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Unlocking 5G Standalone Networks’ True Potential for Enterprise Transformation

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Sylwia Kechiche, Principal Analyst, Enterprise at Ookla, explores how to make the most of standalone 5G.

Guest author

January 11, 2024

6 Min Read

In the face of challenging global macroeconomic conditions, the pace of 5G rollouts remain robust, reaching 1.1 billion subscriptions globally according to Ericsson’s latest Mobility Report. However, closer inspection reveals that most of 5G today isn’t ‘true 5G’. The majority of 5G networks have been deployed in non-standalone (NSA) mode, meaning they rely on a 4G LTE network core, and are thus not able to unleash the full benefits of 5G.

When 5G technology was first introduced, it promised ultra-fast speeds and ultra-reliable, low-latency communications (URLLC). Despite the progress made so far, 5G has fallen short when it comes to delivering symmetrical downlink and uplink speeds and low latency.

The move from 3G to 4G was huge for consumers, enabling high definition video streaming for all and allowing for super-apps like Uber, which capitalised on 4G’s broader internet connectivity to reinvent the service industry. In light of this technology jump, the move to 5G was easy to see as a disappointment for excited consumers, as it lacks a killer app to capture consumer market imagination. 5G has instead been designed with enterprise needs in mind, but it is doubtful that their needs can ever be fully addressed without 5G standalone (SA) networks.

The leap to 5G SA

According to Speedtest Intelligence® Q3 2023 data, global median 5G download speeds were 7.4 times faster than 4G (203.04 Mbps compared to 27.51 Mbps), uplink was 2.3 times faster, while latency failed to impress with 44ms for 5G compared to 52ms for 4G. Why do we still see such a gap in performance despite the promises of URLCC that 5G was supposed to introduce? The answer lies in network architecture.

According to the GSA, as of October 2023, 7% of global mobile network operators (MNOs) (43 operators) in 29 counties have launched 5G SA networks. A total of 20.9% of MNOs are investing in public 5G SA networks, ranging from actual deployment, planned or trials, a decrease from the previously reported 21.4% as of Q2 2023. Yet, despite 5G SA rollout experiencing hiccoughs, the industry’s fundamental direction of travel is towards it. In the UK, the expansion of 5G SA coverage is a core tenet of the government’s Wireless Infrastructure Strategy and the four main network operators strive to deliver 5G SA first.

Moving to 5G SA is a natural next step in MNO efforts to virtualise their networks. While progress across the globe varies, most operators are deploying open and virtualised network technologies. This lays the groundwork for MNOs to build their 5G business case, as virtualisation is pivotal to network slicing. Slicing allows operators to split their networks into independent ‘slices’ assigned to different services, applications and industries. 5G SA is necessary for this to become a reality.

There’s no denying that moving to a 5G core comes at a huge cost, but the return on investment is clear, with 5G SA holding major commercial potential thanks to its high-quality connectivity, minimal downtime and robust failover mechanisms suited to critical IoT use cases.

Exploring 5G’s enterprise potential

5G was designed to compete with the fixed networking solutions enterprises rely upon, including Ethernet, Wi-Fi and fixed cabling.

The ultra-low latency that 5G SA will enable opens up new use cases in industrial settings, where high volume, high reliability and flexibility is a necessity. By isolating their data from public networks, enterprises will have full control and security over their connectivity applications. The reduction in latency means that businesses can fully embrace virtual reality, augmented reality, real-time video analytics and holographics across their organisation. What’s more, the integration of NR-reduced capability (RedCap) devices further enhances cost efficiency.

Examples include automotive tracking in the supply chain, making use of more automated guided vehicles (AGVs) on the factory floor and ensuring the performance of applications that deal in small amounts of data like smart meters. 5G SA’s ultra-low latency also unlocks new IoT use cases in fresh industry verticals. In healthcare, concepts like remote surgery are no longer a futurist vision, and the ability to syphon off network slices and restrict access to each means sensitive data can be protected. Financial institutions also benefit from this data handling capability, and increased use of connected mobile devices and connected payments infrastructure has accelerated the shift to a cashless society and improved customer experience.

These innovations will also have a knock-on impact on the consumer market. Vodafone and Ericsson recently completed a network trial optimising a 5G SA network slice for mobile cloud gaming, with trial participants experiencing consistent connectivity, a 270% increase in download and upload performance and a 25% decrease in latency.

Routes to market for 5G SA deployment

Enterprises have multiple options to establish 5G connectivity at their locations, including utilising either public or private networks. While there may be technical differences in how the connectivity is delivered, the goal of both options is to provide enterprise customers with a consistent level of 5G service in terms of speed and/or latency.

Private networks are one option for enterprises to deploy 5G. A dedicated spectrum for private mobile networks has been allocated to enterprises in a few countries, including France, Germany, Japan, the US and the UK, as governments take steps to meet industry 4.0 objectives. When enterprises embark on a journey to deploy private 5G networks, they are faced with multiple challenges, including the need to bridge the gap between information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) requirements. Having a trusted partner to help them solve these challenges will be key.

Telcos are trying to find ways to lend a helping hand. For example, Virgin Media O2 Business recently became the first UK telco to launch a portable, plug-and-play 5G SA private network in an effort to lower the 5G SA barrier to entry. This gives enterprises the option of procuring a private network directly from a telecoms company rather than having to roll out their own network.

Operators also look to take advantage of all the benefits 3GPP Release 17 brings. Recently, BT Group, Nokia, and MediaTek successfully completed RedCap 5G trials using EE’s 5G SA network. RedCap technology simplifies 5G devices, particularly small IoT devices for consumers and ruggedised routers, and environmental or other condition-based monitoring sensors. BT Group is evaluating RedCap to support new 5G use cases for EE's business and consumer customer bases.

Another option is a public network with network slicing, which is cost-effective as customers rely on network assets owned and deployed by an MNO but with guaranteed service level agreements (SLAs) and quality of service (QoS). However, it is still early days for commercial deployments of network slicing. Case in point, in March 2022, Vodafone and Ericsson completed the UK's first lab trial demonstrating network slicing and piloted the use of network slicing on public 5G SA network to broadcast the coronation of King Charles III. Now, the operator is testing how to manage multiple slices and applications and how to enable devices to move outside of the campus networks utilising networking slicing to enable devices to roam into public networks.

The true promise of 5G lies in 5G SA, despite the current challenges in its deployment. Decision-makers must weigh their connectivity needs and requirements for network isolation to harness the transformative potential of 5G SA fully. The shift towards 5G SA has already begun. Operators focusing on overhauling network measurements for future enterprise use cases will gain a significant head start in serving these verticals.

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Sylwia Kechiche is Principal Industry Analyst, Enterprise at Ookla. She has over a decade’s experience as an industry analyst, and prior to Ookla, held the role of Principal Analyst, IoT and Enterprise at GSMA Intelligence where she was responsible for the development of IoT & Enterprise product, including market sizing, custom consulting, survey work and report writing.

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