AT&T to scale standalone 5G in 2021

AT&T will scale its standalone 5G deployment next year, according to Igal Elbaz, SVP of Wireless & Access Technology.

“We are in the process of developing and testing our standalone core” with early deployments starting later in 2020, Elbaz said Tuesday speaking at the virtual Big 5G event. AT&T plans to scale its SA 5G network in 2021.

Elbaz didn’t disclose further details on timing, but indicated that part of the approach is about aligning with readiness in the rest of the ecosystem to handle 5G SA-enabled capabilities.  

“You really need to be mindful about that transition,” Elbaz said, to ensure the ecosystem can support SA scale and capabilities in order to deliver the right level of customer experience. Along with AT&T’s core capabilities that also includes things like chipsets, devices, and radio access network (RAN).

One feature he called out specifically is 5G carrier aggregation, a technology that players like Ericsson and Qualcomm, as well as other operators have been testing. 5G carrier aggregation, among other features, needs widespread ecosystem support so that AT&T can continue to provide “at least the same level of experience” to its customers.

RELATED: Qualcomm, Ericsson near peak in 5G standalone carrier aggregation test at 2.5 GHz

That said, the move to standalone is a journey and Elbaz said no one is waiting until the end to get ready for it. The moment initial capabilities are there, AT&T wants to make them available and continue to evolve. One is the often-cited feature of network slicing, which can divvy up or allocate portions( or ‘slices’) of the network to deliver service and quality based on user- or application-specific needs.  

“Not all of the benefits [of SA 5G] will be realized at the same time,” Elbaz noted. “But customers will be able to benefit from day one gradually.”

Major operators, including AT&T, have initially deployed 5G in nonstandalone (NSA) mode, which relies on a 4G LTE core anchor.

With SA 5G, that’s no longer the case, and Elbaz noted SA marks the first time “with a true end-to-end 5G network.”

In August, T-Mobile was the first U.S. carrier to launch its nationwide standalone (SA) 5G network. Verizon in July said it would start moving initial traffic over to its new 5G SA core by the end of 2020.

5G’s new architecture

In addition to super-fast speeds, low latency and high-reliability, Elbaz said the introduction of a new network architecture is a key aspect of 5G and why it's a transformational technology. 

“We’re now talking about a cloud-native architecture,” he said, as well as software capabilities introduced not just in the mobile core but also eventually the radio access network (RAN). Moving to an open and disaggregated architecture also allows for new players to enter the scene.

“All of those capabilities really manifest themselves in a standalone core,” Elbaz said, citing better spectrum optimization, improvements in speed, latency, reliability, along with network slicing.

But most importantly, he said, is introducing agility and the ability to turn on new iterations of development and push software in the same as it was introduced in IP systems. Something Elbaz called a “huge advantage” and that AT&T has also been doing in its 5G NSA core, which is fully virtualized and running on COTS (common-of-the-shelf) hardware.

AT&T plans to carry those same learnings and capabilities as it shifts to a standalone core.

Elbaz indicated that AT&T will leverage its media business, including WarnerMedia, to support 5G applications and use cases like immersive video and story-telling.

Also on the consumer side, he named mobile gaming as a killer 5G app.  Although many venues don't have the usual influx of visitors these days, the carrier has seen “a lot of excitement from fans” at sporting events with immersive experiences. 

On the business side, AT&T’s seeing a high-level of excitement for 5G from enterprises, where Elbaz said the 5G architecture can easily extend on-premises for a cost-effective wireless network. One benefit there is increased security and privacy when data stays on site, which is a feature others have noted in the case for private enterprise networks.  

Elbaz cited demand, conversations and even early deployments across enterprise sectors like healthcare, manufacturing, education and military.