ecs logo 5

5G or not 5G? (that’s the question)

5G or not 5G

In recent blogs, we’ve looked at 5G from various angles. In this one, we’ll get back to basics. While the use of the term “5G” is now widespread, it’s also casual in its application. That’s because there are two fundamental types of 5G network, and when it’s used, the commonplace term rarely distinguishes between them.

So, what are they? The two basic “flavours” of 5G are 55GSA (Standalone) and 5GNSA (non-standalone). They refer to quite different deployment architectures for 5G networks.

A choice of two

Digging a little deeper, 5GNSA is where the 5G network architecture is reliant on existing 4G infrastructure, cases where 5G radio access is deployed alongside the 4G core network. In NSA architectures, 5G radio access delivers additional capacity and speed enhancement over the existing 4G network but basic network functionalities (for instance, authentication or session management) are still handled by the 4G core. In the short term, as you might expect NSA enables quicker 5G service rollout but in the long-term probably won’t enable realisation of the full potential of 5G technologies.

5GSA (Standalone), on the other hand, is closer to what we might call “real 5G”, where both radio access and core network use native 5G technologies. 5GSA delivers what 5GNSA doesn’t including ultra-low latency, enhanced throughput, and support for new use cases like IoT (Internet of Things) and network slicing. With SA, there’s no dependence on existing 4G infrastructures but the “downside” in deploying a 5GSA network is more time and investment are required because the entire network infrastructure from scratch.

Who wins the race?

Which, then, is better? Well, it depends on things like required network performance, and future scalability expectations and other considerations but a few things are worth bearing in mind:

Because of its ultra-low latency, high throughput, and support for advanced use cases SA can provide a better user experience and support for emerging applications. For some carriers, this will be a more important consideration than for others.

  • 5GSA will likely offer better scalability compared to 5GNSA. This means it will more easily accommodate any increasing demand for data and support for a growing number of connected devices.
  • As we’ve already noted, on the other hand 5GNSA allows for a quicker rollout of 5G services. Its reduced deployment time may deliver a competitive, first-mover advantage getting services to market, albeit for a limited time.
  • 5GNSA might also offer broader coverage than SA because it can reuse existing 4G infrastructure. 5GSA will likely catch up as the standalone network expands, but not immediately.
  • 5GSA investments likely offer better futureproofing. As network requirements evolve and new technologies emerge, this will become more and more important. In other words, it’s a longer-term play.

So what’s the preferred option at present; SA or NSA? According to GSMA Intelligence research, as of Q1 2023, the percentage of live 5G networks that are 5G SA or planned to become 5G SA is around 50%. As we’ve seen, in the end the choice between 5GSA and 5GNSA depends on various factors with operator priorities and long-term strategic goals probably to the fore. Both architectures have advantages and disadvantages, and the with choices most likely to be based on specific circumstances and requirements.

Please share this...