How’s 5G standalone doing in the U.S.?

Rogers Communications is touting a big first in Canada: the rollout of the country’s first national standalone 5G core, which hasn’t exactly taken off in a big way for its neighbor to the immediate south.

Last year, T-Mobile announced that it was the first operator in the world to launch a commercial nationwide standalone (SA) 5G network  That’s significant because a lot of the really cool things, like super low latency and the full advantages of network slicing, only come with the SA version of 5G.

Network slicing involves the ability to divvy up or allocate portions, or “slices,” of a network to deliver services based on user- or application-specific needs. It's thought to be especially lucrative for carriers targeting enterprises with 5G. 

RELATED: Rogers claims Canada’s first 5G standalone network

Most operators started out with 5G by deploying non-standalone (NSA) networks. In fact, all three of the national wireless operators in the U.S. started out with NSA, which relies on LTE. NSA networks are the easiest way for incumbent operators to launch 5G because they can fall back on 4G. Dish Network, which has no LTE network of its own to fall back on, is building out a standalone 5G network from the get-go.

Like so much about 5G, T-Mobile is ahead of its rivals. AT&T is still in the testing phase of standalone 5G and as of last week wasn’t saying when it will deploy the SA technology on a wide commercial scale.

RELATED: AT&T’s Fuetsch says company is still testing standalone 5G

It appears T-Mobile’s two biggest rivals are taking their own sweet time to launch SA on a wide commercial basis, but Verizon insists its timeline hasn’t changed.

In fact, it’s already rolling with SA to some degree. “We currently have traffic running on our 5G SA core and will continue to align its larger rollout with the ecosystem advancements in applications and solutions that will eventually require the advanced capabilities a standalone core will enable,” a Verizon spokesperson told Fierce last week.

Of course, the SA advancements like Rogers outlined already are deployed in other parts of the world. Last week, Japan’s SoftBank announced that it had started to offer 5G standalone commercial services in conjunction with the sale of its new 5G-compatible SoftBank Air terminal, “Air Terminal 5.”

SoftBank, which claimed to be the first carrier in Japan to offer 5G SA commercial services, said the most important features of 5G SA networks are their ability to deliver network slicing and private 5G networks. Such networks are customized to individual enterprise needs, which, one could argue, could be accomplished in the U.S. by other means. CBRS, for one, comes to mind.

When Signals Research Group (SRG) conducted a study of 5G baseband modems from three different manufacturers this past summer, the analysts did the tests on T-Mobile’s network in Buena Park, California, where the network supports SA mode. The analysts tested devices that support SA, with the exception of the iPhone 12. (Since then, Apple released iPhone 13, which supports T-Mobile’s SA 5G.)

What’s it mean for real-world applications to have SA 5G? T-Mobile has been relatively quiet about sharing what it’s actually doing with its standalone network, both in terms of what consumers and enterprises experience. T-Mobile didn’t respond to recent requests for comment on the subject. Perhaps the topic will arise this week as the industry gathers for Mobile World Congress Los Angeles (MWCLA).

“Standalone by itself is kind of few and far between at the moment,” said SRG founder and CEO Mike Thelander.

However, where it’s available, there are definitive benefits, Thelander said. One is something SRG identified about a year ago. “With non-standalone, you’ve got to have LTE there” to add 5G, he said. “If you go to standalone, you don’t need LTE, so when you go onto rural areas, where you may not have mid-band LTE or the mid-band LTE coverage isn’t very good, you’ve now got 5G – and in standalone, so there’s a benefit there.”

But you have to be “out there” to get it. Most consumers won’t see that when they’re driving to work, for instance.   

The other benefit is specific to phones like the OnePlus that support two different transmitters on the uplink on 5G. “I’m getting 200 megabits per second versus 80 meg – you can only get that in standalone. If it was non-standalone, that phone couldn’t do it… Until you have mobile edge computing and that sort of thing … the benefits of standalone are hard to quantify right now for a typical consumer. I can definitely see and document the benefit, but that’s if I have a OnePlus smartphone,” which most people don’t own.

The preponderance of the market today is still non-standalone, so it “just doesn’t matter,” for most consumers, he said. However, efforts are underway to change that, so we could all be singing a different tune a year from now.