5G Standalone: The UK gets the real thing at last

Vodafone has announced it will become the first network to offer 5G Standalone in the UK, promising improved speeds and longer battery life for smartphone owners.

Existing “5G” rollouts have been something of a hotchpotch, bootstrapping 5G technology to existing 4G equipment. 5G Standalone promises to deliver more of the benefits that 5G was meant to offer in the first place: ultrafast speeds, latency low enough for applications such as online gaming, and network slicing (we’ll come back to this shortly).

Vodafone has been trialling 5G Standalone in cities across the UK and is now rolling it out in parts of London, Manchester, Glasgow and Cardiff. But even if you’re fortunate enough to live in one of the areas with 5G Standalone coverage, there’s no guarantee you’ll immediately benefit.

First, the faster network will only be available to customers who signed up to a Pay Monthly contract after February 24. Others may face an extra charge or be nudged into signing a new contract if they want 5G Standalone, which Vodafone is branding “5G Ultra”. Small Office and Home Office (SOHO) business customers will also get access to the new network.

The other big gotcha is that the network is currently only compatible with two handsets – the Samsung Galaxy S21 and S22 – with Vodafone promising to add more handsets in July. Recent iPhones are 5G Standalone compatible, which makes them a curious omission from the launch line-up.

Full-fat 5G

Industry analysts say it’s good to see the UK finally benefitting from full-fat 5G connections, even if the initial rollout is limited. “I think it’s good news for the UK that we’re seeing the launch of 5G Standalone,” said Kester Mann, director of consumer and connectivity at CCS Insight.

“It’s something that the industry has perhaps been a bit slow and deliberate upon. But of course, these are still very early days. And the fact that there are only two supporting handsets and the two Samsung devices perhaps suggest that there will be some time before we see any widespread take up of the service.”

However, Mann believes Vodafone and the other networks may face an uphill battle trying to sell a new variant of 5G to consumers. “I think it’s a bit confusing, if I’m honest,” said Mann. “I think operators have talked a good story around 5G and that’s been very prominent in the advertising. Now it’s all about 5G Ultra. So what does that mean about the current bog-standard 5G? Does that mean that it’s inferior in some way?”

“We’ll have to see, but I think there’s so many superlatives out there in the industry already. We talk about ultrafast broadband, we talk about superfast. I’m not sure that [5G Ultra] is really going to cut through to customers.”

Standalone 5G benefits

Vodafone is playing it coy on the speed benefits 5G Ultra will bring. The company says it will “offer dramatically faster upload and download speeds” that are “around 10 times faster than 4G” but doesn’t put any specific figures on it.

Likewise, it promises ultra-low latency that will make the network more suitable for applications such as online gaming and augmented reality, as well as self-driving vehicles, but doesn’t dive into specifics. For flawless online gaming, players will be looking for sub 30ms latency.

Network slicing is arguably the most interesting new capability offered by 5G Standalone. This allows the network to isolate parts of the network for specific clients or activities. Vodafone trialled this with news network ITN during the King’s coronation in May, allowing video crews to send live content back to the studio without the network being dragged down by the hoi polloi uploading photos and videos on their smartphones.

In future, Vodafone may set aside slices of the network for self-driving vehicles that don’t require huge download speeds, but absolutely demand minimum latency (less than 10ms) to provide real-time navigation and collision avoidance.

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Barry Collins

Barry has 20 years of experience working on national newspapers, websites and magazines. He was editor of PC Pro and is co-editor and co-owner of BigTechQuestion.com. He has published a number of articles on TechFinitive covering data, innovation and cybersecurity.