5G Standalone vs Non-standalone: Deployment models

Operators are exploring the practicalities of launching a 5G service. From a technology perspective, they must make some key decisions with regards to their 5G roadmap: non-standalone 5G core first or direct to standalone 5G. This decision is informed by a number of factors, such as speed to market, cost, required capabilities. In this article, we explain the difference between the two architectures and bring them to life with some live operator case studies.

The 5G era is upon us

5G, the next generation of mobile connectivity, has been hyped for many years as heralding a quantum leap in wireless network speeds and bandwidth. Many operators globally sense the opportunity that this presents and are eager to explore a route to deploying 5G services. Consumers are using more data hungry applications like 4K live streaming and online gaming. Enterprises are transforming and optimising the way they operate through greater use of IoT, digital twins, AI/ML, and accompanying use cases such as predictive maintenance, and environment condition monitoring. First mover advantage may well be key from an operator perspective to capture market share within these customer groups.

5G Standalone vs Non-standalone

Several operators globally are engaged in acquiring spectrum, network planning and deploying commercially, at scale. However, most operators are in relatively early stages, trialling technology and running PoCs. Many countries, including those in Asia Pacific and Latin America, have yet to auction or allocate spectrum licenses. Operator 5G programme advancement is dependent on three key factors: regulation (whether the regulatory body has made spectrum available), technological readiness and organisational readiness. In planning their 5G strategy, operator technology teams must decide whether to deploy a non-standalone core first for 5G and leverage existing 4G LTE network assets, or move straight to deploying a standalone core (SA). Ultimately, the launch of 5G SA core is a question of “sooner or later” – some key considerations are laid out below:

Standalone

Non-Standalone
Definition
  • 5G network with dedicated equipment and network functions
  • 5G radios coupled with cloud-native, service-based core network functions
  • These network functions are completely virtualised and cloud-native
  • 5G network supported by 4G core infrastructure
  • 5G radios coupled with LTE Evolved Packet Core (EPC)
  • Network functions running on dedicated appliances, in some cases
Pros
  • Full 5G capabilities available (eMBB, URLLC, MMC)
  • New features, functionality and services enabled (e.g. network slicing)
  • More flexible architecture and dynamic linking of network functions
  • Faster roll out – can act as stepping stone as part of the transition to SA deployment
  • Maximise utilisation of existing network assets
  • Lower level of investment required
Cons
  • Higher level of investment required
  • Organisational training required for 5G core and service operation
  • Less flexible architecture
  • Limited incremental 5G functionality 
Example Deployment

DISH

Country: USA 

Launch year: 2021

Primary vendor(s): Nokia

Rationale: Capabilites

Dish decided to leadpfrog NSA as a potential stepping stone to a full standalone 5G network. The cloud-native player is building an Open RAN-based network from scratch, looking to run its service from the public cloud. Over time they are expanding national coverage to offer the broadest possible coverage – target is to increase coverage to 70% by end of 2023.

Deutsche Telekom

Country: Germany

Launch year 2019

Primary vendor(s): Huawei, Ericsson

Rationale: Broad coverage and speed to market

Deutsche Telekom has taken the other approach, opting to leverage their 4G/LTE stack to deliver 5G services. This has allowed them to deliver a service that is perhaps not as fast as pure 5G, but achoeves the purpose of providing broader national coverage to a much larger proportion of the population faster. The evolution to an SA core is also currently underway but the timing will be dependent on the availability of use cases for 5G SA.

The information above is contained in our Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker. The tracker gives a detailed insight on which operators are deploying 5G networks, who they are partnering with, at which part of the technology stack. The table above also draws insight from a short article we published, detailing Tier-1 operator approaches to 5G, including Telefonica, Telia and Vodafone.

As highlighted in the table above, NSA deployments cannot benefit from the full range of capabilities offered by an SA deployment. While NSA deployments build on LTE’s ability to offer enhanced Mobile Broadband, they cannot offer the same bandwidth, low latency or reliability offered by a pure 5G deployment.

However, the decision is not necessarily binary – SA or NSA. NSA can bridge the gap between 4G and fully-fledged 5G. In practice, many operators have started their 5G roll out journey with an NSA deployment, and a view to graduation to a standalone deployment within a few years. This strategy, when employed correctly, accelerates time to market with initial proposition to ensure they attract a good share of the market. Most commonly, the first service deployed is targeted at the consumer mobile market. This allows users to benefit from the enhanced speed, without requiring use cases that strain the network in terms of bandwidth and reliability.

In the coming months and years, operators will continue to drive their 5G programmes forward towards a standalone deployment to simplify their network operations and improve end-customer experience. One of the key standalone features that operators will look to leverage is network slicing. Network slicing will allow operators to create dedicated segments of the network to serve specific customers or use cases, with dedicated SLAs, policy control and quality of service. Each network slice will present an opportunity for operators to monetise their network differently to the current mode of operation. This is likely to be two to three years away for the majority of operators, however.

Looking forward

As 5G programmes accelerate, consumers and enterprises stand to benefit greatly from the enhanced connectivity options on offer. They will be have access to faster, more reliable and secure wireless connectivity than ever before. In some cases (e.g. manufacturing campus locations and smart cities), 5G may be used as a replacement for Wi-Fi or traditional high-capacity wired connectivity. The real challenge for operators will be in navigating the pace of change and in deciding how to transform (technologically and organisationally) to maximise value for themselves and their customers. Time will tell which operators will be able to rise to the challenge.

Author: Patrick Montague-Jones is a Senior Consultant at STL Partners, specialising in a range of topics across the telecommunications value chain

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