T-Mobile launches nationwide 5G standalone network

T-Mobile
T-Mobile used drones to light up the sky in Lisbon, North Dakota, to let people in the small town know that "5G is here." (T-Mobile)

Nothing says “nationwide” coverage like launching your 5G in a town like Lisbon, North Dakota, population of about 2,000. That’s where T-Mobile staged a drone show on Sunday night to let folks know its standalone (SA) version of 5G is available nationwide.

To be precise, T-Mobile said its SA deployment expands its 5G footprint to 1.3 million square miles, an expansion of about 30% compared to what it had with NSA by itself, and its 5G is now in more than 7,500 cites and towns across the country. The SA version initially is using its 600 MHz spectrum.

“Standalone 5G really is the future of wireless connectivity,” said Karri Kuoppamaki, vice president of Technology Development and Strategy at T-Mobile, who noted that SA is what enables the more transformative 5G capabilities like self-driving vehicles, super-charged IoT and real-time translation.

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So far, all the incumbent U.S. operators started offering 5G by using the non-standalone (NSA) version of the 3GPP specification and they’re moving to the SA version. The NSA version relies on LTE as an anchor; the SA version does not. Dish Network, which was set up as a fourth facilities-based carrier via the government’s approval of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, is pursuing a SA 5G network as it has no LTE.

While all the operators are moving to the SA version, T-Mobile claims the title as the first operator in the world to launch a commercial nationwide standalone 5G network.

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“They’re the first in the world and they will have tangible 5G coverage advantages,” said Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics. From a consumer perspective, “their 5G will reach a lot more places and into a lot more buildings. The most apparent thing is they will have a 5G signal in more places because they are no longer relying on the 4G core for signaling.”

The latency advantage

Lower latency is often cited as an advantage in the SA version, which also enables more advanced network slicing. But Kuoppamaki said latency is not a fixed number.

Often times 5G is associated with latency of less than 1 millisecond. However, that applies only to the air interface latency; there’s also the transport, core network and internet latency that need to be added on top of that to get to your overall end-to-end latency, he said.

“It’s not like it’s going to be X or Y. There’s going to be a range. It depends on where you are,” and the things going on around you. “It is a significant improvement to where we are today,” when the latency ranges may be in the 20-30 millisecond range, so “this is going to bring it down significantly from there.”

T-Mobile engineers already have seen up to a 40% improvement in latency during testing, he said, and that’s just the beginning of what can be done with SA 5G. The SA architecture is the foundation for edge computing and network slicing; it has the flexibility to accommodate many different deployments.

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As to why the emphasis on the small towns like Lisbon, Kuoppamaki said: “It really boils down to us firmly believing and standing behind 5G for all… We’ve worked very hard to bring the best 5G experience to our customers everywhere and SA gives us the ability to significantly expand our 5G footprint in those areas.” 

Devices will need a software upgrade to take advantage of the SA version; the first devices on the T-Mobile network to support SA are the OnePlus 8 and Samsung Galaxy S20 series; eventually the software will be made available for other 5G devices. There’s no word on when the first Apple SA-based iPhone will be available.

RELATED: Editor’s Corner: New T-Mobile poised to take 5G network crown

It wasn’t that long ago that T-Mobile was the carrier with the worst coverage and Verizon and AT&T led on that front, but the “un-carrier” pointed out in its press release today that those were “the good old days,” and times have changed. “It’s a new era in wireless, and T-Mobile holds the 5G coverage crown,” the operator crowed, saying its 5G network is more than two times bigger than AT&T’s and more than 10,000 times bigger than Verizon’s.

A lot of the whiz-bang applications for 5G are tied to the SA version. While a lot of the use cases don’t yet exist, Kuoppamaki pointed out that if developers don’t have a network on which to test, there’s no point. Now with a nationwide network, T-Mobile is able to host startups and others working on the next big idea, whether that’s an Uber for 5G or something else unimagined.

T-Mobile previously has said it’s working with Cisco, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, OnePlus and Qualcomm as partners on its path to deploying SA 5G. On the core network side, virtualization and containerization go hand in hand with that; T-Mobile’s vendors in the core space are Nokia and Cisco, according to Kuoppamaki. As for the radio infrastructure, Ericsson and Nokia are supplying that.

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