details must still be addressed, however, before IoT devices really become commonplace on 5G networks.

There’s usually a gap between promised features and when they actually arrive. Next year will likely be a year of frothy anticipation for standalone 5G, particularly in the U.S., with not much actually happening as far as real networks becoming available.

“5G standalone is starting to accelerate,” said Bubley. “Some existing [mobile operators] are upgrading, and some new 5G networks are jumping straight to SA. I’d expect that to continue in 2022, although the current mass-market 5G networks outside of Japan, South Korea and China will likely take another year.”

In the U.S., apart from T-Mobile, Nokia claims that it will deploy USCellular’s standalone 5G core by the end of 2022. Earlier this year, AT&T said it is still “developing and testing” its standalone core. Verizon announced in July 2020 that it was trialing a 5G standalone core, but few details have emerged.

The Global Mobile Suppliers Association said at least seven operators in five countries have launched public standalone 5G networks. They include China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom as well as T-Mobile and a few others.

Canadian operator Rogers said it commenced its 5G SA rollout in December 2020. SoftBank, meanwhile, started offering 5G SA with its new “Air Terminal 5” device in October, making it the first mobile operator in Japan to do so.

Aside from China and a few select operators elsewhere, 5G SA won’t begin to be commercially available in much of the world until 2023 or later. This means many promised 5G features are at least 12 months away. Only then will they become part of an elusive 5G without training wheels.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

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