KT has become the first South Korean operator to implement standalone (SA) 5G architecture in its 5G network, but rivals are in no rush
South Korea was one of the earliest nations in the world to commercialise 5G, doing so back in 2019, and since then has become a global leader in the next-generation mobile technology.
Since then, all three of the country’s major operators have been operating their 5G networks on a non-standalone (NSA) framework: i.e., with 5G services being supported by 4G spectrum.
While NSA 5G has allowed for a much faster and more widespread rollout of the 5G, it does have its drawbacks. Reliance on 4G spectrum means that NSA 5G cannot reach the low latencies and high speeds deliverable by 5G alone. As a result, SA 5G will also be key to unlocking some of 5G’s most exciting use cases, like advanced network slicing, and improving security and network costs
These reasons are, at least in part, while KT has now launched its SA 5G service, becoming the first South Korean operator to do so. The company claims that the SA 5G network will reduce latency and power consumption for subscribers, while also having major implications for enterprise customers through developing the use of multi-access edge computing, autonomous vehicles, and smart factories.
Device support for the SA network will initially be limited to the Samsung Galaxy S20 smartphone series, with further device support expected in the near future.
KT’s domestic rivals, however, are quick to downplay the upgrades importance, arguing that it will make very little difference to customers at this point in time. SK Telecom, for example, trialled 5G SA at a SK Hynix factory at the start of 2021, with seemingly lacklustre results.
“The SA mode at this moment doesn’t make much difference to customers,” said an SK Telecom spokesperson. “We are opting for a more cautious approach because we believe that a more advanced technology is best for the customers.”
KT clearly disagrees, however, suggesting that the SA 5G network will have greater impact for enterprises, but will rapidly develop more widespread benefits.
“The SA mode will open the doors for 5G technology to be used in other industries, not just smartphones,” a KT spokesperson said. “In the future, split-seconds will have tangible difference in real life. Those milliseconds might not have a huge difference now, but it’s a start to other technologies that we are preparing for the future.”
Ultimately, SA 5G is the next step in 5G’s development and will be something all operators around the world will want to implement at some point in the future. The key will be doing so at a time when the cost of deployment is offset by the benefits of the greater quality connectivity, which may or may not be this early in 5G’s evolution. Nonetheless, there are benefits to being first in deploying any novel technology, especially in one of the most competitive 5G markets.
At the very least, the upgrade could have positive optics for KT, who are, alongside their rivals, currently embroiled in a class action lawsuit from customers who claim they have overpromised when it comes to their 5G networks’ performance.
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