BT anticipates launching standalone 5G, also known as ‘true’ 5G, later this year

British telecommunications giant BT has announced its anticipation to roll out its inaugural stand-alone 5G network in 2024. Howard Watson, BT’s chief technology officer, revealed to CNBC that the telco group is poised to activate its stand-alone 5G network, also known as “true” 5G, later this year.

“Others are talking about it. They’re talking about it. But we are working to get the right ecosystem in place, which means the right set of devices,” Watson expressed in an interview with CNBC at the Mobile World Congress tech trade show in Barcelona, Spain.

This development follows a trial conducted by the company in collaboration with Swedish telco infrastructure firm Ericsson and chipmaking giant Qualcomm, showcasing network “slicing.” Network slicing involves configuring the network to allow the creation of multiple networks on the same common physical network infrastructure.

“We’ve already been ensuring that the SIM cards that our customers have in their current 5G devices can do 5G stand-alone,” Watson elaborated. “And so once we think there’s enough critical mass to have a real proposition, with some slicing behind it as well, we will launch that, and that will be later this year.”

As of now, rival U.K. carriers Vodafone and Virgin Media O2 have already activated 5G stand-alone solutions, while BT’s EE, the U.K.’s largest mobile network, is yet to unveil its stand-alone network. Its launch is contingent upon the forthcoming release of Apple’s new iPhone 16, expected to support 5G stand-alone in Europe upon its autumn debut.

What is a ‘5G stand-alone’?

5G stand-alone would provide users with a dedicated portion of the network, offering specific bandwidth and latency commitments. Each network slice acts as an isolated segment of the network tailored to meet the requirements of a particular application.

For instance, gamers seeking ultra-low latency for competitive online play could leverage 5G stand-alone to achieve latency as low as nine to 10 milliseconds, akin to what they experience with a direct connection to their home via HTTP.

5g Network Digital
Network slicing showcases multiple networks on shared infrastructure, enhancing efficiency and customization.

Latency is crucial for gamers as it directly impacts response times. Higher latency results in more noticeable lag during gameplay, leading to a less fluid gaming experience. “You may not want that 24 hours, seven days a week,” Watson explained. “So we might have a really flexible pricing mechanism that says you can have that from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.”

“Bringing it to life in propositions for customers is how we will market it rather than with, come and buy some ‘stand-alone,’” he added. Milind Kulkarni, vice president and head of InterDigital’s wireless labs, emphasized that network slicing is just one step in a series of technological advancements leading to the evolution of 5G Advanced, an enhanced version of the 5G network.

“5G offers a fantastic platform with a lot of capability to support many use cases, and we have to continue our focus in enabling more vertical markets and increasing its capabilities as we march through 5G Advanced,” Kulkarni told CNBC.

However, it’s important to note that 5G stand-alone differs from 5G Advanced. While 5G stand-alone pertains to the development of a 5G network independent of 4G cores, 5G Advanced represents a comprehensive evolution of the network. BT and other network operators view 5G stand-alone as a means to generate additional revenue from the next-generation networks they began deploying approximately five years ago.

Does 5G have a future?

Undoubtedly, 5G plans come with a higher price tag compared to 4G.

However, consumers have been grappling with the perceived value of 5G, particularly considering that its speed improvements over 4G are often seen as only incremental. This challenge is compounded by the fact that many regions in the U.K. and other developed countries still lack widespread 5G connectivity.

To kickstart the implementation of 5G stand-alone networks, network operators are reliant on smartphone manufacturers like Apple and Samsung to equip their devices with stand-alone capabilities.

5G Network
Apple’s potential integration of stand-alone capabilities in the next iPhone could shape the 5G landscape. (Credits: Unsplash)

According to Watson, Apple has yet to do so in Europe, leaving him in anticipation of the next iPhone release to see if the tech giant will integrate stand-alone readiness into its smartphones.

In 2023, BT’s consumer business underwent a significant rebranding initiative, with a primary focus on introducing a comprehensive suite of services. This move addresses an area where telecom companies have historically struggled to match the scale of digital behemoths like Meta, Google, Apple, and Amazon.

As the leading telecom company in the U.K., BT operates both fixed and wireless networks nationwide. Its consumer division commands approximately 30% market share in broadband and mobile services, while its enterprise segment caters to larger business clientele. Since its acquisition in 2016 for £12.5 billion ($15.8 billion), BT has been overseeing the EE mobile network.

Michael Manua
Michael Manua
Michael, a seasoned market news expert with 29 years of experience, offers unparalleled insights into financial markets. At 61, he has a track record of providing accurate, impactful analyses, making him a trusted voice in financial journalism.
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