Standalone 5G vs. Non-Standalone 5G

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Forging the 5G future

Standalone 5G brings faster, more reliable, and vastly more capable telecommunications than ever before. But it also presents logistical, financial, and operational challenges for network operators who have to invest a massive amount of time and treasure upgrading infrastructure and organizations to bring 5G to life. 

To help manage the migration of cellular networks from LTE to the 5G New Radio standard, the 3GPP codified two deployment modes for 5G networks: Non-Standalone Architecture (NSA) and Standalone Architecture (SA). NSA 5G leverages existing networking infrastructure, while SA 5G modernizes core network infrastructure to suit the myriad needs of enterprise.  

Non-Standalone 5G

The initial rollouts of 5G networks provide customers with higher data transfer speeds by pairing a 5G Radio Access Network (RAN) with the LTE Evolved Packet Core (EPC). Because the 5G RAN remains reliant on the 4G core network to manage control and signaling information and the 4G RAN continues to operate, this is called a Non-Standalone Architecture.

By leveraging the existing infrastructure of a 4G network, carriers are able to provide faster and more reliable Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) without completely reworking their core network technology and pushing customers to new devices. Non-Standalone 5G provides a transitionary platform for carriers and customers alike.

Standalone 5G

Standalone 5G does not depend on an LTE EPC to operate. Rather, it pairs 5G radios with a cloud-native 5G core network. The 5G core itself is designed as a Service Based Architecture (SBA) which virtualizes network functions altogether, providing the full range of 5G features enterprise needs for factory automation, autonomous vehicle operation, and more.

Or as Ericsson says, “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).”

Comparing Standalone 5G and Non-Standalone 5G 

NSA 5G is a necessary step in the global transition to 5G. Since 2019 it’s been how most of the world has experienced 5G on their devices. Global 5G connections are forecast to reach 1.8 billion by 2025, according to GSMA, largely based on the successful implementation of NSA 5G.

NSA 5G helps network operators maximize their existing LTE infrastructure while providing enterprise and users with faster and more reliable communications than ever before, thanks to 5G’s eMBB. But eMBB only scratches the surface of 5G’s promise. 

The SA 5G core architecture enables a host of new features and functionality beyond more bandwidth. These include Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLCC), a key feature for applications requiring near-real time responsiveness–things like autonomous driving vehicles, precision robotics, and machine vision. Massive IoT, with specialized machine to machine communication protocols is also a key feature associated with Standalone 5G. 

To deliver the combination of URLLC and massive IoT to enterprise customers, operators need Standalone 5G because it opens up the ability to slice the network into customized virtual pieces that can be tailored for the specific needs of particular businesses while maximizing its own operational efficiency. 

Singaporean telco Singtel is one such case study. After bringing online a 5G SA network earlier this year it has unveiled new use cases for 5G SA in a pandemic economy, including entertainment options like remote-controlled car racing, 4K live streaming from the S.E.A. Aquarium, and telepresence for arts and cultural experiences while maintaining appropriate safe distancing measures. Standalone 5G paved the way for this sort of agile transformation.

About Author

Peter is a Technology Editor for RCR Wireless News whose coverage areas include hyperscalers, telco cloud, edge computing, and data centers. Before joining RCR, Peter was a freelance writer with a background in tech journalism. He worked as a senior editor for Macworld magazine, editor at iMore.com and has contributed to many other tech publications. He and his family live in Massachusetts.

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