5G standalone (SA) core: Why and how telcos should keep going

Major 5G Standalone deployments are experiencing delays…

There is a widespread opinion among telco industry watchers that deployments of the 5G Standalone (SA) core are taking longer than originally expected. It is certainly the case that some of the world’s leading operators, and telco cloud innovators, are taking their time over these deployments, as illustrated below:

  • AT&T: Has no current, publicly announced deadline for launching its 5G SA core, which was originally expected to be deployed in mid-2021.
  • Deutsche Telekom: Launched an SA core in Germany on a trial basis in September 2022, having previously acknowledged that SA was taking longer than originally expected. In Europe, the only other opco that is advancing towards commercial deployment is Magenta Telekom in Austria. In 2021, the company cited various delay factors, such as 5G SA not being technically mature enough to fulfil customers’ expectations (on speed and latency), and a lack of consumer devices supporting 5G SA.
  • Rakuten Mobile: Was expected to launch an SA core co-developed with NEC in 2021. But at the time of writing, this had still not launched.
  • SK Telecom: Was originally expected to launch a Samsung-provided SA core in 2020. However, in November 2021, it was announced that SK Telecom would deploy an Ericsson converged Non-standalone (NSA) / SA core. By the time of writing, this had still not taken place.
  • Telefónica: Has carried out extensive tests and pilots of 5G SA to support different use cases but has no publicly announced timetable for launching the technology commercially.
  • Verizon: Originally planned to launch its SA core at the end of 2021. But this was pushed back to 2022; and recent pronouncements by the company indicate a launch of commercial services over the SA core only in 2023.
  • Vodafone: Has launched SA in Germany only, not in any of its other markets; and even then, nationwide SA coverage is not expected until 2025. An SA core is, however, expected to be launched in Portugal in the near future, although no definite deadline has been announced. A ‘commercial pilot’ in three UK cities, launched in June 2021, had still not resulted in a full commercial deployment by the time of writing.

…but other MNOs are making rapid progress

In contrast to the above catalogue of delay, several other leading operators have made considerable progress with their standalone deployments:

  • DISH: Launched its SA core- and open RAN-based network in the US, operated entirely over the AWS cloud, in May 2022. The initial population coverage of the network was required to be 20%. This is supposed to rise to 70% by June 2023.
  • Orange: Proceeding with a Europe-wide roll-out, with six markets expected to go live with SA cores in 2023.
  • Saudi Telecom Company (STC): Has launched SA services in two international markets, Kuwait (May 2021) and Bahrain (May 2022). Preparations for a launch in Saudi Arabia were ongoing at the time of writing.
  • Telekom Austria Group (A1): Rolling out SA cores across four markets in Central Europe (Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia), although no announcement has been made regarding a similar deployment in its home market of Austria. In June 2022, A1 also carried out a PoC of end-to-end, SA core-enabled network slicing, in partnership with Amdocs.
  • T-Mobile US: Has reportedly migrated all of its mobile broadband traffic over to its SA core, which was launched back in 2020. It also launched one of the world’s first voice-over-New Radio (VoNR) services, run over the SA core, in parts of two cities in June 2022.
  • Zain (Kuwait): Launched SA in Saudi Arabia in February 2022, while a deployment in its home market was ongoing at the time of writing.
  • There are also a number of trials, and prospective and actual deployments, of SA cores over the public cloud in Europe. These are serving the macro network, not edge or private-networking use cases. The most notable examples include Magenta Telekom (Deutsche Telekom’s Austrian subsidiary, partnering with Google Cloud); Swisscom (partnering with AWS); and Working Group Two (wgtwo) – a Cisco and Telenor spin-off – that offers a multi-tenant, cloud-native 5G core delivered to third-party MNOs and MVNOs via the AWS cloud.
  • The three established Chinese MNOs are all making rapid progress with their 5G SA roll-outs, having launched in either 2020 (China Telecom and China Unicom) or 2021 (China Mobile). The country’s newly launched, fourth national player, Broadnet, is also rolling out SA. However, it is not publicly known what share of the country’s reported 848 million-odd 5G subscribers (at March 2022) were connected to SA cores.
  • At least eight other APAC operators had launched 5G SA-based services by July 2022, including KT in South Korea, NTT Docomo and SoftBank in Japan and Smart in the Philippines.

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Many standalone deployments in the offing – but few fixed deadlines

So, 5G standalone deployments are definitely a mixed bag: leading operators in APAC, Europe, the Middle East and North America are deploying and have launched at scale, while other leading players in the same regions have delayed launches, including some of the telcos that have helped drive telco cloud as a whole over the past few years, e.g. AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Rakuten, Telefónica and Vodafone.

In the July 2022 update to our Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker, which contained a ‘deep dive’ on 5G core roll-outs, we presented an optimistic picture of 5G SA deployments. We pointed out that the number of SA and converged NSA / SA cores. We expect to be launched in 2022 outnumbered the total of NSA deployments. However, as illustrated in the figure below, SA and converged NSA/SA cores are still the minority of all 5G cores (29% in total).

We should also point out that some of the SA and converged NSA / SA deployments shown in the figure below are still in progress and some will continue to be so in 2023. In other words, the launch of these core networks has been announced and we have therefore logged them in our tracker, but we expect that the corresponding deployments will be completed in the remainder of 2022 or in 2023, based on a reasonable, typical gap between when the deployments are publicly announced and the time it normally takes to complete them. If, however, more of these predicted deployments are delayed as per the roll-outs of some of leading players listed above, then we will need to revise down our 2022 and 2023 totals.

