To get 5G hardware into the marketplace more rapidly, standards organization 3GPP and leading hardware makers launched “non-standalone 5G” — a version of 5G that can achieve much faster download speeds than 4G, but still depends on some 4G network hardware, limiting its overall performance and potential. Today, T-Mobile announced a number of major steps towards the rollout of a standalone (SA) 5G network, notably including 5G voice, video, and data “world’s firsts” using products from multiple leading hardware vendors.
In this case, the participants are as important as what was accomplished. While individual device and network hardware vendors regularly achieve “firsts” in their own test labs, T-Mobile’s tests used commercial hardware from pairs of rivals: 5G modem makers MediaTek and Qualcomm, the latter backed by phone vendor OnePlus, as well as 5G network gear makers Ericsson and Nokia, with Cisco core components. For businesses and end users, this means that a wide array of 5G phones from trusted brands will be quickly supported across T-Mobile’s standalone 5G network, which will use interoperable gear from several different providers.
The world’s firsts include the first SA 5G data session between commercial MediaTek and Qualcomm modems on a production 5G network, the first low-band 5G voice over new radio (VoNR) voice call, and the first video over new radio (ViNR) call on a production network — direct phone-to-phone video calling without the need for an app. Additionally, T-Mobile says it accomplished the first low-band SA 5G voice call using Evolved Packet System (EPS) fallback to voice over LTE, which MediaTek is using to offer LTE-quality phone calling over 5G while VoNR is under development.
Standalone 5G promises to unlock several features missing from non-standalone 5G, including dramatically enhanced upload speeds, single-digit millisecond latency, and larger-scale connectivity to masses of devices at once. T-Mobile said last year that it was working with MediaTek to prepare for standalone 5G, but the Taiwanese chip maker had no devices in the marketplace at that time. While the OnePlus test phone used Qualcomm’s 5G modem, it’s unclear which MediaTek-based commercial device was used in the testing.
Critically, T-Mobile notes that its tests were conducted with standalone and non-standalone 5G devices operating at the same time on the same cell, which is to say that the carrier won’t need to break compatibility with today’s non-standalone 5G phones in order to offer services to standalone 5G devices. While the specific timing of the standalone network’s rollout is ambiguous, T-Mobile reiterated today that it’s still happening later this year.