The 5G Standalone Revolution Has Officially Begun

June 14th, 2024 by · Leave a Comment

This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Anil Kollipara, Vice President of Product Management at Spirent Communications

Check the numbers, and 5G network adoption looks to be absolutely humming. According to GSMA Intelligence, there were 1.6 billion 5G connections worldwide by the end of 2023. All told, more than 261 operators offered commercial 5G services as of February 2024, representing the fastest new network generation rollout ever. Of course, Telecom Ramblings readers know that those figures need an asterisk. The vast majority represent the initial non-standalone phase of 5G, using 5G radios with legacy 4G/LTE cores.

Figures for 5G Standalone (5G SA)—the more revolutionary second phase of 5G networks, using cloud-native, software-driven architectures from RAN to core—look less impressive, at least on the surface. As of early 2024, there were just 51 live 5G SA networks. But it would be a mistake to believe that these early numbers tell the whole story.

The reason operators took a phased deployment approach was that they knew 5G SA would be a heavier lift, involving far more significant technical and operational change. Service providers have actually been making major progress with this transition. It’s just that much of this effort happens behind the scenes.

In our role providing testing and validation for service providers, network equipment manufacturers (NEMs), device-makers, and others, we tend to get a sneak preview of coming telecom attractions. Based on hundreds of engagements with service providers and other industry stakeholders over the last year, the 5G SA revolution has already begun. The rest of the world is about to see just how far 5G has come.

The Long Road to 5G Standalone

5G arrived with much buzz about groundbreaking new capabilities. This new network generation would bring higher data rates and more efficient networks, but that was just the start. With network slicing, ultra-low latency, mass-scale Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities, and more, 5G promised to revolutionize telco business models. So far though, most service provider customers have yet to see these 5G innovations.

Why is the revolution taking so long? The biggest reason is complexity. Moving to open, software-driven, cloud-native architectures represents a massive change from traditional telco networks and operations. 5G SA’s disaggregated, distributed architecture transforms telco networks from largely predictable, appliance-based infrastructures to a dizzying assortment of virtualized and containerized software elements that constantly change.

This transition is essential to make telco networks as agile and adaptable as other modern cloud environments, but it was always going to take some time. Now, service providers worldwide are beginning to go live with these new environments, and they’re seeing impressive results. Operators deploying 5G Core (5GC) report 72 percent power savings, 20 percent latency improvements, and 60 percent faster service deployments. Those are huge improvements, and they’re only just the start.

New Use Cases, New Opportunities

The biggest value of 5G SA will come from its ability to support new consumer and enterprise use cases that demand higher guaranteed throughput, lower and more consistent latency, and other requirements that only service providers can meet. In all, Bain & Company forecasts a $400 billion market for new 5G services.

For consumers, 5G SA throughput and latency opens the door to a wide range of new revenue-generating use cases (figure 1). These include rapid growth in fixed wireless access (FWA), ultra-high-definition (4K/8K) video streaming, and cloud gaming (which Bain & Company expects to be a $12 billion market by 2026).

Figure 1. New 5G SA Consumer Use Cases

As exciting as the consumer possibilities are, they’re dwarfed by new potential enterprise use cases. With the ability to meet stringent latency and throughput requirements for real-time applications under service-level agreements (SLAs), service providers can help unleash unprecedented business automation and digital transformation. These changes will span multiple sectors with large operational technology (OT) footprints, along with finance, transport, and others. Bain & Company predicts that manufacturing alone will drive more than $113 billion in 5G-related revenues by 2026, and that energy and utilities could generate another $86 billion by 2030.

Steps to 5G Success

Before service providers can start tapping into these use cases, of course, they need 5G SA environments that are actually ready to support them. Given the highly dynamic nature of 5G SA architectures, and the fact that most will use multiple vendors, effective integration and testing becomes absolutely critical. It can also seem a daunting task for operators accustomed to monolithic legacy solutions that came pre-integrated from a vendor.  

In on our work with customers deploying 5G SA, we’ve identified five key steps in the journey:

  • Validate 3GPP compliance: The process begins with ensuring that all nodes and interfaces comply with 3GPP specifications. This represents a more complex process than previous network generations, as it typically involves multiple vendors and many more architectural elements. Compliance testing must include all devices and systems, both in isolation and in combination. This testing should cover all network functionalities and use cases that will be used in production, such as roaming, intra- and inter-technology handovers, slicing, non-terrestrial network (NTN) handovers, and so on.
  • Validate capacity and performance: Next, service providers or their testing partners must validate 5G performance and capacity under diverse emulated real-world conditions and traffic loads. This should include validating the performance of the network in terms of expected latencies, throughput, video performance, and so on, for all major use cases. And such testing must cover isolated components, adjacency testing, and end-to-end testing to ensure that all parts work together as a single system.
  • Validate security efficacy: 5G SA increases security exposure, simply because its many elements create more potential targets for attack. Service providers need to emulate different types of attacks—man-in-the-middle, torpedo, hijacking, distributed denial of service (DDoS) signaling storms, and more—to validate that the network responds as it should. This testing should use standards-based security test cases, such as 3GPP’s Security Assurance Specifications (SCAS), to ensure that all elements employ proper authorization and protection.
  • Validate 5G CNF resiliency: Multi-vendor containerized network functions (CNFs) in 5GC can have a wide range of variation and interdependencies, making their behavior hard to predict. To support SLAs, service providers must validate that all components work together efficiently and resiliently under diverse conditions and traffic loads.
  • Continuously test across the lifecycle: Given the dynamic and disaggregated nature of 5G SA, with potentially dozens of multi-vendor software updates coming to various elements every week, testing cannot be a one-time event. Service providers must adopt a continuous testing approach to validating security and performance. Ideally, this testing should be automated and built into the process of every network change.

Looking Ahead

The telecom industry has always known there was huge potential in 5G SA. Now, service providers and their customers are finally poised to tap into it in real-word deployments and use cases. This revolution will bring significant change, and inevitably, some bumps in the road. By implementing automated, vendor-neutral continuous testing, service providers can position themselves to succeed.

For more details on how service providers are successfully deploying 5G SA, download our eBook, Unleashing 5G.

Anil Kollipara is Vice President of Product Management at Spirent. He has an extensive background in the wireless and telecommunications industry and has a successful track record of building industry-leading products in lab testing, service assurance, and network planning. Areas of expertise include test and measurement, service assurance, and predictive and prescriptive analytics in wireless networks (3G, LTE, 5G, Open RAN, VoLTE, VoWi-Fi).

Before joining Spirent, Anil worked for industry-leading companies like Netscout, Danaher, Dell, and Cerion. He holds a BE from the University of Mumbai, an MSEE from the University of Texas at Arlington, and an MBA from the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business. Anil holds four patents related to characterizing and measuring subscriber experience in telecommunications networks.

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Categories: Industry Viewpoint · Wireless

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