With the curtain on 5G pulled back in 2019, the pace of 5G deployment is accelerated worldwide. On the one hand, 5G will deliver higher capacity to meet the growing demand for mobile data; on the other hand, the smart internet of everything (IoE) infrastructure with 5G at its core will gradually take shape in the next few years, empowering digital transformation in every industry. Standalone (SA) 5G will play a key role in the digital transformation of industry. A survey published by GSMA at the end of 2019 found that about 70% of operators plan SA launches in three years. While 2019 was the first year of 5G commercialization, 2020 is the first year of 5G SA.
5G SA Empowering Vertical Industries
In recent years, worldwide operators have encountered growth bottlenecks, witnessing a continuous decline in mobile service revenues from consumers with their consumer-related business reaching the ceiling. For operators, 5G’s biggest new growth opportunities may lie in the enterprise verticals rather than the consumer market. The integration of 5G and vertical industries will enable new services and business models beyond imagination. Service innovation across vertical industries has put new requirements on the network infrastructure, such as network slicing, edge computing, ultra-low latency and massive connections, many of which can only be met with 5G SA networks. To date, the ecosystem participants have made a lot exploration on expanding 5G into traditional industries, and we are seeing the emergence of smart city, smart manufacturing, smart transportation, smart education, and other innovative use cases. It has become the industry’s consensus that while the consumer market remains a cornerstone, the enterprise market is the future.
SA Ecosystem Now Ready
For operators who rolled out 5G in 2019, NSA was the only option. By 2020, the SA ecosystem has matured to enable large-scale deployment. In terms of standards, while the 3GPP Release 15 defines 5G NR, 5GC, and opens multiple NSA and SA deployment options, Release 16 frozen this July expands the reach of 5G to vertical industries. Major chipset vendors have released chipsets with 5G SA support, and major smartphone vendors have launched commercial NSA/SA dual-mode smartphones that cover the gamut from low-end to high-end with an entry price well below USD 250. In terms of system equipment, all the leading vendors have released 5G RAN and 5GC products supporting SA. In early 2020, China’s three major operators kicked off large-scale 5G SA deployments in all mainstream 5G frequency bands (3.5 GHz, 2.6 GHz, 2.1 GHz, and 700 MHz soon) by utilizing innovative technologies such as dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) and network sharing. In total, more than 600,000 gNBs will be rolled out, and their 5GC networks will have a capacity of more than 100 million subscribers, further boosting the maturity of the 5G SA ecosystem.
The Path to 5G SA
Depending on their choices of 5G launch time and business strategy, operators can either begin with NSA first, migrate to SA over time, or go straight to 5G SA. For those operators who are planning to launch 5G post-2020, they can go straight to 5G SA to significantly reduce the complexity of network operation and maintenance, minimize future evolution costs, and get involved early in service innovation for vertical industries. Operators who already have launched NSA 5G can migrate smoothly from NSA to SA through NSA/SA dual-mode architecture, ensuring a smooth experience for both existing NSA subscribers and new SA subscribers.
For 5G SA implementation, continuous NR coverage is required. However, the 3.5 GHz (n77/n78) band, due to its propagation characteristics, has difficulties in offering adequate coverage especially in some indoor scenarios. To solve this issue, it is highly recommended to use a FDD low band to provide a coverage layer for 3.5 GHz deployment. ZTE’s FDD assisted super TDD (FAST) solution aggregates those two types of bands while introducing the innovative uplink TDM scheduling to enhance user experience. If operators are not able to use dedicated FDD bands for 5G NR, they can use DSS to deploy 5G and 4G in the same band; however DSS does not address the more challenging yet important scenarios where 2G/4G/5G or 3G/4G/5G dynamic spectrum sharing is required for maximum spectrum utilization. That is why ZTE has developed its SuperDSS solution to better meet operators’ requirements.
SA Practices in China
The Chinese operators have always been the pioneers in 5G SA. At the beginning of 2020, the Chinese government called for faster construction of new infrastructure such as 5G networks, which accelerates the migration to SA 5G. In the first half of 2020, China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom have all completed the second round of their 5G tenders, covering SA core equipment and base stations. From 2020 onwards, all the newly deployed 5G base stations will be either in SA or NSA/SA dual-mode, and those NSA base stations deployed earlier will be gradually upgraded to NSA/SA dual-mode or SA. It is expected that China’s three major operators will launch commercial 5G SA service in the second half of 2020, and for that to succeed, they have made a lot of preparation in collaboration with equipment vendors and industry partners.
In Guangzhou, China Mobile partnered with ZTE to verify the performance difference between SA and NSA. In the same wireless environment of Pearl River New Town, and based on the same set of devices, SA proved to offer better performance than NSA, including 50% improvement in the average uplink data rate, 15% in the average downlink rate, and shorter control plane/user plane latency.
In Fuzhou, China Mobile and ZTE jointly rolled out the world’s first NSA/SA dual-mode network, and verified in detail the performance of various terminals in the dual-mode network.
For the fast commissioning of E2E slices in a multi-vendor environment, China Mobile, together with industry-
leading vendors including ZTE, have developed a two-phase solution, which adopts a simplified architecture in the first phase to enable rapid time-to-market of slicing service, and puts slicing management online in the second phase for automatic deployment.
To improve the coverage of the 3.5 GHz band, China Telecom and China Unicom plan to deploy NR on the 2.1 GHz band with DSS. ZTE and the two operators have verified SuperDSS in the 2.1 GHz band, and FAST solution at 3.5 GHz and 2.1 GHz.
In Chengdu, China Telecom, together with ZTE and leading chipset vendors, have verified the end-to-end interoperability under the SA architecture based on the latest 3GPP standards.
For the vertical industry, the three operators have developed a lot of innovative cases together with industry partners. For example, China Unicom, Tianjin Port and ZTE developed a smart port. China Mobile, Xinfengming Group and ZTE built a smart textile workshop. China Telecom, Baidu and ZTE teamed up on self-driving cars.
As a global leading 5G supplier based in China, ZTE has been committed to promoting China’s 5G SA deployment. ZTE also hopes to expand cooperation with global operators to build the future digital society by virtue of its cutting-edge 5G products and extensive experience in network construction.