5G Standalone vs. 5G Non-standalone: What’s in it for operators?

Deloitte on the transition to 5G Standalone: Not if it will happen, more when and how

The circa 2018 hype around 5G as a world-changing silver bullet for businesses hasn’t really panned out just yet. 5G Non-standalone (4G core with upgraded radios and new spectrum) has propelled fixed wireless access to the forefront of new operator revenue streams but home internet isn’t exactly on a level with sweeping process digitalization that lifts GDPs and transforms industries. But perhaps the future we were promised will become a reality with 5G Standalone wherein that new RAN and new spectrum is paired with a cloud-native core and service-based architecture. 

Pedro Sanguihno, senior manager of Deloitte’s Global Telecoms Engineering Excellence Center, acknowledged that the move to 5G Standalone is “taking longer than expected…but we cannot forget that 5G Standalone is really disruptive.” 

Speaking at the recent Telco Cloud and Edge Forum, available on-demand here, Sanguihno noted around 45 commercial 5G Standalone deployments, and said the upgrade—referred to in some circles as “real 5G”—”opens the door for what really 5G brings as a differentiator.” Specifically, he said, lower latencies, higher reliability and support for massive machine-type communications (mMTC) will position operators to generate “value for the enterprise world and for the B2B segment that everyone is expecting since the early days of 5G.”

He also touched on the outlook for network slicing wherein, as the narrative goes at least, an enterprise would be able to essentially order on-demand connectivity tuned to specific performance metrics. Operators, in this scenario, would be able to dynamically scale up or scale down network resources to provide a network-as-a-service against a cloud-like consumption-based model. “That will allow the mobile operators to have a better response to the demand on the end-user customers, and the new services that will be deployed.” Hand-in-glove with that is faster innovation cycles, and automation tools that reduce network cost and management complexity. 

“And all this enable new revenue opportunities,” Sanguihno said. “It’s a way for mobile operators to get out of that cycle of selling just connectivity…All that will enable the mobile operators to try to find new sources of revenue, new opportunities around creating bespoke services, private networks, tailored privacy and security. All of that becomes enabled by 5G Standalone.” 

Key considerations in the transition to 5G Standalone

While the destination here is desirable for the reasons outlined above, the path isn’t exactly clear cut—which may explain why even amongst the three dozen-plus operators that have moved past 5G Non-standalone, there still hasn’t been a tidal wave of new services and corresponding revenue lifts. In terms of what operators need to take into account on the way to 5G Standalone, Sanguihno listed out cloud strategy, DevOps, automation tools and an organizational structure designed around that, and sorting out networks where hardware and software have been disaggregated, meaning legacy models of single-vendor networks give way to multi-vendor kit, e.g. Open RAN. 

“So, clearly, deployments are quite challenging, but the bottomline is that we don’t really see the question around if or will it not happen. It’s more just when and how.” And once the when and how are done and dusted, he sees manufacturing, utilities, oil and gas, transportation and logistics seeing the benefits. “This connects a little bit with the kind of hybrid solutions where private networks will require…continuity to the public commercial network, and here enters the slicing to make that tailored quality of service that these different industries require.” 

Any concerns, macroeconomic, technological, business case or other, that may further delay or derail the move to 5G Standalone? “We don’t really see an impact, or a major impact, on the investments that have been planned for 5G Standalone. Maybe delaying a little bit the commercial launch where activity, setting up, testing, getting ready will probably take longer. But in terms of investments, we don’t really believe that to be massively impacted by the economic environment.” 

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