The Standalone 5G Journey

Operators turn to the next stage of 5G development

By mid-November 2020, the number of live commercial 5G networks worldwide had already topped 100, in nearly 50 separate markets. Now, the industry is readying for the next important stage on the 5G voyage: the transition to deployments based on standalone 5G.

Initial 5G roll-outs have mostly been centred on the non-standalone flavour of 5G. With an anchor in existing 4G networks, non-standalone 5G has enabled operators to use their current infrastructure and bring 5G to market far quicker than if they had waited to deploy a completely new end-to-end 5G network. This has meant that early adopters, mostly in the consumer market, have already been able to benefit from enhanced mobile broadband applications offering higher bandwidth and more reliable connectivity.

The move to the standalone variant of 5G entails a dedicated cloud-native 5G core. This is the crucial enabler for many of the concepts often associated with the long-term vision of 5G technology, like ultralow-latency applications, mobile edge computing and services that are hungry for a lot more capacity. It also brings a new level of flexibility through network slicing, which can help operators develop customized offerings for industry sectors.

The mobile industry’s major infrastructure suppliers have already been putting standalone 5G kit through its paces ahead of upcoming commercial launches. For example, ZTE has worked with A1 in Belarus to deploy a standalone 5G network in test mode, and recently completed a voice call using 5G New Radio technology — this is known as “voice over New Radio”. The two companies have a long-standing relationship; in 2016, A1 claimed the launch of the world’s first fully virtual mobile core network, in partnership with ZTE.

In a flurry of other recent announcements for standalone 5G, Finnish operator Elisa claimed the Nordic region’s first end-to-end data connection over a standalone 5G network in August 2020, together with Ericsson; Japanese operator KDDI has teamed with Samsung to show off network slicing in a 5G standalone network; and in the US Dish Network has chosen Nokia’s cloud-native 5G standalone core software for its high-profile greenfield deployment.

Of course, the deployment of standalone 5G networks is just one part of a wider ecosystem story. Significantly, it’s also being supported by good momentum in devices, with 5G smartphones featuring dual-mode support for standalone and non-standalone 5G now hitting the shelves.

For some time, CCS Insight has argued that standalone 5G heralds the real beginning of the 5G journey. According to ZTE, its standalone 5G solution can support a range of applications such as gigabit without fibre connectivity, cloud-based extended reality, live broadcasts in ultrahigh definition, autonomous vehicles and remote surgery. Crucially, these services could pave the way for new revenue streams for mobile operators desperately searching for a return on their expensive network outlay.

We also see standalone 5G as an important enabler of private networks. These deployments allow organizations to ring fence connectivity, promising greater control, customization and security. During our recent Predictions Week, we set out our expectation that standalone 5G features come to private networks more rapidly than to public ones in 2021, thanks to the financial opportunities of private networks and their smaller size and more-restricted scope. Our vision is that the first deployment of mobile edge computing on a standalone 5G network occurs on a private, not public, network.

In another of our predictions, we expect more than 20 operators will migrate to the standalone 5G track by the end of 2021. We see China, South Korea and the US as the early front runners. Indeed, T-Mobile in the US has already claimed the world’s first nationwide standalone 5G deployment. The carrier said that the evolution allowed it to widen the spread of its 5G network by a further 1.3 million square miles, a rise of about 30%. Verizon and AT&T are expected to follow suit before the end of 2020.

In China, standalone 5G is also picking up steam. China Mobile began introducing the technology into its network in June 2020, before expanding it commercially from September, and China Telecom recently claimed it’s switching on the world’s largest standalone 5G network.

South Korea’s three mobile operators are also poised to make the leap to standalone 5G before the end of 2020. And over in Japan, new entrant Rakuten Mobile recently outlined plans to launch in the second quarter of 2021 (see Quarterly Market Analysis: 5G Networks, 3Q20).

Keen not to be left behind, European operators have begun their journey to standalone 5G too. For example, in the UK Vodafone has been trialling the technology at Coventry University, with the expectation that it will enable lecturers to teach using virtual reality without a lag or time delay, offering students a more immersive and interactive way to learn.

According to our latest and upgraded market forecast, published in October 2020, 5G connections will surpass 1 billion in the first half of 2022 and rise to 3.6 billion at the end of 2025. Standalone 5G will play an important role in this evolution as the technology’s impact reaches beyond the consumer market into a host of industry sectors.

Forecast for 5G Connections

We expect that China will dominate the adoption of 5G and represent more than 40% of the world’s mobile connections — about 1.6 billion — in 2025. The strong uptake will be fuelled not just by China’s huge scale, but also rapid network expansion supported by local and international manufacturers and good sales of supporting devices.

In North America, “nationwide” availability of 5G networks, combined with the new 5G iPhones, will be the catalyst for near-term adoption of the technology that will see the region pass 100 million 5G connections in 2021, on its way to reaching 400 million by 2025.

After some delays in 2020, partly linked to spectrum availability, we expect Western Europe to near 100 million 5G connections in 2021, helped by markets such as the UK, Germany and Italy. In the developed markets of Asia–Pacific, including trailblazing South Korea, where 5G penetration is already above 12%, we forecast nearly 300 million 5G connections by 2025. Having got off to a sluggish start, the rest of the world will see growth ramp up from around 2023, reaching 0.9 million 5G connections also by 2025 (see chart below).

With 5G connections set to accelerate as operators gear up for the crucial next stage in the technology’s evolution, the migration to standalone 5G networks, 2021 could be a transformative year for the mobile industry.