NEW ANALYSIS: Globally, 5G hype is in full swing, fuelled by a pithy a three-pronged technical value proposition to enable enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), ultra-reliable and low latency connectivity (uRLLC) and massive machine type communications (MTC).

In addition, 5G capitalises on virtualised and cloudified architectures to slice network resources and optimise the performance of specific use-cases, such as uRLLC. The 5G value proposition is ambitious and, as the rubber meets the road with network deployments, there is a natural gap between what is technically possible compared to what is commercially viable.

The first commercial 5G networks were launched in April 2019, a year ahead of schedule, with a focus towards 5G radio technology and eMBB services. Most 5G networks today are being deployed with non-standalone (NSA) architectures, so they can piggy-back on 4G base station and core network equipment. With NSA, 5G radios essentially provide secondary resources to expand 4G with eMBB capabilities. NSA is a clever network architecture, but still a far cry from the three-pronged value proposition that many advanced 5G use-cases depend upon.

To achieve the full capabilities of 5G, operators must upgrade their core networks and expand radio coverage across the entire geographical area where the capabilities are needed. With this, operators can deploy standalone (SA) and enable capabilities, such as uRLLC, MTC and network slicing, which are not ordinarily available in a 4G core, and will become more fully developed with 3GPP Release 17 and 18.

In addition to a 5G core, many advanced services are likely to also depend on edge computing to deliver the necessary performance.

Shift to SA
Most 5G radio networks are being overlaid on existing 4G networks and use higher frequency spectrum bands that reduce coverage performance. NSA anchors these networks with 4G coverage, and SA can be used in targeted areas where it is commercially justified and 5G coverage is available.

One exception is T-Mobile US, which is deploying 5G in the 600MHz band, a lower frequency band with superior coverage performance to its 4G service.

As the 5G market matures, service capabilities beyond eMBB which depend on SA will grow in importance. Since the beginning of the year, many operators started touting their SA initiatives. In January, SK Telecom claimed the world’s first SA 5G data session, and in August T-Mobile announced its national SA deployment, which is a logical strategy for its 600MHz 5G network. In addition, other operators across the globe have been trialling and deploying targeted SA solutions, with the aim of advancing their service offerings.

The lofty three-prong value proposition for 5G was originally developed in anticipation of its broader role in providing the wireless connectivity needed for digital services and the fourth industrial revolution. For mobile operators, eMBB is a natural extension to the 4G mobile Internet services that they offer today.

However, much more is expected as 5G is aimed towards vertical applications, such as Industry 4.0 for manufacturing, autonomous capabilities for connected vehicles, and a slew of video and computer vision, and mobile AR and VR applications being developed for both consumer and enterprise use cases.

The variety of use cases that might be enabled with SA are seemingly endless. However, many still lack compelling commercial opportunities, particularly for mobile operators, whose businesses are typically geared towards highly standardised mass-market service offerings. Traditionally, mobile operators have differentiated themselves based on their radio technology capabilities.

While 5G radio performance will continue to be a differentiating factor, the strategic importance of core networks will increase in the future. This is particularly the case with the growing opportunities of SA 5G to enable consumer and enterprise digital service demands. If mobile operators don’t take advantage of these opportunities, others will.

By Phil Marshall, chief research officer, Tolaga Research

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.