Many carriers around the world raced last year to be the ‘first’ to launch 5G; those networks were built upon the foundation of 4G networks in a type of 5G mode called non-standalone (NSA). This means that the device needs to have both 4G and 5G signals to work because to save time and money, it leverages 4G core infrastructure. NSA 5G is what I like to call the half-step to full 5G because it is absolutely 5G, but it cannot deliver on the low latency, and improved throughput promises that 5G offers without going standalone or SA 5G. Standalone 5G basically means that the 5G network from end to end is independent of 4G and has its core, which is designed to meet the 3GPP’s set requirements for 5G New Radio (NR) Release 15. Let’s examine SA 5G further.
Why is standalone (SA) 5G so important?
Many, if not most carriers around the world today, have NSA 5G networks, but they are racing to put the infrastructure in place to be able to launch SA 5G networks. The reason for this is multi-faceted and explains why T-Mobile and other carriers are in a race to deploy it for more than just chest-thumping. Moving to Standalone (SA) 5G first and foremost is designed to reduce network latency because if you build a 5G network with a proper 5G core and Radio Access Network (RAN), you significantly reduce latency. By substantially decreasing latency, you enable new use cases outside of regular smartphones and tablets. Lowering latency improves reliability and responsiveness so that you can start to allow more use cases like XR or autonomous driving, which are both very latency-sensitive.
In addition to lower latency, SA 5G also offers network slicing, which the carriers like T-Mobile are incredibly excited about given the monetization opportunity. Network slicing allows the carriers to virtually allocate certain pieces of their network to be optimized for specific use cases to deliver the best possible experience for that use case using the least amount of the network. This means that carriers can make the most of their networks while also offering new services for new use cases, maximizing the value of their investment in spectrum and new infrastructure. Last but certainly not least, 5G SA allows carriers to avoid needing to have a 4G signal and thus rely on 5G network coverage. This doesn’t seem like a big deal at first until you realize that carriers like T-Mobile are deploying 5G at 600MHz, which means that T-Mobile can send the signal exceptionally far, as far as 60 miles. However, if T-Mobile is dependent on a 2100, 1900 MHz or 1700 MHz 4G signal for 5G with NSA, then the coverage is limited to the range of the higher frequency signal, which may only travel a few miles far shorter distance than 600 MHz. By dropping the requirement to have a 4G signal to deliver 5G, coverage can improve by quite a significant margin.
T-Mobile’s Global First Standalone Nationwide 5G Network
While I am not aware of ANY standalone networks available today in any capacity, T-Mobile’s is the first and only one with nationwide coverage, regardless of the size of the country. That said, the United States of America is quite a vast country, and to do so in the USA is impressive on its own, let alone having it be the first in the world. T-Mobile’s SA 5G network is built upon the foundation of the company’s 600 MHz 5G rollout which started last year with NSA but also leverages the company’s 2.5 GHz mid-band and 28 GHz mmWave signal. T-Mobile gained the 2.5 GHz mid-band frequency with the acquisition of Sprint, which has roughly 160-200 MHz of that spectrum nationwide, which is more than most of its competitors, in all bands below 6GHz. T-Mobile calls the combination of high-band (mmWave), mid-band (2.5 GHz), and low-band (600 MHz) spectrum its spectrum layer cake. This strategy allows T-Mobile to have the best possible 5G coverage while also having the best possible speeds in the areas where it is needed most. Fellow analyst Will Townsend and I wrote about this in a previous article, and if interested, you can find it here. I believe that long term, all carriers will deploy this strategy, but it really depends on spectrum availability and capital expenditure capabilities. AT&T and Verizon started with mmWave and are struggling to catch up with T-Mobile on coverage due to the company starting with 600 MHz, which inherently has much better coverage but lower speeds.
How T-Mobile built an SA 5G network
To build its 5G SA network, T-Mobile partnered with Cisco and Nokia for the network core and Ericsson and Nokia for the 5G radio. This is a common thing that carriers do for supply chain leverage, with different markets having different infrastructure but following the same standards, so there are no concerns around compatibility. To help test and validate this standalone 5G network, T-Mobile worked with OnePlus, Qualcomm, and Samsung. Most consumers will not have to do anything to use T-Mobile’s SA 5G network. All the 5G devices that T-Mobile currently sells today and has ever sold are compatible with the new 5G network. This is because to support 5G in 600 MHz, T-Mobile’s devices had to use a Qualcomm Snapdragon X55 modem, which also happens to have SA 5G support already. In theory, other alternative chip vendors support SA 5G like Huawei and MediaTek, but neither have any devices on T-Mobile.
T-Mobile’s impressive SA 5G results
While I have not had a chance to thoroughly test this network yet since it just launched today thoroughly, T-Mobile has provided us with some details about what kind of improvements the company is seeing. One example was presented during an Analyst call last week where T-Mobile showed a map of North Dakota illustrating how much more 5G coverage the state had purely by turning on NSA 5G. T-Mobile is claiming that by simply switching to NSA 5G, the company is improving 5G coverage by an additional 30% while already having by far and away from the best 5G coverage in the country. As a result, T-Mobile is claiming that its 5G network coverage area is more than two times bigger than AT&Ts and more than 10,000 times bigger than Verizon’s. According to Open Signal, Verizon’s 5G network has only 0.4% coverage, so it makes sense that T-Mobile can claim such a ridiculously high comparison number. This additional coverage means that T-Mobile’s 5G network is adding 2,000 new cities and now covers 250 million potential customers in 7,500 cities across 1.3 million miles. However, T-Mobile has not stopped there; the company has also stated that by going to SA 5G, the all-important latency figure has dropped by 40%, which should put T-Mobile’s latency in the teens or lower.
Breaking it down
T-Mobile started out of the gates quickly with 5G, and with this new standalone (SA) 5G network, we believe the company is broadening its 5G lead. Verizon and AT&T are scrambling to keep up with T-Mobile’s coverage and lack the mid-band spectrum to compete with it there as well. Our firm analyzed the leaders in 5G spanning silicon, infrastructure, carriers, and more in a six part Forbes series last summer and concluded that T-Mobile was a leader in North America. This announcement further cements that leadership. If interested, you can find that article here.
I expect that as T-Mobile rolls out its mid-band 2.5 GHz network, which the company is currently doing at a blazing 1,000 sites per month (1,000 sites per month on 600 MHz as well), it will really start to pull away from the rest of the pack in average download speeds. T-Mobile is already reporting an average of about 300 Mbps on 2.5 GHz and expects that to reach 400 Mbps by the end of the year as more spectrum frees up.
Sure, it will take time for T-Mobile to roll out 2.5 GHz nationwide, but nobody expected T-Mobile to roll out 600 MHz this quickly either. AT&T already has nationwide 5G coverage, but it will probably take it quite some time to catch up to T-Mobile. Verizon has a plan to deploy Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) to enable 5G coverage, but that shares spectrum with 4G. That said, all three carriers are expected to deploy DSS to shore up coverage holes by the end of the year.
Nevertheless, T-Mobile have shown that it is not only the undisputed leader in 5G coverage, but that it also has the most advanced 5G network with standalone 5G, and the company is not letting off the gas pedal. T-Mobile has taken multiple leadership positions in 5G and it does not look like it will be surrendering them anytime soon.
Note: This blog includes contributions from Moor Insights & Strategy founder and President, Patrick Moorhead and Will Townsend, carrier services and carrier equipment.