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Enterprise 5G deployment options and how to procure them

The two main types of 5G deployment options are standalone and non-standalone. Find out how they're different, how to procure them and some helpful tips for 5G success.

If becoming a 5G enterprise meant investing in radio networks and network slicing, as well as understanding international standards, few enterprises would embrace the journey. Instead, being a 5G enterprise means optimally consuming the 5G services needed to help it take advantage of 5G's benefits over earlier versions of broadband wireless in terms of capacity, mobility and network security.

The applications that justify a 5G network are dependent on what 5G does best, such as those requiring high capacity or use by a large number of users or devices. Enterprises should start their 5G projects by identifying the 5G benefits that apply to them and then reviewing the most likely combinations of benefits and applications to help identify the best 5G deployment option.

Main types of 5G deployment

For almost any wireless technology, enterprises can deploy the new magic in multiple ways. For 5G, deployment options include standalone (SA) and non-standalone (NSA). The differences boil down to cost, complexity and overall performance:

  1. With SA mode, the entire topology in a given cell or area is forklift-upgraded, meaning new 5G core, new edge radio access network (RAN) and 5G New Radio (5G NR) components on a tower. This setup delivers the full promise of high-performance 5G.
  2. The NSA mode, meanwhile, keeps the existing LTE core but replaces the rest of the system, from the edge RAN out to the radios. NSA is less overall work and cost to roll out. NSA amounts to a hybrid methodology of delivering a portion of what 5G has to offer and uses dual connectivity and spectrum sharing. It provides 5G NR coverage, subject to legacy conditions in the "old" core.
Non-standalone 5G vs. standalone 5G
Compare non-standalone 5G architecture with standalone 5G.

Benefits of deploying a 5G architecture

Network capacity is the No. 1 benefit of 5G

This is evident in both the number of users per cell site -- estimated at 1 million devices per square kilometer over 4G's 100,000 devices -- and available bandwidth per user. 5G provides reliable connectivity, even where user density is extremely high, making it ideal for urban areas and large venues, like stadiums or concert halls.

Companies that support a large number of users or IoT devices in a single area might need 5G for its larger user and device capacity per cell. These 5G use cases can include the following:

  • large facilities, like smart buildings or smart campuses;
  • dense industrial sites with a lot of IoT sensors and controllers; and
  • IoT applications used for public safety and transportation.

While Wi-Fi -- particularly, Wi-Fi 6 -- can also provide high device and per-user capacity, it has limitations that 5G doesn't have, so 5G is the strongest option for companies that have to support extremely large gatherings of people or devices.

5G's high capacity is a bit more complicated than it looks on the surface, however. The largest application of mobile networks is connecting smartphones; yet, current smartphones and their business use cases are unlikely to justify deploying the higher capacity that comes with 5G for some period of time. Even watching videos doesn't require 5G, and most businesses use smartphones to access their core applications, not view videos.

5G's higher capacity could be a plus for companies that need reliable broadband to remote locations or to support a home office or ad hoc meetings. A 5G dongle, a 5G-equipped Wi-Fi hub or even a smartphone that acts as a Wi-Fi hotspot can provide more sharable bandwidth than 4G, sometimes even more than available wireline broadband in remote locations. 5G can fully connect businesses everywhere and at all times.

Mobility is the second critical 5G benefit

First and foremost, mobile networks are about mobility. Wi-Fi can support high-capacity connections and many users. But, even with the proper technology selection and network design, Wi-Fi doesn't have the most effective built-in mobility support that successfully transfers sessions from one access point to another, though several technology groups are working to improve that capability through add-on elements.

A large facility that requires multiple Wi-Fi hubs might also need to add 5G coverage for mobile endpoints, whether they are autonomous vehicles or people walking around. Some facilities might even need to track individual products or containers, and the movement of things from one Wi-Fi hub coverage area to another can break sessions in progress. 5G's built-in and standardized mobility management features can sustain those sessions.

The transportation industry will find 5G can track vehicles and their contents worldwide, enabling companies to track where things are at all times, for example. 5G is a perfect fit in situations where goods require special handling -- like constant refrigeration and regular in-transit inspection -- because it supports the status reporting of target assets and helps inspectors or maintenance personnel find them.

