The Power of Standalone 5G

Drei Austria illustrates the dawn of a new era in mobile experiences

The standalone mode of 5G New Radio (NR) represents what many in the industry consider to be true 5G, as it will let operators deliver new experiences beyond the non-standalone version that has so far underpinned most 5G services.

Non-standalone 5G uses existing LTE networking infrastructure, whereas the standalone mode is based on 5G cells for both signalling and information transfer. It includes new 5G packet core architecture, so that instead of relying on the LTE core, 5G can be deployed without pre-existing LTE equipment in the network.

Importantly, the 5G standalone core is cloud-native and is designed as a service-based architecture, virtualizing all software network functions using edge computing and providing the full range of 5G features. Some of these are needed in the enterprise space for advanced uses such as smart factory automation, smart city applications, remote control of critical infrastructure and autonomous vehicle operation. However, 5G standalone does mean additional investment and can bring complexity in running multiple cores in the network.

This will be a potential source of new revenue for service providers, as digital transformation — with 5G standalone as a cornerstone — will enable them to deliver reliable low-latency communications and massive Internet of things (IoT) connectivity to customers in different industry sectors. The low latency and much higher capacity needed by those emerging service areas will only be feasible with standalone 5G and packet core network architecture.

In addition, the service-based architecture opens up the ability to slice the 5G network into customized virtual pieces that can be tailored to the needs of individual enterprises, while maximizing the network’s operational efficiency. Advanced uses for 5G NR aren’t backward-compatible with LTE infrastructure, so all operators will eventually need to get to standalone 5G.

Non-standalone 5G has been a necessary step in the global transition to 5G, but the standalone variant is arguably where the action will be. And at CCS Insight, we’ve been watching with interest those that are already embracing the technology.

A good example I’ve recently become aware of is that of Drei Austria — one of CK Hutchison’s collection of Three-branded networks. Austria is a 5G trailblazer in Europe, with its government committing to becoming one of the top-three countries for digitalization in the region and possibly one of the top 10 in the world.

Drei Austria was the first telecom operator in the country to start selling a non-standalone 5G service in June 2019, with speeds of up to 2.2 Gbps, and forged ahead with trials of standalone 5G a year later in an innovation lab. In June 2021, it launched a pilot standalone 5G network — with ZTE as the primary network infrastructure supplier — that supports full standalone 5G capabilities. A full commercial launch is scheduled for the second quarter of 2022.

Here are a few details about the specifications of the operator’s 5G standalone network:

  • Unified 5G core that supports 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G, including end-to-end slicing capabilities and multi-access edge computing. One of the reasons ZTE was selected as primary technology partner for Drei Austria was ZTE’s abilities to deploy 5G end-to-end network slices across radio, core and transport networks in less than one minute, and to rapidly respond to bandwidth and latency requirements in different scenarios.
  • Unified orchestration, telecom cloud platform, resource pool management and slice management, including intelligent network operation and maintenance based on artificial intelligence.
  • Drei Austria wanted an open approach to ecosystem implementation, enabling 5G, artificial intelligence, IoT, cloud computing, big data and edge computing technologies to interact and create new capabilities. ZTE’s open multi-access edge cloud platform supports innovation by coupling 5G with, for example, artificial intelligence, data analytics or virtual reality.
  • ZTE deployed the standalone 5G network with open APIs, allowing the operator to support app and software developers and foster new industry applications of the technology, and rich message enabler platform components for empowering applications, message service efficiency and media content security.
  • Slicing store, enabling the concept of network-as-a-service.

To build the standalone 5G network for Drei Austria, ZTE provided its new NodeEngine solution along with its 5G core, creating flexible and high-performance architecture. This enables 5G to interact with other emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloud and multi-access edge computing and data analytics — this is the “sweet spot” for 5G, because it’s these tech combinations that will generate new and commercially viable uses.

But what does this mean for the customer experience? Here’s how standalone 5G performance metrics stack up and the different ways mobile operators can evaluate operational benefits.

Typical LTE metrics Standalone 5G metrics
Volume Gbps per month Gbps per month
Speed Mbps (peak) Mbps (peak), Mbps (guarantee)
Location Physical, virtual network elements Slice, service per location
Latency Latency per service or location
Reliability Reliability or packet loss
Terminals Number of devices per square km
Application Dynamic service-level agreements per location
Security Full end-to-end encryption and authentication

Typically, operators can only support a certain volume of user data per month, with limited speed reaching megabits per second at its peak. The network can be physically located, with some virtual network elements. However, as Drei Austria’s deployment illustrates, standalone 5G can enable monthly bandwidth of gigabits per second, with speed guarantees through various service-level agreements.

For example, location can be as slice or service per location; latency can be per service or location; reliability is maintained as packet loss is reduced; there’s a rise in the number of connected devices, meeting different application scenarios for dynamic service-level agreements per location; and security is ensured with full end-to-end encryption and authentication.

These kinds of network and service performance characteristics give a sense of what standalone 5G brings to operators as they seek to deliver new experiences to enterprise customers and consumers. The 5G core is vital of course, but another important part of the full standalone 5G platform is radio access network performance, and the ZTE portfolio has some attractive features: from its small, lightweight 5G active antenna unit to its highly integrated next-generation baseband unit based on self-developed, high-performance vector-processing baseband chips.

Drei Austria represents an excellent case study of a full standalone 5G platform, showcasing the optimization of network performance, as well as the range and flexibility of its capabilities. These include end-to-end high capacity, service assurance and the rapid introduction of new services. Other operators are well into their 5G transformation journeys, so more examples will appear over the coming year as deployments of standalone 5G networks continue.

Non-standalone 5G remains an important solution because of its ability to handle both LTE and 5G traffic, and because 5G-only devices aren’t yet widespread, but it is 5G standalone that will deliver the advanced capabilities of the 5G era.