The steps needed to unlock 5G Standalone’s future

September 28, 2022

5 Min Read
5G communication
5G cellular communications tower

By Ann Heyse, Telco Solutions Manager, BICS

While 5G Non-standalone connections are continuing to grow, with recent projections claiming that the number will reach 1.2 billion by the end of the year, more work needs to be done to really deliver on the potential of the technology. Non-standalone (NSA) networks have allowed for the rapid rollout of 5G with comparatively few complications and investments. However, setting up a 5G core for true Standalone (SA) networks, as well as the roaming environment and additional services that go alongside it, is a much more complex task.

The halfway house 

Currently, 5G networks are in a state of flux. NSA networks have allowed operators to roll out 5G NSA while continuing to leverage the existing 4G/LTE network core. However, now operators need to make the jump to a 5G core network for the ‘true’ 5G opportunity.

Standalone networks offer lower latency, the ability to connect a huge number of devices at once, and advanced services such as network slicing. These features mean SA networks will prove particularly valuable in the private sector, including transport and manufacturing. The future success of the IoT is reliant on the rollout of SA 5G networks, given that low latency is a must for real-time machine-to-machine communications and use cases like self-driving vehicles.

There are of course challenges here. Building this infrastructure requires significant investment and some operators are still unsure that the business case for SA 5G is established enough to warrant the expenditure. Establishing roaming connections and agreements for SA 5G is another key part of the puzzle. As it stands, these connections are still being trialled and there is no live SA roaming (for the time being). To support 5G IoT use cases, in particular, operators will require international roaming interoperability for standalone 5G. However, many are reluctant to commit to such investment while the number of SA networks is still low.

Paving the way

As part of the transition towards 5G, operators are also having to manage the challenging process of sunsetting 2G and 3G networks. As the new technology comes into maturity, sacrifices have to be made so that mobile operators can dedicate more of their networks to 5G radio frequencies. But this decision isn’t always just up to mobile operators For example, UK operators have been instructed to do so in the UK Government’s recent announcement of a deadline to close 2G and 3G networks.

While standalone 5G will unlock new use cases for enterprise IoT devices which are part of a private network, the sunsetting of 2G and 3G is a hurdle for some connected devices that currently rely on these longer-range frequencies. To overcome this, clarity around timelines is needed from governments and operators to help businesses prepare. Multi-network SIMs like eSIMs and iSIMs also offer enterprises more flexibility as a solution for devices to switch between all networks without needing to physically replace SIM cards.

The sunsetting of 2G and 3G is also going to impact the consumer space, another thing operators are adjusting for. Voice services previously supported through 2G/3G will eventually be fully moved to 5G. Still, during this transition period, alternative connection standards such as (VoLTE are crucial. While VoLTE services have become more common than ever (launched in over 220 networks according to this report), VoLTE roaming is not nearly as well established. As the sunsetting begins, operators need to make VoLTE roaming more of a priority, given its role as the only natural backup for Voice calls. As such, it will be relied on over the coming years while 5G SA is still in its infancy.

Growing complexity

Even as older technologies begin to disappear in favour of 5G’s more advanced microservice-based architecture, change will not happen instantly. 5G networks, particularly when it comes to roaming, will need a massive amount of interoperability built in to handle traffic across new and old technologies. Roaming connections will need to be able to support ‘legacy’ technologies like 3G, 4G and VoLTE. The complexity for operator networks will be much greater as traffic will be passed over many different technologies.

5G Standalone will also require significant work to allow for new value-added services that did not exist within 4G. Examples of these are Network Slicing and service-level agreement management. These types of services are key to the business case of 5G SA, but more testing needs to be done before they can be rolled out commercially and formal standards can be created. Just as trials are ongoing for 5G SA roaming, operators can play a key role in testing these kinds of interoperability, helping operators to advance the business case for rollout.


Developing 5G roaming 

The final piece of the puzzle is to establish 5G SA roaming connections. These will not only be crucial for IoT uses cases driving SA adoption to begin with such as transport and logistics. Establishing such roaming connections is a challenge due to the increased complexity of 5G SA services and the need to support legacy technologies/frequencies we’ve already touched on. Another factor is simply the limited number of live 5G SA networks means there is only a small number of operators that can work together to trial and test.

A key challenge for operators in this endeavour is the lack of standards for 5G SA roaming, the fact that most network vendors don’t have a SEPP yet which is a crucial network element to support 5G SA Roaming and 5G mobile operators haven’t found the use cases for it yet.

How BICS is charting a course to standalone 5G roaming

Here at BICS we are heavily involved in forging a path to 5G Standalone roaming connectivity around the world. Following a successful roaming connection in a lab environment with Belgian operator Proximus last year, BICS is investing heavily into non-lab experiments to achieve the first major live intercontinental 5G SA roaming connection milestone and to facilitate first movers to establish their first 5G SA roaming agreements

The lab test established connectivity between the visited and home network via secured gateways (SEPP), hosted on BICS’ IPX network. BICS is supporting a global 5G Roaming Hub to help operators establish new roaming relations through one connection, one interface, and one invoice and not just with other public mobile operators but also opening up the roaming ecosystem to mobile private networks and non-mobile networks (WiFi) for a true global and seamless experience for the end-user.

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