Standalone 5G VS Non-standalone 5G

Controversy can be a good thing, especially if it leads to meaningful debate rather than violence and prejudice. It can force us as a human race to do better and to be better. It can highlight areas of social injustice that simply cannot continue like it always has. Controversy can also be rather peculiar as 5G so clearly showed. A lot of rumours and misinformation spread like wildfire last year concerning this technology and it led to people doing strange and dangerous things, like setting telecom towers ablaze because 5G apparently enabled the spread of Covid-19. The negative medical implication, if there are any, of 5G (as well as 4G) requires more research than what is currently available as no studies are conclusive. What we do know, though, is that 5G (the 5th generation technology standard for broadband) is faster, with less latency, and higher download speeds. 4G turned our phones into computers, 5G will make even more sci-fi dreams come true.

What is 5G – the short version

5G is the successor to the 4G networks that currently provide connectivity to cellular networks. It is still a cellular network that uses radio waves through an antenna to connect devices to the internet and telephone networks.

5G is an upgrade, though, because it uses additional higher-frequency radio waves as well as the current low- and medium-band frequencies. 5G will need more antennas due to its shorter high-frequency waves, but luckily these can be smaller than the current 4G antennas. It also means that the 5G could provide up to 20Gbps download speeds, 1-millisecond latency, and can support up to 1000 more devices per meter.

So, what is standalone (SA) and non-standalone (NSA) 5G?

The basic difference between the two 5G modes is evident in the name – it can either function by itself or not. What does this mean though? We’ll start with the non-standalone (NSA) 5G as this is how 5G is initially launched.

The NSA mode for 5G makes use of the existing 4G network (the 4G Radio Access Network (RAN) and Evolved Packet Core (EPC)) to deploy the basics of 5G. In such a case, the user still receives the 4G signal, but they also enjoy some of the capacities offered by 5G, like the lower latency and higher speeds. The full benefit of 5G cannot be leveraged in this manner, but in most cases, this is the fastest way to adopt 5G technology and provide it to users while building up the standalone (SA) infrastructure.

The SA mode of 5G means that Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) will invest in an entirely new 5G network. The 5G network will be a fully virtualized, cloud-operated architecture. These networks will require a bigger CapEx but will ultimately simplify services, reduce the cost of operation, and speed up the introduction of this new revenue-generating service. This mode also supports the full end-to-end 5G speeds and services (as longs as you have a 5G enabled phone and sim card).

5G in South Africa

NSA 5G is already available in some of South Africa’s major cities (Cape Town, Pretoria, Durban, Johannesburg, Gqeberha/Port Elizabeth, Port Alfred, Hopetown, Virginia, Queenstown and Tsantsabane) through several MNOs (MTN, Vodacom, Rain, Liquid Telecom). Stakeholders have, however, emphasised the limitations we currently face in South Africa that can impact the complete adoption of 5G.  Some of the most notable limitations and challenges include:

“The limitations of current 4G infrastructure, which does not cater for technologies such as carrier aggregation, Massive MIMO, beamforming, etc, which are needed for various 5G deployment models.

South Africa’s current power challenges also need to be urgently resolved in support of 5G networks, because 5G will increase the power density required at sites. The provision of electricity supply to existing and new sites in a reliable and timeous manner is, therefore, very important.”

ICASA 2021 5G Annual Report

By and large, it is agreed that a phased approach needs to be followed in South Africa’s adoption of 5G. The initial use of NSA should allow for a desirable initial return on investment but to leverage the full capabilities of 5G we will require a dedicated SA 5G network with the latest technology.

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