Since the dawn of mobile communication in the early 1980s, companies and consumers have been adapting to new ways of sending and receiving information. The first-generation technology of this era let people make and receive phones calls through their mobile handheld devices while the second and third generations added text and multi-media messaging, as well as email services to cell phones. The emergence of 4G in the early part of the past decade changed the mobile-telephone landscape. This paradigmatic shift let users stream and download videos at speeds three times greater than 3G. The Long Term Evolution (LTE) standard-based generation had two important characteristics that set it apart from its predecessors.
With 4G-capable cell phones, people could make calls over the Internet instead of via telephone networks. This generation’s evolution to 4G+ (LTE advanced), which offered download speeds of 200 to 300 Mbps, made it easier for people to connect and talk over the Internet.
Secondly, 4G’s multiplexing capability, technically known as orthogonal frequency division multiplex (OFDM), provided a level of efficiency in achieving high data transfer rates while allowing multiple users to share a common channel. The OFDM modulation scheme divides a channel into several subcarriers. These subcarriers are spaced orthogonally so they don’t interfere with one another despite the lack of guard bands between them. “OFDM is a very good choice for a mobile TV air interface. It offers good spectral efficiency, immunity to multi-path, good mobile performance, and it works well in single-frequency networks such as those planned for mobile TV,” according to a research paper titled ‘Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing and its Applications’. It is this aspect of 4G that lets people use social media, download music in an app, and live-stream videos on mobile devices.
Since 4G’s inception in the early 2010s, the number of smartphone users have grown significantly. According to data intelligence firm Statista, the total number of smartphone users in the world has nearly doubled in the last seven years to 6.6 billion in 2022, from 3.7 billion in 2016. This number is estimated to rise by another billion by 2027.
Not just users, the number of mobile devices in use have also skyrocketed. The total number of phones and tablets in use is expected to be over 18.2 billion, according to technology market research firm Radicati. When one adds another few billion wearables and Internet of Things (IoT) devices to this mix, the result is a massive data hungry world of gadgets. As the number of connected devices rises, so does our dependence on them to do daily tasks.
The number of devices and things connected to the internet is not confined to the consumer world. Enterprises are also moving to digital channels and optimising the way tasks get done with the help of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), predictive maintenance, and other environmental condition monitoring sensors. For these devices to work in sync with several other applications a far superior networking and connectivity is needed and the decade-old LTE-based generation is ill-prepared to handle workloads and real-time data processing of this magnitude.
The latest iteration of mobile connectivity offers low latency, greater download speeds coupled with the ability to connect multiple devices and exchange data in real-time. Building on the multiplexing technology of its predecessor, 5G ushers in a new standard called 5G New Radio (NR), which uses the best capabilities of LTE. 5G NR will enable increased energy savings for connected devices and enhance connectivity. Apart from this, the fifth-generation of mobile communication will use high-frequency millimeter wave (mmWave) bands that operate on wavelengths between 30 GHz and 300 GHz. For comparison, 4G’s LTE operates on wavelengths under 6 GHz.
While 5G has been around since the late 2010s, it didn’t reach the kind of ubiquity its predecessor enjoyed until mid-2020s. That’s because there are fewer 5G-compatible devices in the market compared to 4G ones, and a delayed auctioning and rollout of 5G airwaves is holding people back from using the service.
A 5G-based connected future is upon us. That means deploying services based on the latest generation in a world filled with 4G compatible devices. So, telecom operators and businesses looking to build their services on 5G have two options. They can either build a non-standalone (NSA) or a standalone architecture.
In an NSA framework, the operator can use their existing installed capacities and LTE architecture to deploy 5G services while implementing a new radio access network (RAN). The operations in the core network will be supported by the existing evolved packet core (EPC) from LTE. This short-to-medium term strategy can help operators reduce capital expenditure and lower operating costs that may arise from installing a new core network.
Germany, for example, used the NSA model to roll out 5G services in 2019. Deutsche Telekom leveraged its LTE-based core to deliver service that is not as fast as pure 5G, but which achieved the purpose of providing broad national coverage to a large proportion of the population and that too in a time-bound manner. The national carrier has now started testing 5G SA architecture in select settings.
The SA model, on the contrary, is a pureplay 5G architecture that provides operators full range of the fifth-generation’s capability and lets them slice the network. In this architecture, RAN and the core are completely new, and there will be a clear separation of different network functions in line with 3GPP recommendations.
U.S.-based Dish Network Corporation deployed a standalone 5G network in 2021. The cloud-native firm is said to be building an Open RAN-based network from scratch, and is looking to run its service on the public cloud. In India, Chinese handset maker Oppo conducted 5G network trials in July 2021 on one of its premium smartphones under the SA network environment provided by Reliance Jio at its 5G Lab in Hyderabad. Reliance Industries Limited plans to expand its 5G network to “every town” in India by the end of 2023, according to the company’s Chairman and Managing Director Mukesh Ambani. The firm plans to implement 5G SA architecture to provide better performance than an NSA based set up.
Different countries and firms are at various stages of 5G deployment. The switch to a pureplay 5G SA architecture is no more a question of whether or not, but when and how. Telecom operators will drive 5G deployment towards a standalone future in the next few years. This will simplify their network operations and improve user experience. Operators may also look to leverage network slicing opportunities by creating dedicated segments for specific users and use cases. Each slice could present an opportunity for operators to build a revenue stream. And just like how the mobile device-based communication era made people adapt to the new technology four decades ago, 5G could potentially make consumers connect and exchange information in a new way.