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Autonomous 5G networks begin to be deployed, especially in Asia


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Fully autonomous 5G networks (5G SA), which do not require 4G networks to function, are beginning to be deployed in many countries, although in the West most operators still have them in the testing phase. In reality, although 5G technology without the need for 4G is available, many operators prefer to wait for the demand for 5G services to grow more and to operate for the time being with 5G networks supported by 4G (5G NSA), which require less investment. The problem is that 5G NSA does not arouse any enthusiasm among potential users, and without it, you cannot get really attractive 5G services up and running.


The introduction of a new mobile generation has always posed serious dilemmas for operators, because they have to make a large investment to recover it more than a few months, or a few years later, with the increase in demand for new (and more expensive) services. With the introduction of 3G and especially with 4G, the problem was much lower than the current one with 5G, for two fundamental reasons: with 3G and 4G, hundreds or even billions of additional subscribers would surely come (especially in the first five years of the past decade) and the new services planned with 3G and 4G were really very attractive and innovative compared to the previous ones.


With 5G, the opposite is true of what happened with 3G and 4G: the new 5G services are not particularly attractive, at least until the 5G networks are fully deployed and the technology well established. It is due, in part, to the fact that 4G LTE networks have a great coverage and work very well, while 5G networks (whether SA or NSA and a medium band of 3.5 GHz or low band of 700 MHz) provide little more than New, especially for the bulk of users, consumers, and business 5G services have yet to be fully developed.

Operators need to deploy and adopt fully autonomous 5G networks (5G SA) for the promises and potential of 5G to be effective, say equipment manufacturers such as Ericsson

The other problem is that global mobile subscriptions will grow relatively little in the coming years, from 8.1 billion at the end of 2021 to 8.9 billion by the end of 2027, according to Ericsson. These approximately 100 million new annual mobile users will also be in developing countries, with reduced spending per subscriber. In the remainder of the decade, it is true that subscriptions to the new 5G networks will grow a lot, but mainly at the cost of the migration from 4G to 5G and from 2G and 3G to 4G.


Thus, the average billing per user, a basic parameter for operators, will not increase much in the coming years and, as there will not be new users with high spending capacity, the global billing of mobile telephony services will not be much higher than world level than today; and less in Europe and especially in Spain, due to the intense competition that makes prices fall. Given this situation, it is not strange that doubts arise among operators when it comes to promoting 5G; Although standing still is not a good option, because there will always be operators willing to invest in 5G to gain market share.

Many 5G NSA networks and relatively few 5G SA networks

The GSMA Association, which groups the majority of global mobile operators, calculated, in a report in mid-July, a great interest from operators around the world to plan, or have already available, 5G NSA networks, with the support of 4G backbone networks, especially in Europe and Asia Pacific (this is not strange either, because it is where there are more operators). But their number fell by at least half when only the operators that planned or had introduced 5G SA networks, fully autonomous, were counted.

In Europe, as seen in the graph above, only 34 operators have or want to launch 5G SA soon, compared to 97 operators that have, or plan to have 5G NSA and SA networks in the short term (63 with 5G NSA and 34 more with 5G SA). In Asia Pacific, half of the operators want 5G SA in addition to 5G NSA. Asia, according to the GSMA survey, had the most commercial 5G SA networks in 2020 and by mid-2021 the region had half of all these deployments; China, apart, is the only country where all operators (the three existing ones) have 5G SA networks deployed.


The GSA, the Association of mobile phone providers, estimates, in its report at the end of 2021, that there are 200 commercially available 5G networks in 78 countries and that a total of 487 operators from 145 countries are investing in 5G networks, whether in test phase, pilot or commercial deployment. GSA specifies that it has identified 99 operators that are investing in public 5G SA networks, be it in the evaluation, test, pilot phase or already commercial deployment. But the Association has listed only twenty operators that have deployed or launched 5G SA public networks so far.

The commercial deployment of 5G networks has been much faster than what happened in its day with LTE 4G, but in its version that depends on 4G because autonomous 5G networks are still being tested, especially in the West

The investment and subsequent development of 5G networks has been very rapid, especially from its inception in the second quarter of 2018 to the beginning of 2020, as seen in the lower graph of the GSA. It has been throughout 2020 and 2021 when commercial deployments have accelerated and now much of Europe, Asia, the Middle East and America have 5G commercial services and the rest of the pre-commercial phase. Only Africa is far behind, except South Africa.

Source: GSA (dec. 2022). NTS Database.

The growth of LTE-4G networks has been very low in the last two years, due to the fact that the bulk of the launches took place mainly between 2012 and 2016, reaching 600 operator networks deployed worldwide at the end of 2016. In Over the next five years, until the end of 2021, GSA estimates that another 200 operators have installed LTE networks around the world, for a total of 800, as seen in the graph below.

The rate of introduction of 5G networks has been much higher than that of 4G networks in their day, as can be seen when comparing the two upper GSA graphs. The strong deployment of LTE occurred throughout 2012, four years after it began. In contrast, by mid-2020, two years after 5G started, there were more 5G networks deployed than LTE after four years.

5G SA, key to the operators’ business

GSMA Intelligence counted, in mid-2021, 89 launch and deployment plans for SA 5G networks around the world and calculated half a year ago that 38% of all operators with 5G networks had committed to having autonomous 5G networks, without committing themselves to a precise date. As the GSMA study bureau adds in the report “5G SA means business”, this high commitment is not surprising, because “the added functionalities that SA enables are key to achieving the promise of 5G to support an improved mobile broadband network (eMBB), ultra reliable, low latency communications and massive IoT cases ”.


