Building 5G – what is your best path to the future?
The number of 5G networks worldwide is growing exponentially, and the highest penetration at the moment is in North America, Europe, India and the Far East, indicating that there is an enormous potential for communications service providers (CSPs) in other regions to watch and learn before quickly catching up.
How they do so will depend on a number of factors, and one of the most important is how quickly they want to move from an existing LTE infrastructure to a fully-fledged standalone 5G network.
The current 5G landscape
At the time of writing, Ericsson is live with 5G in more than 60 countries, powering near 150 commercial live networks across five continents. This includes multiple service providers in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and North America. Of these, Ericsson is also supporting 25 standalone commercial public networks.
There are different ways to introduce 5G and at Ericsson, we have divided CSPs into four alternatives, based on where they are along the road of their 5G deployment.
- Alternative 1 - CSPs that have made the move from LTE to non-standalone (NSA) infrastructure
- Alternative 2 - CSPs who moved first to NSA and then on to standalone (SA) and are running a combination of both. They will move to Alternative 3 since this is the target architecture, where the network will be less complex
- Alternative 3 – CSPs who have progressed from Alternative 2 and those who skipped NSA completely and went directly to SA
- Alternative 4 – CSPs who are starting from scratch and going directly to a standalone infrastructure, for example, new greenfield operators or private network deployment for any industry.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alternative 1 is currently the biggest and features CSPs who have deployed 5G on top of LTE infrastructures. This is a path that is open to those who have previously deployed NSA with LTE dependencies, but there are major benefits to be had from moving into Alternative 2 or even directly to Alternative 3 and a standalone 5G infrastructure.
5G deployment alternatives
No matter how CSPs get there, the industry consensus is that if they want to unlock the full potential of 5G and realize the business opportunities it offers, the target architecture is undoubtedly standalone.
For many of the CSPs who wanted to get 5G up and running as quickly as possible, keeping LTE and adding an NSA infrastructure on top was the only option, and that put them into Alternative 1 - when they began their journey there was no standalone solution in place, so they had no choice but to go down the NSA route. It also offered them the ability to use the LTE as a fallback.
But for those coming after the first wave of CSPs into the 5G space, the landscape has changed – standalone networks have been tried and tested and are now in place, and the ecosystem is up and running. This has enabled some operators such as Jio in India to move directly to SA.
There are also examples of countries making large-scale deployments of SA, offering nationwide coverage, and there is an increasing interest in seeing how such architecture work in the real world as governments and operators consider how to invest for the future.
Ericsson supports all advanced standalone markets
The best path to 5G standalone
There is an understandable desire among operators who have previously invested in LTE networks to maximize the return on that investment, and that in turn makes a move to NSA infrastructure attractive to them.
In 5Gs infancy it was an almost foolproof move – operators were able to use their existing LTE spectrum and aggregate it with new mid-band TDD spectrum, to get higher peak throughputs.
When standalone then came on the scene, the challenge was to close the gap between NSA throughput and SA throughput, as NSA was offering higher throughputs than SA. Understandably, the early adopters were in no rush to move to SA and the possibility of lower throughputs, but time has shown this fear to be unfounded.
At the same time, throughput is only one factor that goes into the calculations deciding the best route to take – and regardless of throughput, standalone also offers higher efficiency, better spectrum utilization, more reliable connectivity and lower latency than the NSA network.
Standalone unlocks more use cases for consumers and enterprises. 5G SA will also speed up network slicing opportunities for multiple customer segments, offering an infrastructure for businesses to enable solutions such as smart manufacturing and IoT-driven innovation, while giving consumers a better and more consistent service experience. It is a big step forward for communications service providers, as it enables a more flexible approach to service creation and provision for subscribers.
Why 5G standalone
Unique benefits vs. non-standalone
The question then becomes one of timing – when is the right time to move to standalone?
The potential of 5G - unlocked
Standalone will be key in terms of unlocking the full potential of 5G by enabling superior performance, service differentiation and a wide variety of new ways and processes for doing business.
When it comes to 5G standalone networks, mid-band time division duplex (TDD) deployments with continuous coverage are important for delivering a consistent user experience that enables the new differentiated service offerings enabled by SA architecture.
With its higher bandwidth and capacity compared to FDD, the 5G mid-band TDD is often described as the sweet spot for 5G deployments. There is the issue of uplink coverage being more limited, but this can be overcome by using carrier aggregation to increase the overall mid-band downlink cell coverage and offer access to more users.
The promise of 5G is better and higher speed services compared to 4G, and it is solely through mid-band TDD that such a promise can be kept.
When it comes to the deployment itself, it is often advisable to take a segmented approach, starting with the highest-value geographical areas and then working through the rest. For instance, it may be that a particular fast-growing region has an urgent need for a standalone 5G network that supports Industry 4.0, and in time there will be greater residential development where consumers will be looking to stream entertainment and play games online.
In that case it would make the most sense to cater for the industrial segment first as that is where the greatest immediate potential is, followed by the more consumer-oriented segment.
By rolling out 5G standalone segment by segment and zone by zone in this well-founded and planned manner, we can guarantee homogenous 5G coverage and session continuity, addressing the business potential of 5G with full standalone coverage and nationwide use cases and allowing for rapid growth in both traffic and revenues.
Needless to say, virtually all of the development efforts in the industry at the moment are devoted to developing SA capabilities, and Ericsson already has key functionalities in place to cater for and support these developments.
Key benefits of standalone
Standalone offers a number of key benefits over LTE and NSA infrastructures, and many of them are at the heart of the business value of 5G for both CSPs and their customers.
One advantage is the deployment of 5G in areas where there was previously no LTE coverage, bringing in everything from hard-to-connect indoor spaces to remote rural areas into the network. Moving to SA also allows for rapid migration from 4G to 5G, offloading from the LTE network and simplifying operations.
Two of the biggest advantages in moving directly to standalone are to be found in the future – one is that energy efficiency is much better, leading to reduced costs and a more sustainable network, and the other is that the infrastructure is future proof for the next wave of 5G capabilities, giving peace of mind to CSPs considering investing.
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