If you’re interested in 5G then you should be interested in 5G Standalone, as this is set to be the next big step in mobile connectivity – one which has the potential to be even bigger than the step we’re currently taking from 4G to 5G.
We’re not getting ahead of ourselves by talking about 5G Standalone already though, as a large public trial is already underway, and it might not be too long before the first 5G Standalone networks fully launch.
Below then we’ve covered everything you need to know about 5G Standalone, including what it is, what’s so good about it, whether your phone will work with it, and how close the UK’s networks are to launching it.
What is 5G Standalone?
5G Standalone (also known as 5G SA), is a standalone 5G network. What does that mean? Well, right now the UK’s 5G networks are Non-Standalone, meaning that while they use a 5G Radio Access Network (RAN) including 5G masts and 5G frequencies, the core of the network is largely the same as it was during the days of 4G.
With 5G Standalone, there’s a 5G core as well – in other words the whole network has been upgraded with 5G-era technology, rather than using a mix of 5G and 4G tech.
We’re currently using Non-Standalone because it was cheaper and quicker to roll 5G out that way, but now that networks have a respectable amount of 5G coverage, they’re starting to turn their attention to the core network so they can get the most out of 5G.
By ‘core network’ we mean essentially the central part of the network, sometimes referred to as its backbone. This handles things like transferring network traffic, authenticating users, routing calls, and various network management functions.
What are the benefits of 5G Standalone?
Many of the benefits of 5G that have been hyped since before the first 5G networks even launched are really things that we need 5G Standalone for. Right now 5G brings higher download and upload speeds, but that’s the main benefit with Non-Standalone. There are far more upgrades available once you have 5G Standalone.
These include improved reliability, more responsive networks, lower latency, less battery drain (so your phone won’t need charging as often), improved 5G coverage, stronger indoor signals, and better security, as a 5G core network can offer advanced end-to-end encryption and next-generation security software.
5G Standalone can also be beneficial in busy areas, as it’s designed to connect far more devices simultaneously, so you’re less likely to run into the problem of a network being sluggish or unavailable in packed places like city centres and stadiums.
What technologies will 5G Standalone enable or improve?
There are numerous things that a 5G Standalone network will help with – or enable for the first time. For example, by lowering latency, it will improve the experience when video streaming and online gaming. Latency is how long a network takes to respond to a request before data starts moving, and it can be a cause of lag, putting you at a disadvantage when gaming online. With videos, a lower latency could reduce buffering times.
More serious applications of this improvement include powering self-driving vehicles and remote assisted surgeries, where a low latency connection could literally be the difference between life and death, since you need near-live data processing for these things to work safely.
There are also specific network features that 5G Standalone can enable, such as network slicing, which allows a mobile operator to partition its network, with different sections set up in different ways, so they’re ideal for what they’re used for. For example, the emergency services could have a dedicated slice of the network where a priority is placed on reliability over speed, since that’s most important to them.
Then there’s ‘network steering’, which allows the network to automatically direct a device towards the right connectivity type (be that 4G, 5G Standalone, or 5G Non-Standalone) for the service it’s currently using.
When will we get 5G Standalone?
While it’s not clear exactly when we’ll see a finished 5G Standalone network in the UK, it looks like Vodafone might be closest to delivering one, as in January 2023 it switched on the UK’s first 5G Standalone trial – and this sounds to be a widespread test, which select users of the network can access.
The trial covers London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Bath, Glasgow, and Birmingham, which might perhaps mean those will be among the first places to get finished 5G Standalone from Vodafone – though there’s no guarantee of that.
As with standard 5G though it’s likely that rural locations will be waiting longest, with Vodafone specifically saying that it will take support from government and regulators to bring 5G Standalone to communities across the UK, rather than just big cities. But we know it’s coming at least to some places, with Vodafone working with Ericsson to build a 5G core network.
As for EE, we know that its parent company BT has picked out Ericsson to supply it with a 5G core network, so plans are afoot. That was back in 2020, but since then, EE has announced that it plans to launch “a new 5G core network control system by 2023.” We’re in 2023 now at the time of writing and that hasn’t happened, but hopefully it’s well on the way.
More recently we’ve seen EE/BT complete lab trials using 5G SA, such as a carrier aggregation trial carried out in 2022, so progress is certainly being made.
Three might not launch 5G Standalone for quite a while, as Light Reading reported in September 2022 that it had learned the network doesn’t see this as a strategic priority, and will first "densify" its mobile network by adding new sites.
And then there’s O2, which like BT and Vodafone has partnered with Ericsson for its 5G core network. This builds on a network modernisation programme that Ericsson did for O2 in 2020, and the 5G core network was announced in 2021, with Ericsson specifically saying this would power a 5G Standalone network for O2. However, there’s no clear news on when this 5G core network will be complete.
Still, from what we’re seeing we’d guess Vodafone will possibly launch 5G Standalone first, followed by either O2 or EE – and there’s a chance that any or all of these companies could launch 5G Standalone before the end of 2023, though that’s largely speculation for now.
Three currently looks set to be last to launch 5G Standalone, but that too is just speculation based on the above information.
What phones are 5G Standalone ready?
If you’re wondering whether you’ll have to upgrade your phone for 5G Standalone then we have good news – you probably won’t.
Obviously you need a 5G phone for 5G Standalone, and not all 5G phones support 5G Standalone, but that support can be enabled with a software update, and it’s an update that manufacturers will likely be keen to offer, as we’re already seeing this happen in India, where Jio’s network is switching on 5G SA and numerous manufacturers have committed to software updates for their devices.
But you might not even need a software update, because according to the Global Certification Forum (GCF), 88% of 5G devices released between January 2022 and July 2022 (when the report was published) supported 5G Standalone.
That percentage is likely to continue rising, as it was up from 65% in 2021 and 34% in 2020. So if you have a recent 5G phone then it likely already supports 5G Standalone. Older ones are less likely to, but may well get a software update to enable it once 5G Standalone networks launch. Then again, older handsets also typically get less support from manufacturers, so there’s no guarantee.
You shouldn’t need to worry if you have an iPhone either, as every 5G iPhone (meaning the iPhone 12 onwards) supports 5G SA in at least some countries. Apple is a little vague about regional differences, so it’s not clear whether UK models support it, but if not then there’s little doubt Apple will update them to, since it’s offering support elsewhere, and tends to support its phones better than most companies.
James has been writing for us for over 10 years. Currently, he is Editorial Manager for our group of companies ( 3G.co.uk, 4G.co.uk and 5G.co.uk) and sub-editor at TechRadar. He specialises in smartphones, mobile networks/ technology, tablets, and wearables.
In the past, James has also written for T3, Digital Camera World, Clarity Media, Smart TV Radar, and others, with work on the web, in print and on TV. He has a film studies degree from the University of Kent, Canterbury, and has over a decade’s worth of professional writing experience.