5G NSA networks, which are anchored to 4G, have allowed operators to rapidly deploy eMBB services and additional capacity, although it is with 5G SA that connection ties with 4G LTE are broken and improved functionalities are achieved, recalls the report . The increased support achieved for machine-to-machine IoT connections is one of the great benefits of 5G SA but, from the perspective of the operators, “network architecture and cost optimization are among its greatest benefits, along with IoT ”, Adds the report. The deployment of on-demand networks (network slicing) or fixed wireless networks (FWA), as well as video games with very low latency or B2B2C services are, it should be noted, other of the great advantages of 5G SA.


The GSMA report emphasizes that operators need to incorporate 5G SA into their 5G planning, now that SA network infrastructure solutions are commercially available and there is also a wide variety of compatible terminals, “so the promised benefits by SA they can no longer be seen as theoretical ”.


However, the GSMA points out that 5G NSA networks will continue to be part of 5G for many years and regrets that 5G SA networks are not yet part of the operators’ 5G roadmap. A criticism made of 5G SA is that, at least until now, the emphasis has been on services for companies, still in development, and not so much on services for consumers, which are considered to also form part of a holistic approach when planning 5G development.


In the half year since this report was published, the commercial availability of 5G SA networks has improved, but not substantially. The large network manufacturers, essentially Ericsson and Nokia (because the main one, Huawei, is very focused on Asia and especially on China out of necessity) have won several contracts in 2021 and have optimized their technological offer with 5G SA, but they are not finding a lot of enthusiasm in the operators of the big western markets.

Without 5G SA, the promises of 5G will not materialize

Ericsson, in an article published in Light Reading, acknowledges that, “without a 5G Core, advanced 5G use cases, such as multiplayer augmented reality video games or factory maintenance, will virtually never materialize.” To realize the full potential of 5G and deliver on its promises, “operators need to deploy and adopt full 5G Core on their networks.” Because, apart from handling all the networks, 5G Core runs many of the core operations on a mobile network, Ericsson adds in the article he sponsored.


The move from a 4G-based 5G network (5G NSA) to a fully autonomous 5G network (5G SA) not only makes existing networks evolve but also updates them, in such a way that transforming elements can be introduced for new ones. business opportunities or needs of the vertical sectors. 5G SA networks “allow service providers to simplify their planning and execution processes, and connect to 5G more quickly,” Ericsson adds.


The 5G SA architecture “will create a truly futuristic ecosystem, because it is the foundation for reaching 5G maturity with 5G Core.” Many operators are fully aware of the virtues of 5G Core, but doubt how to expand its capabilities beyond modernizing their existing networks with greater security and reduction of operational complexities and their cost. “5G Core is not yet available, to put it simply,” Ericsson says. That it is necessary to have a 5G Core network and 5G SA is not a new argument for Ericsson. He already exposed it on his blog in May 2020.


André Fuetsch, technology director of AT & T Services, assured at the end of October that his company was still in the phase of testing with the 5G Core and could not give any date of commercial introduction of the 5G SA services. A year earlier, in September 2020, AT&T already said that it was testing 5G SA and that it planned to make a full deployment by the end of that same year, just when it had managed to virtualize 75% of its network functions. For now, T-Mobile US is the only operator in the United States that has deployed the 5G SA network in some places, because Verizon, the third largest US operator, is also in the testing phase.


AT&T said in October that it expected to cover 70 to 75 million people with the C-band by the end of 2022 and more than 200 million by the end of 2023. However, the delay in the introduction of the C-band, which AT&T expected to introduce the December 5, 2020 and agreed to delay it for a month at the request of the aviation authority, which had detected interference with the planes and which has been delayed again for two weeks, until the middle of next week, on February 19, apart from reducing the frequency in areas close to airports, call into question the most ambitious plans.

Interference with airplanes, another obstacle in the US for 5G

The issue of interference with airplanes is increasingly complex and the FCA, the aviation authority in the United States, has just released new details on its website that make it clear that it is not their whim. When the issue began to be made public, the association representing the operators, the CTA, argued that there were similar systems in France and they did not cause any problems.


In the graph below, the FCA makes it clear that in France the approach zone is higher (90 seconds of flight) and permanent, while in the United States it wants to reduce it at 50 airports, and temporarily, to 20 seconds of flight. Furthermore, in France the antennas are directed towards the ground while in the United States they are horizontal. Worse still, the United States works with an emission power of 1,585 watts, two and a half times that of France. This greater emission power, if it is general throughout the country, could provoke protests about the safety of 5G emissions not only in airplanes but also in users near the antennas. Decidedly, the introduction of 5G in the United States is encountering many obstacles.

In Europe, meanwhile, the deployment of 5G networks continues apace, but in its version anchored to 4G. Germany is apparently the most advanced in the rollout of 5G SA, but the testing phase is just now beginning, with the dominant operator, Deutsche Telekom, anticipating that it could start to enter commercial service in a few months. Telefónica also assured in December that it plans to start testing 5G SA networks in a few weeks, initially at its German subsidiary, O2, and then continuing them at its British subsidiary, now linked to Virgin Telco after having received the go-ahead from the authorities. and later in Spain. Vodafone, the other major European operator, has started testing 5G SA at its German subsidiary and Orange is expected to do so soon at its French facilities.


The plans of the European operators are, at the moment, not very specific in terms of 5G SA, because they are focusing above all on providing service with the 5G NSA networks. In Asia, and especially in South Korea, China, Japan and Taiwan, 5G SA networks already operate and there are plans to extend their coverage, part of operating with 5G NSA. In China, there are 5G networks that work with the 3.5 GHz band and the 700 MHz band, but in the rest of Asian countries they work mainly with the 3.5 GHz band.


During this year 2022, as it seems in the second half, it is foreseeable that the operational tests and start-up of the 5G SA networks will become general and that there will be more and more fully commercial networks and in accordance with the specifications of Release 17 that, definitively, it should approve the 3GPP during the third quarter.