Standalone 5G, or SA 5G, is coming to networks within the next couple years.
SA 5G is the first major update to 5G networks. Unlike many current 5G networks, which are non-standalone (NSA), SA implements a 5G core to manage connectivity, mobility and user authentication, as well as other essential management functions.
Currently deployed NSA networks use a 4G LTE control plane to manage authorization and calls. The existing technology reduces the costs of deploying 5G infrastructure and enables operators to concentrate their efforts on replacing the radio access elements of the network.
What does SA 5G offer compared to initial 5G networks?
5G can't deliver many of its promised features until operators are able to offer pure, unfettered SA networks.
In NSA architecture, 5G networks connect from a 5G radio anchor to a 4G LTE core. The evolution to a truly independent 5G network -- with a 5G New Radio and 5G core -- will lead to much lower latency for SA 5G. For example, T-Mobile, one of the first carriers to deploy SA 5G, has seen benefits with latency. In February 2021, Opensignal reported that "in urban areas, T-Mobile users, on average, experience a 23.8% improvement in latency compared to NSA."
Although 5G vendors and operators have promised this latency improvement since 5G's inception, only SA 5G can deliver it. Low latency can help make devices such as industrial robots and self-driving cars a reality.
SA will also help move 5G private networking beyond the trial stage into major commercial deployments. SA enables network slicing, which facilitates the creation of independent virtualized networks on the same physical hardware.
In time, SA will also permit massive IoT on the network. The 5G core can support up to one million devices within a square kilometer, thousands more than what previous cellular standards could support.
SA operators like T-Mobile are using the technology to increase bandwidth and add features to their 5G networks. On Dec. 13, 2021, T-Mobile's President of Technology Neville Ray said the operator started carrier aggregation, a method that combines two or more bands to increase bandwidth. The iPhone 13 has already implemented carrier aggregation, and more devices will receive it in 2022.
A self-sustained future
The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) completed the initial SA 5G specification in September 2018. T-Mobile deployed its SA 5G network on the 600 MHz band in August 2020, covering as much of the U.S. population as possible.
Now, T-Mobile has started to deploy SA 5G on its 2.5 GHz midband spectrum. According to Opensignal, T-Mobile now delivers average download speeds of 118.7 Mbps across its 5G footprint. In 2021, T-Mobile's average 5G download speeds rose above rivals AT&T and Verizon.
Better download speeds, however, aren't the point of SA. Enterprise-friendly features -- such as lower network latency, expanded device support and multiple connections for different corporate tasks -- are the reason businesses are looking forward to SA.
SA 5G worldwide
The Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) reported that by October 2021, 94 operators in 48 countries were investing in trials or deployments of public SA networks. This represented just over 20% of 496 operators that have invested in 5G licenses, trials or deployments, GSA said.
In Asia, Chinese operators are leading the SA pack. China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom have all launched SA, according to GSA. In July 2021, KT Corp. launched the first commercial SA network in South Korea. In October 2021, SoftBank Corp. became the first Japanese operator to launch an SA network.
Aside from T-Mobile, most of the work on SA 5G in the U.S. has been in the form of tests. In October 2021, AT&T CTO Andre Fuetsch said the operator is still "developing and testing" its 5G core. Nokia Corp. said it expects to complete the rollout of UScellular's SA core by the end of 2022 but has not said when it will launch commercial services on the core.
Verizon completed an SA trial in July 2020. In December 2021, Verizon Senior VP Adam Koeppe said the operator plans to release its SA 5G core sometime in 2022.
The elephant in the room is Dish Network, which is building a greenfield 5G network in the U.S. that will be purely SA. Despite blowing through its 5G deadlines for 2021, Dish has said it will start a commercial 5G service in Las Vegas in 2022. As part of this, Dish will run Nokia's SA core on AWS as the world's first deployment in the public cloud.
Countries such as Australia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa are also working on deploying SA networks.