Today, Vodafone UK said it is the first operator in the country to offer customers a 5G standalone (SA) network. The operator is now providing 5G SA to its customers in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Cardiff.

The service, dubbed 5G Ultra, is initially available only to customers who have a Samsung Galaxy S21 or S22 device. But Vodafone says more devices will become 5G Ultra-compatible in July.

The 5G SA version of its network service provides about 25% longer phone battery life and more reliable connections in busy locations, along with 5G speeds, which Vodafone says are 10 times faster than its 4G speeds.

Vodafone UK still uses 5G Non-standalone (NSA) in many areas of the country. NSA means that the network uses 5G in its radio access network (RAN), but still relies on a 4G core network. Whereas, the new 5G SA network is a completely separate 5G core that works with 5G in the RAN.

Vodafone’s network switches between 4G, 5G NSA or 5G Ultra to give customers the best connectivity that’s available in their location.

The Wimbledon Tennis Championships will be one of the first major events at which customers can benefit from the new 5G SA connectivity. Cell towers in the Wimbledon area have been upgraded to deliver the new service, including ones which provide coverage to the courts and the surrounding outdoor fan zones.

Vodafone UK began trialling its 5G SA network in January.

At that time, Vodafone UK’s Chief Network Officer Andrea Dona, posted a blog, saying the company had been working with Ericsson over the last year to build the 5G SA core network. “This is one of the final steps, but we also have to upgrade equipment on each mast site, as 5G makes use of different spectrum frequencies than 4G,” wrote Dona.

What’s the hangup with 5G SA?

Dave Bolan, research director for Mobile Core Networks at the analyst firm Dell’Oro Group, said operators that are switching to 5G SA sometimes have to change the radios on their masts depending on what spectrum they are using for the radios to talk to the 5G core. According to Wikipedia’s list of 5G NR Networks, Vodafone UK is using 90 MHz in the mid-band 3.5 GHz for its 5G SA.

“They had to add those radios or upgrade radios if they could get one radio to do all the bands together,” said Bolan. “There could be a Huawei issue as well,” he said, referring to the fact that the U.K. operators are working to remove all Huawei radio equipment from their networks.

Another hang-up with rolling out 5G SA is that it uses cloud-native technologies in the core. 

Bolan said it takes a new skill set to go from a non-cloud environment to cloud-native. He said the modern cloud core will enable new capabilities like network slicing, but it’s a challenge to get there, and most operators are working with cloud infrastructure providers such as RedHat, Wind River and VMware. “It’s not an easy transition,” said Bolan.

In fact, both AT&T and Verizon have made announcements about the arrival of their 5G SA core. But after the fact, it appears that they haven’t rolled out 5G SA to their whole networks, but rather, are introducing it slowly.

For its part, Verizon is using its own in-house-built Verizon Cloud Platform for its 5G SA core.

And AT&T recently told our sister publication Silverlinings that in order to scale 5G SA, it needs a “critical mass of capable devices.”

Bolan said American operators are “taking a very methodical approach” to rolling out 5G SA. He said AT&T “for sure is in five markets,” including Dallas/Ft. Worth, which is its headquarters.

He said 5G SA has gone slowly, in general, during the first half of 2023 with only Orange in Spain and Etisalat in the United Arab Emirates having made announcements. But there’s a lot of networks poised for 5G SA in the second half of the year.

Other factors for Vodafone

In his January blog, Vodafone’s Dona put out a call for government assistance in the rollout of 5G Ultra, saying it is a significant financial commitment. “We cannot do it alone,” he wrote. “We need support from the Government and regulators. This could take the form of providing low-interest loans; reforming regulation around net neutrality; encouraging public procurement of 5G services; or reducing barriers to roll-out.”

It’s not known whether the U.K. government has stepped forward with help in any of these areas.

But in the interim, Vodafone has been pursuing a merger with Three UK.

Earlier this month Vodafone and Three UK finally struck a deal that would create the country’s largest telecom operator with over 27 million subscribers. But the merger is expected to receive heavy scrutiny from regulators.

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