This is the year when standalone 5G (5G SA) goes mainstream and finally unlocks many of the enterprise features that hypers of the 5G cellular network standard have been promising since 2019. In fact, Deloitte Global expects the number of mobile network operators investing in 5G SA networks via trials, planned deployments or rollouts to grow from more than 100 operators in 2022 to at least 200 by the end of this year.
From cloud-native architecture to network slicing, much of the good stuff promised by 5G only arrives when the networks are able to run 5G SA. This is important not just for business users of these services, but also for the operators who are looking to simplify their network operations and monetize their investments in 5G network architecture.
“The [standalone] 5G Core is designed to take MNOs [mobile network operators] into the modern cloud era,” Dave Bolan, a research director at Dell’Oro Group, wrote in a recent white paper. With the 5G Core cloud-native, service-based architecture, MNOs can now operate at web scale comparable to hyperscale cloud providers, he wrote.
Bolan reasoned that operators will be able to offer new services, such as network slicing, on demand, adding that 5G cloud software is deployable over bare metal, virtual machines, private cloud and public cloud infrastructure.
5G SA spruce-up
Operators still will need to spruce up the back ends of their networks to deliver the low latency and network slicing capabilities that enterprises demand.
Most commercial 5G networks running today still use a 5G radio access network (RAN) that operates on a 4G LTE core. Aside from operators in China and Japan, Dish Wireless and T-Mobile in the United States, and Vodafone in Germany and the United Kingdom, most mobile carriers are still just dipping their toes into 5G SA waters.
While Deloitte says 2022 saw close to 100 operators investing in 5G SA, the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) said in November that only 35 MNOs worldwide are testing or have launched 5G SA. Dell'Oro mapped out the details in the chart below.
“That will change pretty significantly [in 2023],” predicted Glen Hunt, principal analyst of transport and routing infrastructure at GlobalData, in an interview with Silverlinings. He noted that many operators will need to update their backhaul networks as they are switching from a 4G core to a 5G SA network.
"If they're updating, and they're planning to support 5G-Advanced services, like at the edge, where you need low latency and higher performance, then there's probably some significant changes they have to make in terms of the capacity of the platforms and the ability to institute pretty exacting timing," he said.
In the U.S., T-Mobile has been the early mover on 5G SA. It rolled out 5G SA on its nationwide 600MHz 5G network in August 2020, started to launch voice-over-new-radio calling on the network last June and lit up 5G SA on its faster, 2.5GHz mid-band 5G network in November.
Moving to 5G SA required software updates to both the RAN and core networks, according to T-Mobile. A spokesperson for the carrier said there is “a lot of interest in network slicing for enterprise applications,” but noted it hasn’t yet made any announcements.
In December, T-Mobile worked with Cisco to move both 5G SA and LTE 4G traffic to a new distributed, cloud-native, converged core gateway. A converged core gateway connects a 4G LTE evolved packet core to a 5G Core network. The move to the cloud-native core has led to a more than 10% improvement in latency and speed, according to T-Mobile
5G SA standings
T-Mobile is ahead of its U.S. rivals in moving to 5G SA and a converged core. Verizon and AT&T have been coy about 5G SA. In October, Verizon said it had started to move customer traffic onto its 5G SA network without adding further details. AT&T has begun to gradually migrate customers to 5G SA and will continue into this year.
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