The 5G Roaming Landscape

POSTED BY Scarlett Woodford
At present, the majority of commercially available 5G services are delivered over NSA (Non-standalone) networks, which are based on 4G infrastructure. Whilst there are international 5G roaming agreements currently in place, we believe that operators are reluctant to establish such agreements until the roll-out of SA (Standalone) networks becomes more widespread. Operators with 5G roaming agreements in place will need to make contingencies for SA networks; ensuring interoperability between the two network architectures. This has the potential to be a costly endeavour for operators.
The majority of operators currently offering 5G services are reliant on NSA networks, which are built using a 4G LTE core. Operators who have successfully deployed SA 5G networks include Proximus in Belgium, DirecTV in Colombia, Singtel in Singapore, China Telecom in China, Rogers in Canada, and Vodafone in Germany.

The roll-out of NSA networks has been relatively rapid in comparison to other generations of network technology. As 5G NSA networks utilise the same core network as 4G, it should require minimal effort to upgrade existing roaming value-added services for use in 5G NSA networks. In terms of 5G SA, however, value-added services will have to be significantly re-engineered in order to account for functionality that simply did not exist in 4G, such as network-slicing capabilities. It is also important, however, that roaming vendors ensure that their suite of value-added services are also able to support legacy technologies, including 2G, 3G, 4G and VoLTE, as not all roaming traffic will immediately transition to 5G networks. This will entail a higher level of complexity, as operators will be handling traffic over at least three different technologies at the same time, and there will be a requirement for interoperability and interworking.

It will also become important to monitor the experience of users, especially as network slicing becomes a viable charging model for operators. As the number of 5G-enabled devices on the market increases, operators must be able to steer devices to the most appropriate network slice which offers the best experience. By monitoring the quality of 5G roaming experiences, operators will also be able to propose roaming offers that match the usage patterns of both users and connected devices; leading to more revenue generated.

At present, the majority of operators providing 5G services rely on NSA networks. The true value of steering of roaming solutions will not be realised until operators invest in SA infrastructure on a widespread scale, as steering of roaming in a 5G context relies on a choice of SA networks within a visited country. If there are only one or two operators that have launched a SA network in a specific country, operators will have little use for 5G-enabled steering of roaming solutions. 

However, as the deployment of 5G SA networks accelerates, steering of roaming products will become crucial for operators in terms of identifying cellular IoT traffic, as well as directing devices towards the most suitable roaming partner. 

Steering of roaming solutions will need to be mature enough to detect which partner networks are capable of 5G, have standalone networks, support slicing and are capable of supporting voice over 5G. Therefore, steering of roaming solutions must be combined with advanced analytics in order to provide valuable insights into partner network functionalities. Service providers must also be able to steer by wholesale targets in order to optimise efficiency and user experience, such as the networks that are capable of supporting VoLTE and 5G.
Our latest whitepaper, The Rise of the 5G Roaming Empire, explores the current 5G roaming landscape, as well as highlighting current trends in the market.

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Related Research: 5G Roaming Strategies