There are two different flavors of the 5G networks, Standalone (SA) and Non-Standalone (NSA). To better understand the difference between the two we will have to look at a generalized mobile telecommunication system and understand the different components first.
Simply speaking, there are three parts in a mobile telecommunication system: User Equipment, Radio Access Network, and Core Network. The chart below illustrates how the 3 parts connect to each other.
Radio Access Network (RAN) sits in the middle, connecting User Equipment (connected devices like smartphones) to the Core Network. The key components in a RAN include a base station and antenna.
Within the network, a control plane is a part that tells WHERE the signal goes. Think of it as the traffic light system of the entire network. A user plane is a part that carries all the data, responsible for WHAT is being transmitted. Think of it as the road that cars run through.
With the basic understanding of a mobile telecommunication system, we can now look at two different types of 5G networks: Standalone (SA) and Non-standalone (NSA).
A Standalone (SA) 5G network means that the entire network is built from the ground up, and does not rely on any of the old infrastructures for both Control Plane and User Plane. You have a 5G Core Network connecting to a 5G Base Station, and supporting 5G User Equipment. It is a simple architecture, easy to manage, and is the end goal that all carriers are trying to achieve because it enables all the features and functions promised by 5G. However, there is one critical issue: it is expensive because you have to build everything from the ground up.
A Non-Standalone (NSA) 5G network is more complicated and has multiple variations because it is basically a mix of 4G and 5G networks. The most common variation relies on the control plane of the existing 4G LTE network, with the 5G Base Station dedicated to User Plane connecting to a 4G Core Network (see the chart below). While the NSA architecture cannot provide all the benefits of 5G, there is one critical benefit for carriers choosing this method: it is cheaper as you can leverage some of the 4G investment, and have the 5G bragging right at a much lower initial cost.
Because of the larger investment requirement for the SA architecture, most carriers around the world focus more on NSA in the early stage of 5G deployment, with China Mobile and China telecom pushing hard on the Standalone version.
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