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Is the industry ready to ride the wave of innovation with the arrival of 5G standalone (SA) networks? It's not just an evolution; it's a revolution in mobile communication, set to unleash the true power of 5G technology worldwide.

Also Read: What 5G Standalone Can Mean for the Telecom Market?

Recent studies indicate that the Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) regions are spearheading extensive 5G core testing efforts, gearing up for the anticipated rollout of 5G SA networks in 2024. Emerging technologies such as IoT, cloud computing, and drones have begun to demonstrate their transformative power, yet they will rely on the robust nationwide 5G SA infrastructure for massive adoption. Recognizing this need, telcos are intensifying their focus on experimenting with and deploying 5G SA networks.

The envisioned benefits of 5G SA technologies are manifold, facilitated by a novel cloud-based, virtualized, microservices-based core infrastructure. These advantages include enhanced connectivity with reduced latency, multi-device support, and network customization. Crucially, this technological advancement will unlock new revenue streams and service opportunities tailored to the needs of enterprise, industrial, and governmental customers.

Despite initial hurdles, including technical complexities and macroeconomic uncertainties, the 5G SA landscape is rapidly evolving. According to GSA, as of January 2024, 121 operators across 55 countries and territories are actively investing in public 5G SA networks, either through trials or full-scale deployments. This represents a substantial proportion (21%) of the operators engaged in various stages of 5G investment globally.

Looking ahead, industry experts anticipate a resurgence in growth from 2024 to 2025 as 5G standalone networks transition from testing to commercial viability. Beyond mere performance enhancements, this transition is expected to unlock tangible value propositions. Fueled by automation and the extensive adoption of 5G core technology, 2024 is on track to be the year when 5G fully realizes its potential.

Defining SA

As a technological framework, non-standalone 5G (5G NSA) relies on existing LTE networking infrastructure, while its standalone counterpart (5G SA) operates solely on 5G cells for signaling and data transmission, embodying the epitome of true 5G. Its foundation is rooted in a 5G packet core architecture.

To fully realize its potential impact on a global scale, operators worldwide have pioneered the deployment of 5G standalone networks, aiming to seize emerging opportunities. Conceptually, 5G SA offers a more streamlined approach at a systemic level and functions on a service-based architecture to deliver cellular connectivity. Significantly, it has the capability to be virtually divided into distinct segments, each customized to meet various service needs from start to finish.

Aligned with the latest 3GPP standards, the deployment of 5G standalone networks, combined with emerging technologies like cloud computing, network slicing, edge computing, and AI, will unlock a myriad of innovative applications and solutions across various sectors such as manufacturing, healthcare, energy, autonomous vehicles, gaming, and public safety.

In the same way, 5G SA enables Voice over New Radio (VoNR), empowering users to partake in high-definition video calls and seamlessly access bandwidth-intensive services on their mobile. On top of that, the enhanced connectivity offered by Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) presents significant advantages, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

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Three Paths Toward 5G SA Implementation

Ericsson outlines three distinct deployment phases crucial for achieving the complete 5G standalone experience. It's imperative to strategize the timing and approach for each phase based on an operator’s business objectives, network requirements, and technological readiness.

The initial phase involves service providers implementing the 5G NSA architecture as an interim solution en route to full 5G SA architecture. This strategy allows for the rapid activation of 5G services while also keeping LTE as a backup option.

In the second phase, service providers opt for a more direct migration path, transitioning from LTE radio access and evolved packet core (EPC) networks directly to full 5G SA architecture.

Lastly, the third pathway pertains to service providers and enterprises initiating cellular network deployments for the first time, such as public greenfield deployments or private deployments, where dedicated 5G networks are chosen as the primary infrastructure solution.

Emerging Trends in 5G SA Network Development

The transition to fully-fledged 5G standalone (SA) networks has been a formidable journey, but 2024 is set to be the year of acceleration. Mobile operators recognize that unlocking advanced use cases hinges on the deployment of 5G SA cores, prompting a surge in global investments.

Reports tracking the progress of 5G SA have highlighted several trends to monitor in the current year:

  1. Telco Digital Transformation: 5G SA is emerging as a primary catalyst for telco digital transformation initiatives, with significant momentum gained from network lifecycle automation. Approximately 20% of established service providers have initiated the adoption of DevOps and Agile practices.
  2. Multi-Vendor 5G Core Testing: The rise in multi-vendor 5G core testing coincides with accelerated software releases, necessitating lab and test automation to support digital transformation efforts in OSS and lab modernization. The evaluation of advanced 5G core functionalities is expanding to encompass roaming, network data analytics function (NWDAF), and access traffic steering and switching (ATSSS).
  3. 5G SA-Enabled Revenue: The heightened testing of 5G SA-enabled devices will focus on performance and customer experience evaluations for new immersive voice and video services, while the collaborative efforts between service providers and device manufacturers aim to prioritize unlocking revenue opportunities facilitated by 5G SA.
  4. Transport Network Upgrades: In anticipation for multifold increase on 5G traffic growth, leading service providers are embarking on 200/400G refresh cycles for IP core backbones. Moreover, the adoption of 400G is projected to reach critical mass by 2027, offering cost efficiency and reduced energy consumption to align with CapEx and ESG requirements.
  5. Non-Terrestrial Networks for Direct-to-Device 5G: The increase in low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite testing underscores the exploration of direct-to-device (D2D) 5G services, emphasizing performance capabilities and addressing technical and regulatory hurdles.
  6. Rapid ROI from Private Networks: The initial deployments of private networks in the commercial sector are showing promising results within the first six months. This has, in turn, sparked increased enthusiasm for the early Release 17 features, particularly the Reduced Capability (RedCap) functionality.
  7. Power Consumption Optimization: Service providers and network equipment manufacturers (NEMs) are prioritizing testing power consumption and management across various infrastructure stacks under high-volume network function workloads. Promising results suggest potential power savings of 30-40%.

