‘Real’ 5G relies on 5G NR, Standalone architecture: Special Report

U.S. operators currently offer 5G based on the non-standalone (NSA) version of the 5G NR standard, which relies on the LTE core. (Getty Images)

Consumers are starting to see the benefits of 5G. But the really cool 5G? That will presumably come with the deployment of 5G Standalone (SA) networks.

The roadmap to SA 5G deployments will be the subject of a virtual panel on Wednesday, March 25, as part of the FierceWireless 5G Blitz Week.

Some 37% of mobile operators expect to begin deploying 5G SA within the next two years, according to survey results released earlier this month by 5G technology provider Enea. The survey showed that 27% of operators planned to deploy 5G SA within 12-18 months with a further 10% within 24 months.

Most operators, including those in the U.S., chose to launch 5G services using the Non-Standalone (NSA) version of the standard, which uses LTE in the core network and enabled them to get out there faster with 5G. 3GPP defined the 5G SA network in Release 15.

SA as target 5G architecture

With the current COVID-19 crisis affecting everything, it’s hard to say how many operators will change their plans. Still, “we expect 2020 and 2021 to be the start of operators transitioning to it,” said 5G Americas President Chris Pearson. “I would call it the target 5G architecture. It’s the objective or goal 5G architecture.”

The SA version, which does not rely on LTE, allows an operator to address not just enhanced mobile broadband, but massive machine-to-machine communications, or massive IoT, and ultra low latency communications. It also allows for more advanced network slicing activities.

With SA, the operator transitions to both 5G New Radio (NR) and 5G as the core network. “To reach the full potential of 5G and where we want to go as an industry, you’re going to want to transition at some point to New Radio and 5G core network,” Pearson said.

Case by case

Now that the industry has had 5G for a while, the question is how to transition to full SA. “I think how fast the transition will happen is going to depend largely on the spectrum assets that each operator has,” said Alejandro Holcman, senior vice president, Corporate Engineering at Qualcomm Technologies. “It really goes on a case-by-case scenario.”

An operator with a significant amount of lower-band spectrum that can be dedicated to 5G would have an easier time going to SA for coverage reasons. The transition will be a lot easier if the operator doesn’t have to vacate 4G spectrum for 5G; in some cases, operators will be relying on dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), and to be clear, an operator can use DSS with an NSA network as well.

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It’s also not just a matter of flipping a switch; obviously, it’s desirable to have devices ready at launch to use the SA network. Today, a lot of devices already use Qualcomm’s X55 modem, which supports SA, so from a device point of view, an operator could launch SA and already have it supported in commercial devices.

The bigger changes on the device side come next year, when devices using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X60 system are expected to come to market. The X60 can handle the millimeter wave and sub-6 GHz bands on Frequency Division Duplexing (FDD) and Time Division Duplexing (TDD) networks. The system also supports millimeter wave sub-6 GHz carrier aggregation.  

Private networks 

One area of interest for SA relates to private networks and private enterprises. As it stands now, if an enterprise wants to get into 5G, it needs to use NSA, and a lot of enterprises aren’t interested in using both a 4G and 5G system; it increases costs and complexities. If they want 5G for an industrial application, for example a smart factory, the easiest way to get there is to use a SA system when it's available.

China, the United States, Japan and Korea are some of the key countries where at least some SA launches are expected this year.