Global 5G core networks by type, 2018 to 2023

 

Source: STL Partners

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • Major 5G Standalone deployments are experiencing delays
    • …but other MNOs are making rapid progress
    • Many SA deployments in the offing – but few fixed deadlines
  • What is holding up deployments?
    • Mass-market use cases are not yet mature
    • Enterprise use cases exploiting an SA core are not established
    • Business model and ROI uncertainty for 5G SA
    • Uncertainty about the role of hyperscalers
    • Coordination of investments in 5G SA with those in open RAN
    • MNO process and organisation must evolve to exploit 5G SA
  • 5G SA progress will unlock opportunities
    • Build out coverage to improve ‘commodity’ services
    • Be first to roll out 5G SA in the national market
    • For brownfield deployments, incrementally evolve towards SA
    • Greenfield deployments
    • Carefully elaborate deployment models on hyperscale cloud
    • Work through process and organisational change
  • Conclusion: 5G SA will enable transformation

    Related research

    Previous STL Partners reports aligned to this topic include:

  • Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: 5G core deep dive
  • Telco cloud: short-term pain, long-term gain
  • Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: 5G standalone and RAN

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5G network slicing: How to secure the opportunity

Network slicing is central to unlocking the 5G opportunity

There has understandably been a lot of talk and hype about 5G and network slicing in the telecoms industry. It promises to bring greater speeds, lower latency, greater capacity, ultra-reliability, greater flexibility in the network operations and more. It also pledges to support high device densities and to enable new services, new business and operational models as well as new vertical opportunities.

Given that the rollout of 5G networks is expected to involve a significant investment of hundreds of billions of dollars, there is a need to look at how it might address new business opportunities that previous generations of cellular networks could not. Many, including us, have argued that the consumer business case for 5G is limited, and that the enterprise segment is likely to represent the greater opportunity.

One highly anticipated aspect of 5G is that it will be built on virtualised infrastructure. Network functions will run as software in datacentres, rather than on dedicated appliances as in the past. This will mean that operators can deploy and make changes to functions with far greater flexibility than ever before. It also offers the promise of enabling multiple logical end-to-end networks – each intended to meet specific needs – to be “spun-up”, operated and retired as required, over the same shared hardware. Traditionally, achieving such a multi-service outcome would have required building dedicated stand-alone networks, which was rarely a viable proposition.  This capability is the essence of network slicing.

Figure 1: Diagram of network slicing

5G network slicing diagram

Source: STL Partners

This report will explore the concept of network slicing and what it means for enterprise customers. It will have a particular focus on one aspect of network slicing through the enterprise perspective, that being security. The first section will cover how we define network slicing whilst the second will dive into what the enterprise security-related concerns are. We will then assess the implications of these concerns in the third section, before identifying ways that telcos can address these concerns in order to accelerate the adoption of network slicing.

Our findings in this report are informed by a wider STL Partners research programme that STL Partners has conducted with telcos and enterprises across several verticals, including transport, defence, utilities, logistics and smart cities.

Enterprise security concerns with network slicing are rooted in the fear of the new and unknown

Network slicing is inherently complex. Multiple networks being created over common infrastructure, each serving different customers, use cases and devices means that management and orchestration of network slices is something that telcos are still grappling with. It not only represents a change in technology but also a shift in the way that the network lifecycle is managed, which is new and unfamiliar to telcos and their enterprise customers. Current security protocols will not necessarily be equipped to cover many of the new dimensions that network slicing brings. This new shift in the way things work will result in various enterprise security concerns. Changes in the network architecture with slicing, with multiple logical networks each having their own resources and sharing others, also poses questions of how the security architecture needs to evolve in order to address new risks.

Enterprise customers define security as not only about preventing services being compromised by intentional malicious attacks, but also about preventing service degradation or disruption due to unintentional operational or technical failures and/or negligence, unplanned breakdowns etc. Due to the interdependence of slices, even if a fault occurrence happens, it could consume resources in one slice, just like an attack would, which would affect the reliability or lifecycle of other network slices that share the same resources. Regardless of how the performance of a slice gets affected, whether it is by a malicious attack, a natural disaster, a bug or unintentional negligence, the consequences are ultimately the same. These are all, in some way, related to security. Therefore, when considering security, we need to think beyond potential intentional malicious attack but also unintentional negligence and unplanned events.

What if my network slice gets compromised? What if another slice gets compromised? What if another slice is eating up resources?

We outline these three key questions that enterprises have around their security concerns, as potential tenants of network slices, in the body of the report.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
    • Network slicing is central to unlocking the 5G opportunity
    • Dynamic, virtualised, end-to-end networks on shared resource
    • Slicing might come about in different ways
    • Slicing should bring great benefits…
  • Enterprise security concerns with network slicing are rooted in the fear of the new and unknown
    • What if my network slice gets compromised?
    • What if another network slice is compromised?
    • What if another network slice is eating up resources?
  • Security concerns will slow adoption if not addressed early and transparently
    • Concerns and misconceptions can be addressed through better awareness and understanding
    • As a result, enterprises project concerns about public networks’ limitations onto slicing
    • The way that network slicing is designed actually enhances security, and there are additional measures available on top.
  • Telcos must act early and work more closely with customers to drive slicing adoption
    • Ensure that the technology works and that it is secure and robust
    • Organise and align internally on what network slicing is and where it fits internally before addressing enterprise customers
    • Engage in an open dialogue with enterprise customers and directly address any concerns via a ‘hand holding’ approach
    • Don’t wait for maturity to start testing and rolling out pilots to support the transition and learning process
  • Conclusion