A Telecom Transformation is underway. With 5G, a whole new generation of networks is being built to connect 50+ Billion Devices, creating more than a $12 trillion-dollar market opportunity for Mobile Network Operators. The road to 5G, it turns out though, isn’t a straight line. This leads us to a discussion of non-standalone architectures (NSA) and standalone architectures (SA). Here are the differences and benefits of NSA and SA and how MNOs can take advantage.
- Differences Between NSA and SA
- Non-Standalone Architectures for MNOs
- Standalone Architectures (SA) for MNOs
- NSA and SA, and The Future of 5G
Differences Between NSA and SA
The main difference of NSA (Non-Standalone Architecture) and SA (Standalone Architecture) is that NSA anchors the control signaling of 5G Radio Networks to the 4G Core, while the SA scheme connects the 5G Radio directly to the 5G core network, and the control signaling does not depend on the 4G network at all. NSA, as the name suggests, is a 5G service that does not ‘stand alone’ but is built over an existing 4G network. SA, on the other hand, allows completely independent operation of a 5G service without any interaction with an existing 4G core.
Per 3GPP TR 21.915, Two deployment options are defined for 5G:
- The “Non-Stand Alone” (NSA) architecture, where the 5G Radio Access Network (AN) and its New Radio (NR) interface is used in conjunction with the existing LTE and EPC infrastructure Core Network (respectively 4G Radio and 4G Core), thus making the NR technology available without network replacement. In this configuration, only the 4G services are supported, but enjoying the capacities offered by the 5G New Radio (lower latency, etc). The NSA is also known as “E-UTRA-NR Dual Connectivity (EN-DC)” or “Architecture Option 3”.
- The “Stand-Alone” (SA) architecture, where the NR is connected to the 5G CN. Only in this configuration, the full set of 5G Phase 1 services are supported.
Non-Standalone Architectures for MNOs
The path that mobile network operators (MNOs) follow to 5G will depend a lot on how they plan to pay for that journey. During the deployment of 4G from 2010-2015, virtualization was not a mandate. Operators took many different approaches to deploying 4G architectures utilizing proprietary and virtualized solutions. With 5G, virtualization is a must. MNOs now have an opportunity to transform the way they build and operate their networks.
For MNOs that are looking to deliver mainly high-speed connectivity to consumers with 5G-enabled devices, a non-standalone architecture (NSA) makes the most sense, because it enables them to leverage their existing network investments in transport and mobile core —rather than deploy a completely new end to end 5G network.
This can be combined with efforts to reduce network operating costs by adopting virtualization and CUPS (Control and User plane separation) using software-defined networking (SDN). These initial steps toward 5G, enable MNOs to begin offering 5G services providing faster data speeds and capture additional revenue streams.
Benefits of 5G NSA:
- deliver high-speed connectivity to consumers with 5G-enabled devices
- leverage existing network investments in transport and mobile core
Standalone Architectures (SA) for MNOs
For some MNOs, however, who have their sights set on new enterprise 5G services such as smart cities, smart factories, or other vertical market solutions, a standalone architecture (SA) could make more sense.
In this scenario, which 3GPP has now standardized, MNOs can build an entirely new fully virtualized 5G network that includes new radio access network, new transport network, and new 5G mobile core and edge networks – standing alone and separate from their existing 4G and legacy networks. 5G standalone architecture is a fully virtualized, cloud-native architecture (CNA) that introduces new ways to develop, deploy, and manage services. CNA includes concepts of microservices and service-based interfaces that greatly simplify services, dramatically reducing the cost of operation and speeding up the introduction of new revenue-generating services.
With 5G SA, the distinct advantage here is end-to-end support for 5G speeds and services. And the true promise of 5G is enterprise-driven revenue – it changes the business model from consumer-driven to enterprise-focused opening up entirely new use cases and revenue streams.
Benefits of 5G SA:
- MNOs can launch new enterprise 5G services such as smart cities, and smart factories
- It is fully virtualized, cloud-native architecture (CNA), which introduces new ways to develop, deploy and manage services
- The architecture enables end to end slicing to logically separate services
- Automation drives up efficiencies while driving down the cost of operating the networks.
- By standardizing on a cloud-native approach, MNOs can also rely on best of breed innovation from both vendors and the open-source communities
- By choosing a cloud-native microservices-based architecture, MNOs can also decide on a variety of deployment models such as on-prem private cloud, public cloud, or hybrid to meet their business objectives
The Future of 5G Includes NSA and SA
It’s worth noting that NSA and SA aren’t an either/or proposition, but more of a “sooner or later” consideration. MNOs that begin with NSA can gradually add or migrate to SA over time. What we’ve seen at Affirmed from early 5G adopters are primarily NSA deployments as MNOs compete for the bragging rights (and the competitive advantage) of being the first to offer 5G speeds.
These MNOs were typically the first to adopt 4G/LTE technologies as well, and so are fairly advanced in terms of network virtualization. Many of them are still using Affirmed’s solution as their virtual Evolved Packet Core (vEPC) solution. One of the advantages of Affirmed’s NSA-based solution is its ability to handle both 4G and 5G-based traffic as MNOs transform their networks.
At some point, of course, NSA and SA will converge as MNOs move to a full 5G architecture. Recognizing that, MNOs would do well to look for a mobile core platform that can transition easily from non-standalone to standalone. Having a completely virtualized 5G architecture will offer MNOs the flexibility to migrate select functionality of their existing NSA solution to the 5G core platform over time, as new 5G services are enabled, allowing them to monetize their investment gradually rather than go all-in and hope to recoup their costs later.
With a clear path to evolving their networks from NSA to SA, Mobile Network Operators can win the race to revenues by operating their networks at webscale. Learn more about our 5G core solution.
Source for market reference