Navigating the 5G Roadmap: NSA vs. SA – Key Takeaways from a Recent Webinar

Hana Gazoli   November 1, 2023

As MNOs around the world deliberate how, not if, they should roll out a 5G network, they must weigh the market expectations, financial implications and operational complexities. Hagai Ofek, our Senior Director, Sales Engineering led a webinar in collaboration with CCA to help carriers understand the practical realities behind the 5G NSA vs. SA debate.

Hagai started by laying out the drivers for 5G rollouts. From the commercial perspective, he started by reviewing, on a macro level, why MNOs need to make the investment in a new generation network. Most notably, Hagai explained that in an ultra competitive market, there is a business rationale to remain at the forefront of innovation. From a technical perspective, 5G networks help appreciate some of the issues that today’s networks are struggling to handle, such as increased demand for high-bandwidth services and enhanced network and spectrum efficiency.

This was followed by a detailed breakdown of the two common paths to a full 5G rollout. The first, 5G NSA, involves the introduction of 5G radio equipment, running on the current 4G LTE core network. From an engineering standpoint, this path mainly addresses the issue of throughput. Similarly, this also serves a marketing purpose since it allows the operator to announce to customers and regulators that 5G services are available.
The second, 5G SA, involves installing 5G radios and connecting them to a 5G core network, meaning end-to-end support for 5G. This option opens up the full range of features and capabilities that 5G offers, including network slicing, low latency and support for massive numbers of devices. The standard introduces a lot of efficiencies that MNOs can enjoy with respect to the consumption of network resources.

Beyond explaining the differences, Hagai also reviewed, at a very pragmatic level, the case for selecting either path. NSA offers a quicker path to 5G with lower investment, but it also leaves a lower barrier of entry for competition. While the equipment is completely reusable when the operators eventually move to 5G SA, this path does come with cost implications.
The SA path requires higher upfront investments and the availability of compatible handsets, while creating new business opportunities thanks to the advanced 5G capabilities and the marketing benefits of being positioned as an innovative operator.

Based on his many years of experience working to deploy mobile networks both as a vendor and on the operator’s side, Hagai’s conclusion is that there is no right or wrong when it comes to choosing which path to pursue. Each carrier must weigh the pros and cons in the context of their circumstances. Points that should be considered include how mature is their consumer market, what does the penetration of compatible handsets look like and what are the competitive and regulatory pressures.

In any case, it is clear that on the way to full 5G capabilities, a 5G NSA “detour” may well be the right choice for some operators. They can rely on the expectation that the penetration of handsets that seamlessly support 5G is bound to grow and any investments they make in edge equipment and new cell sites will be reusable.

Watch the webinar below to learn about 5G SA vs. NSA!

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