When planning and testing 5G, it is important to understand that 5G comes with two modes: non-standalone (NSA) and standalone (SA). Mobile Operators can opt for either (or both) when transitioning from 4G to 5G.
Qualcomm recently predicted that more than 750 million 5G smartphones will be sold worldwide by the end of next year. Technology provider Enea says 37% expect to begin deploying 5G NR SA within the next two years, according to survey results released earlier this month.
Most 5G rollouts so far have been NSA deployments; these have focused on providing enhanced mobile broadband (higher data-bandwidth) and reliable connectivity. This means that all these 5G networks have been added to an existing 4G infrastructure. So far, the majority of our 200+ 5G customers have rolled out 5G NR NSA and the majority have decided to use Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) to speed up implementation.
5G NR Non-standalone Considerations
For mobile operators looking to deliver better data throughput quickly, or to handle urgent LTE congestion, NSA mode makes the most sense because it allows them to leverage their existing network assets rather than deploying a completely new end-to-end 5G network. NSA allows an operator to launch 5G quickly for eMBB to gain thought and market leadership. Operators can leverage their existing LTE/VoLTE footprint to utilize their LTE installed base and increase capacity. Network Slicing, URLLC and mMTC won’t be supported, but improved broadband speeds will enable services such as ultra HD 4K-8K video streaming, augmented reality (AR)/virtual reality (VR) and an immersive media experience.
5G NR Standalone Considerations
For those who want to offer new services to Industry 4.0, Standalone 5G NR is better aligned to support the new cases and unlock the power of the next-generation mobile technology. The SA version, which does not rely on LTE, allows an operator to address massive machine-to-machine communications, or ultrareliable low latency IoT. It also provides network slicing functionality. Thus, some of our customers have decided to go straight to 5G NR SA. Especially those targeting new verticals that want to tap into new 5G use cases requiring ultra-low latency and Edge computing. 5G NR SA will allow industrial verticals to benefit from the performance advantages claimed by 5G exponents.
Expanding network coverage – a major challenge
Despite the benefits of standalone 5G, there is one significant challenge that cannot be underestimated. With limited 5G coverage on the mid-band, providing full 5G coverage will probably involve building many sites, which is very time-consuming and costly.
Recognizing that, many vendors have launched Inter-band NR Carrier Aggregation, a software feature that expands the coverage and capacity of 5G NR on mid and high bands when combined with NR on low bands. This will improve speeds indoors and in areas with poor coverage.
An operator with a significant amount of lower-band spectrum that can be dedicated to 5G will probably migrate to SA for coverage reasons. The transition will be a lot easier if the operator doesn’t have to vacate 4G spectrum for 5G, but it’s not completely straightforward yet. Obviously, it’s desirable to have SA devices ready at launch. Although, a lot of devices already use Qualcomm’s X55 modem, which supports SA, most operators will wait until devices using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X60 system are ready. The Snapdragon X60 can handle both millimeter wave and sub-6 GHz bands on Frequency Division Duplexing (FDD) and Time Division Duplexing (TDD) networks. It will also support millimeter wave sub-6 GHz carrier aggregation.
At Infovista, we’re embracing the challenge with open arms as all these features will require extensive testing and a good deal of planning to execute correctly. And with our unique portfolio of 5G NR Planning and Testing solutions, we’re helping many operators to surmount these problems already. If you have any TEMS equipment it is possible to do 5G NR NSA and SA testing with a software upgrade, there is no need for any new hardware at all (apart from a smartphone that supports 5G). As many networks now include Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) functionality, we have developed specific features to analyze DSS performance in detail.
Standalone testing using the X55 can start now, and continue with the X60 when we introduce support later this year.