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Non-standalone and Standalone: two standards-based paths to 5G

Head of Product Line 5G Radio Access Network

Tokyo street at night from above building

Head of Product Line 5G Radio Access Network

Head of Product Line 5G Radio Access Network

Who hasn’t heard of 5G? With more than 500 million results on Google search and 5G news inundating the media, this two-character word has now become a household name. But does everyone know there are two types of 5G? Non-standalone (NSA) and standalone (SA) are two 5G tracks that communication service providers can opt for when transitioning from 4G to the next-generation mobile technology. 5G pick-up has accelerated since December 2017 when the global mobile communications standards organization 3GPP released specifications for the non-standalone mode of 5G New Radio (NR) access, and then – six months later – 5G standalone NR. Now, the deployments of 5G standalone (SA) networks has reached 35 service providers having deployed or launched 5G SA in public networks. The most common 5G services launched by service providers for consumers are enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), gaming and some AR/VR-based services. 5G subscriptions are around 1 billion at end of 2022. 5G will become the dominant mobile access technology by subscriptions in 2027.

The first rollout of 5G networks are NSA deployments that focus on enhanced mobile broadband to provide higher data-bandwidth and reliable connectivity. They are in line with the 3GPP specification that early rollouts of 5G networks and devices be brought under NSA operation – meaning, 5G networks will be aided by existing 4G infrastructure. So service providers who want to be first to offer 5G speeds will start with NSA and, once 5G coverage is established, implement standalone 5G.

But industry digitalization is what is going to pave the way for new revenue streams for service providers. And 5G use cases requiring ultra-low latency and much higher capacity will only be feasible with the SA 5G NR and the 3GPP core network architecture for 5G Core (5GC).

This means that there are service providers who prefer to go straight from 4G to standalone 5G, which offers greater possibilities to tap new 5G use cases, especially for enterprises. Together with industry peers who have already deployed NSA 5G, they can start to benefit from the advantages of standalone 5G, which is the eventual architecture of all 5G radio networks.

Two sides of the same coin

There have been discussions on the pros and cons of these two 5G tracks, sometimes to the point of rebuffing one option for the other. But that should not be the case; it is not an “either or” selection between NSA and SA but rather a matter-of-time perspective. It all boils down to the specific business goals and requirements of the service provider.

For service providers who are looking to deliver mainly high-speed connectivity to consumers with 5G-enabled devices already today, NSA mode makes the most sense, because it allows them to leverage their existing network assets rather than deploy a completely new end-to-end 5G network.

However, for those who have their sights set on new services such as smart factories, a straight-up 5G wireless technology that is no longer dependent on an existing 4G network could make more sense. Considered as the ultimate 5G, Standalone NR –  coupled with cloud-native 5G Core – will provide better support for all use cases and unlock the power of the next-generation mobile technology. Thanks to network evolution we’re entering a new era of ultra-fast connectivity, the most rapid response times ever, and a whole host of opportunities for new solutions and services.

Here’s a closer look at the two 5G architecture options in terms of their characteristics and the value they bring…

Non-standalone 5G the facts

  • Be first to launch 5G and gain technology and market leadership
  • Introduce new 5G spectrums to boost capacity and increase delivery efficiency
  • Maximizes the use of the installed LTE base
  • LTE anchor required for control plane communication and mobility management
  • 5G Evolved Packet Core
  • Provides early adopter with 5G-enabled devices
  • Enables video streaming, AR/VR, an immersive media experience
  • Opens up opportunities for new use cases such as Critical IoT

Standalone 5G: the facts

  • Target 5G architecture option 
  • Simplified RAN and device architecture
  • New cloud-native 5G Core
  • Brings ultra-low latency
  • The only option to provide same 5G coverage for low band as legacy system
  • Supports advanced network-slicing functions
  • Facilitates a wider range of use cases for new devices

Given the two 5G deployment options outlined above, the question remains, do we really need standalone 5G if we can move forward on the strength of existing LTE network assets which have served us so well? There’s no doubt that answer is yes. Standalone 5G NR is a key enabler for service providers to develop their offering.

Ericsson’s new SA 5G NR software enables service providers to launch standalone 5G commercially. Combined with our 5G dual-mode Cloud Core solutions, the new 5G NR software, which can be installed on existing Ericsson Radio System hardware, will open up new business opportunities for service providers. With wider deployment options, they can choose the path to 5G that suits them best.

Expanding network coverage – a major challenge

Despite the benefits of standalone 5G, there is one significant challenge involved in its deployment that cannot be underestimated. With limited 5G coverage on the mid-band, providing full 5G coverage may involve building many sites, which is a time-consuming and costly process.

Recognizing that, Ericsson has launched Inter-band NR Carrier Aggregation, a software feature that expands the coverage and capacity of NR on mid- and high bands when combined with NR on low bands. This will improve speeds indoors and in areas with poor coverage.

We’re embracing the challenge with open arms. And with our unique 5G NR software solutions, we’re helping surmount it. Because believe it or not, these latest complements to our 5G platform ensure a smooth, cost-efficient way to expand the 5G network. As long as you have Ericsson Radio System equipment in place, the low band required for deployment can be provided with a software upgrade alone, with no need for any new hardware at all. This is thanks to our innovative Ericsson Spectrum Sharing functionality, which upgrades an existing LTE low-band carrier, to operate NR and LTE simultaneously. Again, with software upgrade only. Who can say better than that?

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