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The transition to a pure 5G architecture is no longer a question of whether or not, but when and how
Since the dawn of mobile communications in the early 1980s, companies and consumers have been adapting to new ways of sending and receiving information. The era’s first-generation technology allowed people to make and receive phone calls through mobile handheld devices, while the second and third generations added text and multimedia messaging and email services to mobile phones. The emergence of 4G at the beginning of the last decade changed the landscape of mobile phones. This paradigm shift allows users to stream and download videos at three times the speed of 3G. The generation based on the Long Term Evolution (LTE) standard had two important features that distinguished it from its predecessors.
With 4G-enabled cell phones, people could make calls over the Internet instead of phone networks. The evolution of this generation to 4G+ (Advanced LTE), which offered download speeds of 200 to 300 Mbps, made it easier for people to connect and communicate over the Internet.
Second, 4G’s multiplexing capability, technically known as orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM), provided a level of efficiency in achieving high data rates while allowing multiple users to share a common channel. The OFDM modulation scheme divides the channel into several sub-carriers. These auxiliary beams are arranged orthogonally so that they do not interfere with each other, despite the lack of protective belts between them. “OFDM is a very good choice for the mobile TV air interface. It offers good spectral efficiency, robustness to multipath transmissions, good mobile performance and works well in single-frequency networks such as those planned for mobile TV,” says the research paper titled ‘Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing and its Applications’. It is this aspect of 4G that allows people to use social media, download music in an app and live stream videos on mobile devices.
Lots of gadgets
Since the inception of 4G in early 2010, the number of smartphone users has grown significantly. According to data intelligence company Statista, the total number of smartphone users in the world has nearly doubled in the past seven years to 6.6 billion in 2022, from 3.7 billion in 2016. This figure is expected to increase by another billion by 2027.
Not only users, but also the number of mobile devices used has skyrocketed. According to technology market research company Radicati, the total number of phones and tablets in use is expected to exceed 18.2 billion. Add several billion more wearable and Internet of Things (IoT) devices to the mix, and the result is a vast world of data-hungry gadgets. As the number of connected devices grows, so does our dependence on them to perform daily tasks.
The number of devices and things connected to the Internet is not limited to the consumer world. Businesses are also moving to digital channels and optimizing the way tasks are performed using artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), predictive maintenance, and other sensors to monitor the health of the environment. For these devices to work in sync with several other applications, a much better network and connectivity is required, and the decades-old LTE-based generation is not ready to handle workloads and real-time data processing of this scale.
The latest iteration of mobile connectivity offers low latency, faster download speeds along with the ability to connect multiple devices and exchange data in real time. 5G builds on the multiplexing technology of its predecessor and brings a new standard called 5G New Radio (NR) that takes advantage of the best LTE capabilities. 5G NR will enable higher energy savings for connected devices and improve connectivity. In addition, the fifth generation of mobile communications will use high-frequency millimeter wave (mmWave) bands that operate at wavelengths between 30 GHz and 300 GHz. In comparison, LTE 4G operates on wavelengths below 6 GHz.
While 5G has been around since late 2010, it didn’t reach the kind of ubiquity of its predecessor until the mid-2020s. That’s because there are fewer 5G-compatible devices on the market compared to 4G, and delayed auctions and rollouts of 5G broadcasts are preventing people from using the service.
A connected future based on 5G awaits us. This means deploying services based on the latest generation in a world full of 4G-compatible devices. Telecom operators and businesses that want to build their services on 5G therefore have two options. They can either build a non-standalone (NSA) or stand-alone architecture.
Under NSA, an operator can use its existing installed capacity and LTE architecture to deploy 5G services when implementing a new Radio Access Network (RAN). Core network operations will be supported by LTE’s existing evolved packet core (EPC). This short- to medium-term strategy can help operators reduce capital expenditure and reduce operating costs that may arise when installing a new core network.
For example, Germany used the NSA model to roll out 5G services in 2019. Deutsche Telekom used its LTE-based core to provide services that are not as fast as pure 5G, but which achieve the purpose of providing broad national coverage to a large part of the population, and that too in a time-limited manner . The national operator has now started testing the 5G SA architecture in selected settings.
The SA model, on the other hand, is a pure 5G architecture that provides operators with the full range of fifth generation capabilities and allows them to split the network. In this architecture, the RAN and the core are completely new, and there will be a clear separation of different network functions in line with 3GPP recommendations.
US-based Dish Network Corporation has deployed a stand-alone 5G network in 2021. The cloud firm is said to be building an Open RAN-based network from scratch and plans to run its service on a public cloud. In India, in July 2021, Chinese phone maker Oppo conducted 5G network tests on one of its premium smartphones in an SA network environment provided by Reliance Jio at its 5G lab in Hyderabad. Reliance Industries Limited plans to expand its 5G network to “every city” in India by the end of 2023, according to the company’s chairman and CEO Mukesh Ambani. The firm plans to implement a 5G SA architecture to provide better performance than NSA-based setups.
Different countries and companies are at different stages of 5G rollout. The transition to pure 5G SA architecture is no longer a question of if or not, but when and how. Telecom operators will drive 5G deployment towards a stand-alone future over the next few years. This will simplify their network operations and improve the user experience. Operators can also focus on taking advantage of network segmentation opportunities by creating dedicated segments for specific users and use cases. Each part could represent an opportunity for operators to build a revenue stream. And just as the era of mobile-based communication four decades ago forced people to adapt to new technology, 5G could potentially allow consumers to connect and exchange information in new ways.
Since the inception of 4G in early 2010, the number of smartphone users has grown significantly. According to Statista, the total number of smartphone users in the world will almost double from 3.7 billion in 2016 to 6.6 billion in 2022.
A connected future based on 5G awaits us. This means deploying services in a world full of 4G-compatible devices. Telecom operators therefore have two options. They can either build a non-standalone (NSA) or stand-alone architecture.
Under NSA, an operator can use its existing installed capacity and LTE architecture to deploy 5G services when implementing a new Radio Access Network (RAN). The SA model, on the other hand, is a pure 5G architecture that provides operators with the full range of fifth generation capabilities and allows them to split the network. In this architecture, the RAN and the core are completely new.