5G NSA vs 5G SA | What are the Differences between NSA 5G and Standalone 5G Deployments? | Corning

The journey to 5G isn’t a single path – there’s a lot for carriers to consider in terms of capital and return on investment

The current generation, 5G, is a massive leap forward and brings new capabilities, including greatly increased speed, latency under 10 milliseconds, as well as the ability to connect many more devices at any given time. And this new generation relies on optical fiber as a backbone to connect cell sites and radio equipment – including terminal solutions such as the Evolv® series with preconnectorized cables for streamlined, flexible deployments.

There is one wrinkle, however, as 5G rolls out across the world. Some early deployments have used existing 4G and LTE equipment as a base, as a steppingstone to full standalone 5G rather than moving right into full buildouts. This approach, called non-standalone or NSA 5G, requires less capital investment but doesn’t capture the full potential of the 5G spectrum.

So what’s the correct approach? This decision is vital to the carriers, and there are a number of factors to consider, both functionally and financially. Understanding the differences between NSA and standalone for 5G deployments is extremely important for meeting strategic targets and ensuring maximum return on investment while delivering quality connectivity to customers.

Non Standalone (NSA) 5G Deployments can be a first step

The first piece to take into consideration when deciding on a 5G buildout approach is whether or not your company has existing 4G equipment and structure. This includes both the radio access network (RAN) as well as the core network. NSA is all about allowing carriers to continue using the 4G core network, with the 5G RAN as an added high data rate pathway. For companies with an existing 4G network, using that architecture and equipment helps with the initial costs of building out a 5G platform until you are ready to complete a standalone all-5G network.

When an NSA network is built, new radios (NR) for 5G are deployed on existing cell towers to capture and transmit the 5G spectrum to customers. At the base station, usually located at a macro tower, the initial call is still set up with the 4G network.. So, these new handsets and radios all still feed back to last generation equipment for interconnection. Once the session has been established to a 4G RAN and 4G core, the device, depending on it’s capability, may be switched to the 5G air interface to provide high data rate connectivity. The packets still go back to the 4G core. Although customers will have an improved service compared to 4G LTE, they will not have the opportunity to experience the full 5G package with ultra-low latency and massively increased throughput.

By deploying NSA first, companies can save that upfront outlay of money to build everything from scratch, while still being able to market some 5G services that require new handsets, receivers, and monthly service charges for their customers.

NSA networks can still use mmWave spectrum for 5G. This technology operates on a higher frequency than those used by Wi-Fi and the previous generations of mobile technology. It enables higher data rates, and it’s the aspect of 5G that will unlock the most transformative new use cases – things like fully immersive gaming, remote operation of vehicles, smart manufacturing and more. While mmWave is powerful, it also broadcasts at much shorter distances than other frequencies. It also has difficulty penetrating walls and buildings. Therefore, it will require a more sophisticated support infrastructure, including radio units on light poles and buildings, specially designed in-building networks to ensure coverage, and more.

As Corning has demonstrated with it’s in-building mmWave radio access network, we have successful commercial deployments of an NSA network running Corning mmWave 5G in-building RAN alongside a 4G anchor RAN, which can either be Corning’s or from a 3rd party.

There are a few drawbacks to NSA networks. For one, 4G is less energy efficient than 5G and running two networks simultaneously will increase power consumption dramatically. It’s also a temporary solution, as carriers currently relying on NSA will start to run into bandwidth issues over the next several years as demand and data traffic increase.

5G Standalone: the benefits and risks

For carriers that transition to standalone 5G coverage, that outlay of extra capital should start demonstrating new opportunities almost right away. A standalone 5G platform opens up a whole new set of business opportunities and network efficiencies, including the opportunities enabled by features such as network slicing and low-latency.

New verticals can now be approached by the carrier, including manufacturing, warehouses, municipality network management and transportation, since 5G can support cutting-edge use cases such as edge computing for robotics and automation. All of these new options could generate new revenues for the carrier, which could increase and accelerate the return on the investment spent for their standalone 5G network.

With standalone, carriers would be able to streamline operations into one simplified platform with improved uplink coverage. With this architecture, 4G traffic can be offloaded to the 5G midband spectrum, providing continued coverage for users of older equipment.

The growth in new services and business offerings for standalone 5G should help both the carrier and end users. When the carrier uses network slicing and frequency aggregation, it increases signal coverage and end user density. Special features that offer time-critical communications using the ultra-low latency features of true 5G, along with voice and videoconference improvements  can now be offered and monetized, bringing all of us closer to a world of more automation.

Beyond the capital investment necessary to move to standalone 5G, there are a few other considerations. The availability of device support in the ecosystem has to be managed alongside the transition to SA. In the interim period, there will always be a mix of devices, some that support SA and others that only support NSA or only 4G. Hence keeping a 4G network running in parallel will still be needed to provide ubiquitous service.  

Depending on a carrier’s expected capital outlay and investment returns, both NSA and standalone can be winning business models – although companies should keep in mind that standalone networks will eventually be needed in all scenarios to accommodate traffic loads and enable future use cases that hold 5G’s true promise. Corning is ready to help with the fiber cabling, terminals, wireless in-building radio access network solutions and distributed antenna systems, as well as the institutional know-how to guide the transition from 4G to 5G, whether or not that includes NSA as a step along the way.

To learn more about our terminal solutions with preconnectorized cables for streamlined and flexible deployments click here.

Ken Baker

Kevin Baker is a Market Development Manager for Corning. Kevin has brought to Corning 25 years of experience as a lead engineer in fiber deployment, network planning and product selection for PON and wireless. In his current market development role, Kevin consults with customers to make holistic decisions regarding their fiber deployments by leveraging existing available assets and anticipated convergence needs to prepare their networks for future growth.

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