Vodafone turns on standalone 5G network in Germany

Vodafone Germany CEO said the operator is the first in Europe to take off the so-called LTE training wheels of its 5G network, launching standalone (SA) 5G on Monday with vendor partner Ericsson.

All mobile radio sites in the 3.5 GHz range were switched over and now connect to an independent 5G core network, no longer relying on LTE. That includes 1,000 antennas in 170 cities and municipalities, according to Vodafone.

Large cities like Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich and Düsseldorf, are on the list, as well as smaller locations Magdeburg, Solingen, Bremen and Mainz. By the end of 2021, the mobile operator plans to up the number of radios connected to 5G standalone in Germany to around 4,000 – which calls for additional spectrum bands.

“We are clearing the way for real-time connectivity. 5G is standing on its own two feet in Germany for the first time,” said Hannes Ametsreiter, Vodafone Germany CEO, in a statement. “We are the first network operator to put aside the LTE support wheels for 5G – not for internal tests, but for our customers, who can experience real-time connections.”

It’s the first standalone 5G deployment of this scale in Europe, according to Ericsson. T-Mobile in the U.S. claimed the first large scale SA 5G deployment, with its nationwide launch in 2020.

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Vodafone used Ericsson’s 5G radio system gear, along with its Cloud Core for the SA 5G network.

The partners also converted a Frankfurt data center to 5G for cloud data processing closer to the customer. Two more are planned, located in Berlin and Munich, and expanding to a total of ten 5G data centers by 2023.

Vodafone launched 5G in Germany in 2019. In moving beyond non-standalone (NSA) 5G, which is what most carriers have used for initial 5G rollouts, Vodafone cited a variety of performance improvements.

That includes connecting about ten-times as many people and machines per square kilometer (up to 1 million) simultaneously, compared to NSA 5G. Moving to standalone is also key for network slicing, a technique operators are looking at to drive new revenue models by allocating parts of the network to different users or customers.

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Faster speeds will also come from SA, with Vodafone expecting 700 Mbps early on and gradually increasing to more than 1 Gbps in coming months. The operator also said it’s doubling its achievable upload bandwidths with standalone 5G. Signal reach and improved energy consumption are part of the picture, it said, pointing to a 20% increase in 5G station range and a nearly 20% drop in power consumption on mobile devices.

Smartphone energy consumption also benefits from SA 5G because devices no longer need to use resources connecting to both 5G and LTE at the same time. 

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The first SA-ready smartphone from Vodafone is the Oppo Find X3 Pro, which uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G Mobile Platform and is set to automatically get a final firmware update this month for SA support. Samsung’s Galaxy S21 5G series should be supported on Vodafone’s SA network as early as May with its own firmware update.

Low-latency is another benefit it expects to reap from SA 5G, decreasing the round-trip time to between 10-15 milliseconds, compared to 35ms in NSA 5G.

Vodafone started integration work for its standalone 5G network after an initial successful test call last November.

“Test calls under laboratory conditions are important to us as network experts, but they still do not help our customers in everyday life,” said Vodafone technology chief Gerhard Mack in a statement.