Standalone 5G New Radio specification tracking for June release

Operators in the U.S. including Verizon and AT&T are promising commercial services based on the non-standalone 5G New Radio (NR) specification, adopted in December 2017 by 3GPP, later this year. These services will use the LTE radio access and core network, with the addition of a 5G carrier, to deliver enhanced mobile broadband. The idea is that operators can leverage massive investments in LTE networks to rapidly commercialize 5G. The standalone variant of the 5G specification is exactly what it sounds like–a new network that will operate in tandem with an LTE network. As such, a standalone 5G network will require new base stations, new backhaul mechanisms and a new core network.

At a recent meeting with media and analysts, Qualcomm executives discussed the comparative market dynamics around standalone versus non-standalone 5G. SVP and GM of 4G/5G and Industrial IoT Serge Willenegger said standalone 5G “has a lot to do with the mix of vendors and the lifecycle of the core network for a particular operator. It also relates to the type of spectrum the operator has.” Strategic business model and time-to-market are also considerations, he said.

So, if an operator is really anxious to commercialize 5G, they’ll move on deploying non-standalone. To the spectrum piece, “If your spectrum is very high band, either millimeter wave only or high-band in the sub-6, let’s say 5 GHz or 4.5 GHz and up, spectrum, it’s very hard to think about the standalone model because that implies that coverage would be kind of hard to achieve.”

Willenegger continued: “Then it gets into sort of what’s the lifecycle of your network? Do you have a mix of 10 different vendors supporting your core network? By and large, we’re seeing everyone going NSA with intent to go SA with more or less shorter or longer period of time. The one exception, and it’s a big one, is China, where there’s a big appetite for standalone. They would prefer to have this sort of clean sheet approach to have sort of a reset on that core network infrastructure.”


OK, so why is China so keen on standalone 5G NR networks? GSMA Intelligence explored the issue in a report titled “5G in China: Outlook and regional comparisons.”

According to the report authors, LTE still has a lot of “headroom” to grow and provide the increased capacity needed to meet prevalent consumer use cases, particularly high-quality video streaming. China has also rapidly reached a high-level of LTE penetration based on massive network investments and the declining price point of compatible smart phones.

According to the report authors, “Operators in China are more inclined to adopt the standalone route from the beginning, with 5G and LTE co-existing for a considerable period of time. There is general consensus that initial 5G rollouts will target increased speeds to consumers in dense urban areas – so-called enhanced mobile broadband. This is a logical extension of current efforts to augment LTE speeds through carrier aggregation (increases bandwidth capacity) and network optimization techniques, such as massive MIMO and 256 QAM…In short, for personal use cases that only require faster bit rates such as video and even high-definition 4K TV, there is currently no need for a 5G network per se operating in excess of 1 Gbps, because the user would not be able to distinguish a material difference with enhanced 4G. It is more likely that initial 5G networks will serve low latency use cases on a limited basis but would mostly be used as a capacity offload mechanism as data traffic rises from increased use of high bandwidth services and as 4G capacity approaches saturation.”

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