The 2019 Mobile World Congress sounded promising. “This is the age of impossible mobile speeds, made possible” is one of the slogans you could read at the Fira Barcelona entrance. But after a lot of fireworks, what is left almost 12 months after the event?
I’ll try to summarize my view mixed with some technological paths or design and implementation options that the telecom industry should face, if they haven’t yet. From those who have selected their path toward 5G enabled services to their customers, I’m pretty sure we’ll see some changes of strategy on-the-fly, because in this business, the “best” option is commonly followed by all the actors, from the guest star to the last extra. The point is that, as everything in life, the sooner you realize that you’re wrong and get back on the right path, the better; if not, you’ll be at risk of losing much more than some money.
What have we seen in the past 12 months?
The summary of what we’ve seen so far can be summarized briefly with one word: poor (as in, not good enough).
We have seen some new 5G commercial deployments this year, and it’s a tendency that continues to grow. 5G European Observatory includes in their web page a non-exhaustive list of 5G trial cities. That list includes cities as important as: Amsterdam, Aveiro, Barcelona, Bari, Berlin, Bristol, Espoo, Ghent, L’Aquila, London, Madrid, Malaga, Matera, Milan, Oulu, Patras, Prato, Stockholm, Tallinn, and Turin. Nevertheless, most of the implementations are trials or POC, not open to the general public.
On the other side, China, USA, Japan, and North Korea are the most advanced countries in terms of 5G implementation. From the commercial deployments, we can barely expect an increase in the transmission rate the user can get from their handheld device, with higher speeds and faster response times.
With 5G equipment and user devices in their early releases, it is not uncommon that the user experience could be impacted by a just-in-time implementation of the recently cooked standards. Usually, that’s not very good from the perceived quality point of view.
What should we expect from 2020?
An important milestone that is expected for 2020 is the completion of Release 16 of the 5G specifications. That completion could enable new use cases under the new specification, particularly those applications related to network slicing and ultra reliable low-latency communications (URLLC).
The new Release 16 will add more support for critical communications. To URLLC support, we can add functionalities as the 5G LAN and Time Sensitive Networking (TSN). These are pieces needed to build up another strong point of the new specification: enterprise and industrial use cases (industrial IoT).
What we’ll probably see in 2020? Well, service providers will probably deploy 5G in limited areas where they can get the maximum return in the minimum possible time. Those spots are clearly identified as high traffic areas where users can get immediate benefits derived from an increase in bandwidth and latency, at the “cost” of a data plan that can fly in a few hours if the user has a quota-limited plan and is not handling the capacity adequately.
Other new features could be present in some deployments along 2020, but in the form of trials and POC, not available to the general public yet because of immaturity. The degree of successful implementation of the Release 16 features will dictate how far we can get on this.
Now, again, we come to deployment options. Generally speaking, there are two deployment options available for service providers interested in offering 5G: standalone and non-standalone.
The non-standalone (5G NSA) leverages the 4G existing network, simplifies deployment and offers economic advantages as well as a reduction in the implementation times. This is probably the way to go for a fast capacity upgrade in high utilization areas, delivering an instant benefit for the customer in terms of speed and network response. However, having said that, this doesn’t mean that the way to go is to always implement the NSA option. The standalone (5G SA) option brings to the table the new and advanced functionalities we can’t get without a 5G core, and it’s probably where the real change resides in comparison with the previous generation. 5G SA enables service providers to develop a new advanced services offering not available with the 5G NSA deployments.
Ok, but what are some of the main differences between the two deployment options?
Non-standalone 5G main advantages:
- First to market preferred option
- Provides 5G to early adopters with flagship devices
- Increase network capacity leveraging the deployed 4G network
Standalone 5G main advantages:
- Native 5G core architecture with simplified radio access network (RAN) and device architecture
- End-to-end 5G enabled
- URLLC & network slicing enables per-customer network design
- Full range of 5G based applications
5G New Radio (5G NR) option is more costly to deploy than the 5G NSA option. This alternative does not rely on previous 4G deployments. The additional cost comes from an additional design work needed for setting up the 5G only Core as well as an important investment in devices and licenses to support the system.
In summary, we’re just starting up and the anxiety for 5G will probably be calmed down by 5G NSA implementations that will only provide more speed and lower response times to the typical customer.
It’s true that a lot of new improvements and features are expected from 5G, but they appear to come in small bits, and they’re primarily oriented to enterprise customers in the form of benefits derived from slicing, URLLC and Industrial IoT.
We should expect from 2020 the start, not the completion, of the delivery of new services and advantages of 5G technology. I’m looking forward to it.
Thanks for reading.