Overall, cloud providers, operators, and NEMs are spearheading 5G SA-based offerings, while the introduction of premium 5G SA services, such as secure network slices, VoNR, and reliable low-latency solutions for industrial applications, underscores the transformative potential of 5G SA networks.

Cloud-Native Operations

Cloud-native operations in 5G standalone enables telecom operators to rapidly test, deploy, and scale new services. Keeping this in mind, it is essential to emphasize collaboration with vendors to integrate new network technologies. This partnership boosts flexibility in current network operations through the integration of proactive monitoring and analytics across RAN, transport, and 5G core networks.

5G Core, which utilizes cloud-native technologies, facilitates cost-efficient upgrades and the deployment of new functionalities without service disruption. This enables service providers to swiftly create and deploy automated, customized connectivity services in hours, enhancing operational efficiency.

The adoption of 5G Core empowers service providers to offer superior network slicing and end-to-end service-level agreements (SLAs), while introducing service exposure and traffic steering functionalities for enhanced service differentiation. Edge computing support further optimizes latency and service reliability, elevating the end-user experience.

Transitioning to cloud-native telco architectures streamlines network lifecycle management, reducing errors and costs. Yet, achieving effective service assurance demands a novel approach, necessitating real-time orchestration and closed-loop network automation tailored for 5G standalone implementations.

Architectural transformation options for evolving to 5G SA include:

  • The rapid deployment of standalone services with virtualized infrastructures, bypassing containerized architectures.
  • The direct adoption of bare metal containerized architectures with dedicated virtualized microservices for each service.
  • The implementation of a balanced blend, facilitating a seamless transition from virtualized to containerized microservices over time.

5G-Powered Automation

Automation, supported by 5G SA networks, facilitates the dynamic integration of partner offers into comprehensive service packages, aligning with the emerging B2B2X business model. This diversified approach adds value and enriches the customer experience.

Furthermore, automation has emerged as a pivotal asset for service providers seeking to leverage the burgeoning IoT market and streamline the orchestration of services throughout their lifecycle. This becomes even more pronounced when combined with the advanced capabilities offered by 5G technology. This enables CSPs to introduce new services gradually or adapt existing ones to changing demands.

Without a doubt, the deployment and operation of 5G Core standalone (SA) networks on a large scale requires investments in IT digital transformation programs. These encompass AIOps (Artificial Intelligence for IT Operations) and automation, which play pivotal roles in enhancing OSS (Operations Support Systems)-driven optimizations and network orchestration.

Looking ahead, 3GPP Release 19 will leverage AI for indoor scenarios. Reconfigurable Intelligent Surfaces (RIS), capable of controlling electromagnetic wave reflections, will be also be introduced alongside 5G SA. RIS redirects and amplifies 5G radio waves to serve urban and industrial areas cost-effectively.

5G SA Milestones

As 5G standalone upgrades gain momentum, users will experience the true capabilities of 5G. Recent highlights underscore the importance and significance of 5G standalone networks (SA), signaling a transformative shift in the telecommunications landscape.

In December 2023, du unveiled its next-generation 5G SA technology. A significant milestone was recently achieved in March 2024, during a trial on du's live network. In this trial, Ericsson and du utilized 10 carriers per sector, achieving an aggregated download speed of up to 16.7 Gbps. This setup employed Ericsson’s 5G SA New Radio-Dual Connectivity (NR-DC) and carrier aggregation (CA), merging eight mmWave carriers with two mid-band carriers. The trial has, in turn, set the stage for enhanced FWA experiences and will create new opportunities for AR/VR and cloud gaming in the UAE.

In 2021, e& UAE announced its 5G SA readiness. Notably, at GITEX Global 2023, e& UAE achieved a record-breaking 13.2 Gbps, showcasing the world's fastest 5G SA speed. Leveraging commercial 5G SA Access Network solutions, this milestone utilized NR-DC and CA to aggregate components from nine carriers.

During Q1 of 2024, another milestone was achieved with the completion of the first intercontinental 5G standalone (SA) roaming connection between operational networks in Europe and the Middle East. This signals the readiness of international 5G SA services. Proximus and stc Kuwait successfully demonstrated seamless roaming, emphasizing the potential for global 5G SA use cases and services.

Related: First Standalone 5G Network in Bahrain Launched

Also Read: Zain Launches KSA’s First 5G Standalone Network

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