Network security is the third 5G benefit to explore

While fully public 5G services will dominate the industry, network slicing gives companies what is essentially a private mobile network -- a kind of universal VPN -- unless enterprises decide to build their own 5G private network. For enterprises worried about IoT network attacks, 5G can ensure the enterprise is the only source of access.

Connections are also sometimes limited in high-density areas, but 5G reduces the risk of blocked connections when a cell is over capacity and can no longer accommodate additional users. 5G also can provide a company with guaranteed private network capacity.

Enterprises that assemble and deploy their own private mobile networks can realize powerful benefits, particularly in highly regulated industries, like finance, government, utilities and healthcare. Security is also the most complex benefit to achieve because how secure a 5G network is and how independent it is of other users and traffic depend on how enterprises procure their 5G services.

Tips for 5G deployment success

As with any network upgrade, enterprises need to consider certain factors that help ensure faster time to success when moving to 5G. For 5G deployment success, follow these tips:

  • Know where existing demand is based on subscriber counts and the need for 5G's low-latency benefits.
  • Consider replacing the oldest legacy equipment before it creates failure points.
  • Identify potential new opportunities as greenfield coverage areas are developed.
  • Try to work 5G into new contracts and enterprise operations.
  • Recognize the most foundational elements that are most easily used for either SA or NSA 5G deployments.
  • Clearly articulate the true value of 5G versus the hype.
  • Don't be caught short by long lead times on equipment.
Enterprises should start with the easiest procurement option and then consider the more difficult options only if they're essential to make the business case.

5G procurement options

It's critical for an organization to match its mission to its technology choices. This means enterprises need to understand what they want from 5G, understand how to obtain 5G services and, above all, ensure 5G services align with how they implement the applications 5G is expected to support.

For example, IoT networks are useless without sensors and applications. 5G enterprises should advance applications and services in tandem to contain 5G costs and risks and ensure elements aren't waiting for advancements at different stages of implementation.

5G procurement options
Enterprises should procure 5G options that align with their service requirements, such as security, capacity and geographic coverage.

Once organizations have planned and prepared their 5G applications, it's time to think about 5G procurement. Enterprises can obtain 5G services via three options, and each affects how enterprises realize the benefits cited above, as well as their cost and complexity. Enterprises should start with the easiest procurement option and then consider the more difficult options only if they're essential to make the business case.

1. Buy public 5G services from a mobile operator

The first way to obtain 5G services is to contract them from a public 5G mobile network operator. In terms of connectivity, this option provides businesses exactly what they have with 4G: the ability to call or be called from anywhere. Public 5G services are great for capacity- and mobility-driven 5G use cases, but being on a public 5G network means enterprises won't realize 5G's security benefits. If an organization is satisfied with application-level security and doesn't need anything more comprehensive, public 5G services are the right choice.

2. Lease a 5G network slice

The second 5G procurement option is to lease a network slice, which is a virtual network within public 5G that isolates organizations from other users and traffic. Network slicing targets the security benefits of 5G, but it also may enable users to tune the specific characteristics of their 5G service and target the latency or delay the mobile connection introduces.

The important point about a network slice is that an operator provides it, which means it is available only within the service area of that operator. Enterprises have to work out how to connect slices provided by multiple operators, either through the operators themselves or using their own tools. If organizations want broader geographic coverage, they need to decide whether their network slices connect in any way to the public network.

3. Build a 5G network

The third way to obtain 5G services is for an organization to build its own 5G network. This means it must obtain radio frequency spectrum, procure antennas and transceivers, and deploy the various elements of 5G infrastructure. The largest users with the most critical need for service quality and security can consider this option. Building a 5G network is neither cheap nor easy, but enterprises that can justify it will find it's the ultimate path to becoming a 5G enterprise.

Whatever an organization's 5G justification and whatever service option it takes to the procurement phase, the path to becoming a 5G enterprise involves many other players, including infrastructure providers, public cloud 5G hosts, 5G telecom vendors and mobile operators that can provide network slices.

This was last published in April 2022

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