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5G, NSA, SA Quickly Explained

Smartphone manufacturers have been rushing to create the best or most affordable 5G capable devices into the market. But before we answer whether or not 5G is a viable form of connection today, we must first understand what 5G technology is. As you may already know, 5G offers higher speeds than today’s standard, 4G. But are there trade-offs to using this 5th generation of mobile broadband? More importantly, are all 5G devices created equal? Find out here!

Photo from Northwestern University

Before we begin talking about mobile networks and frequencies, let’s first have a short refresher on radio wave frequencies. Lower frequencies have longer wavelengths; therefore, they can travel over longer distances but can carry fewer data. Higher frequencies, on the other hand, can carry more data per wavelength; however, they have far less range and are more susceptible to blockage and other factors.

The standard mobile broadband used today, 4G, operates on frequencies under 6GHz. Over time, as smartphones and other devices became more prevalent in our society, the network became more and more congested. The speed dropped, and signal strength became weaker as more and more devices connected to the network. This is where 5G comes in. 5G can operate from the low-band spectrum below 1GHz, the mid-band spectrum that delivers speeds of up to 1Gbps but has less range, and the high-band spectrum that uses the highest frequencies (up to 300GHz), fastest speeds, but has the lowest range.


Photo from Samsung

Now that we have some idea as to what 5G is, how is it rolled out today? The first implementations of 5G will be Non-Standalone or NSA. This type of 5G connectivity builds upon already existing 4G infrastructure to broadcast 5G signals on other frequencies. This means that NSA 5G is limited to under 6GHz as well, which is why 5G speeds in most locations today don’t reach the promised gigabit speeds of 5G. However, as 5G matures and becomes the new norm, telecoms will implement Standalone or SA 5G. This new implementation of 5G can take advantage of shorter mmWaves (or millimeter waves) from 24GHz and higher.

While high-frequency 5G can deliver faster speeds and lower latencies, it can only do so when users have a clear line of sight to the node transmitting the data. Buildings, trees, and even rain can block out the data transmitted and cripple the speed of the connection. To solve this problem, 5G networks require a strong cellular tower in conjunction with small cell networks, and beamforming with the help of signal processing algorithms.

Small cell networks are like WiFi meshes for 5G. Constructing a lot of high-powered cellular towers would be too expensive for telcos, instead, they could create a lot of low-powered small cell networks closer to one another that relay the data being transmitted. Beamforming, on the other hand, solves the problem with interference, as it can send direct beams of data to the end-user. Signal processing algorithms are used to calculate where to send the beam to, and which node to send the beam from.

In order to connect to a 5G network, your hardware must be compatible with the type of 5G that the network is using. Purchasing an NSA-only device would cripple the potential speed that you could be getting once Standalone connections are available. Likewise, you will not be able to enjoy NSA 5G today if your device can only connect to Standalone 5G. If you’re looking to get a future-proof 5G device today, then it’s important to purchase a device that’s capable of connecting to both NSA and SA 5G networks.

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3 Responses

  1. Francis Ching says:

    “This means that NSA 5G is limited to under 6GHz as well”

    That is wrong. Verizon’s mmWave 5G is still NSA type. That’s why despite reaching 2Gbps+ download speeds, it’s upload speed is still in the 4G levels because it’s still utilizing their 4G network for uploads, hence not being truly standalone. This is the same with most (if not all) mmWave 5G deployments so far.

    On another note, I find it surprising that this guide forgot to mention the NR acronym (which means New Radio) as it is the the more technical name for 5G.

  2. Helena Santos says:

    NSA 5G is NOT limited to under 6GHz. There is no commercial 5G SA network yet. Verizon with its mmwave 5g is still NSA. Please do better research before posting guides like this.

  3. Marc Ocampo says:

    Normally if a smartphone is 5G NSA capable, its hardware should be enough to support 5G SA (since the PHY protocols which require hardware acceleration should be the same).
    Supporting 5G SA in the future should be enabled via software upgrade of the smartphone.

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