Standalone 5G

by Colin Berkshire

Cellular 5G is confusing and conflicting. But there are a few points that I think are worth explaining, clearly.

T-Mobile has been advertising that they are building a “Standalone 5G” network. This terms means nothing to most of us, but it has a well defined meaning to insiders. It is a significant statement, and T-Mobile is way, way ahead of its competition when it comes to the future of cellular.

“Standalone 5G” is poorly named. It should be called “Entirely 5G.” What it means is that the entire network infrastructure is 5G. The radios, the switching, the network management, the utilization of cellular bandwidth are all 5G. The most significant features are:

  • Bandwidth iOS managed far better.
  • Cell towers can overlap, which means a giant 700mHz tower can be “filled in” with multiple 2100mHz towers. So coverage penetrates far and wide, but in concentrated areas the giant 700mHz bubble can be offloaded with high capacity 2100mHz towers.
  • Frequencies above 5gHz (or 6gHz) can be used for cellular services greatly expanding capacity. This requires “Standalone 5G” because managing overlapping towers is not possible under 4G.
  • The entire network is software defined, so new features can be added.

So what is “not-Standalone 5G?” It’s what Verizon and AT&T are offering. It is 5G radios bolted onto a 4G network. All of the networking, call management, handoff management, and basic functionality is still clanky old 4G (or 3G) stuff. It’s layers upon layers of bolt-on enhancements. It’s a wickedly complex Rube Goldberg morass of technology. It’s an old network architecture that has a new paint-job that can proudly display the “5G” icon on your phone.

The really unfortunate thing is that there isn’t a separate icon to distinguish “Standalone 5G”. There should be something special, because it is special. I would suggest that we just call it “6G” and move whatever was going to be 6G up to 7G. Really, a “Standalone 5G” network like T-Mobile has is an outstanding accomplishment and consumers should have awareness of it. (You cannot tell a Standalone 5G network from a non-Standalone 5G network from the phone’s icon…how sad.)

And, because it is so egregious it must be mentioned that 5GE (offered by AT&T) is not 5G at all. It’s a 4G network with yet one more Rube Goldberg bolt-on. Shame on them for mucking things up so badly…marketing shouldn’t be about confusing customers.

So, I feel a “Standalone 5G” network really should be branded as “6G” to distinguish it from “non-Standalone 5G”. T-Mobile has the largest, most established, most mature, most widely implemented “Standalone 5G”.

There is one more very important and under-reported tidbit about “Standalone 5G”…

Apple’s IOS version 14.5 enabled the iPhone 12 to access T-Mobile’s Standalone 5G network as well as allowing 5G to be used on both the internal and the removable SIM. So for T-Mobile users this is a profound upgrade and all Apple iPhone users really should upgrade to IOS 14.5 and then go into Carrier Settings and enable 5G as much as possible.

“Standalone 5G” — what should be called “Entirely 5G” or even “6G” — is the future of telecommunications. T-Mobile is the leader by no small margin.


As you possibly surmise from my postings, I have been a Verizon customer for decades. I just want the best network and best service more than anything. And, I switched to T-Mobile. I get no discount, no special treatment, no spiffs, or encouragement from T-Mobile because I write in this blog. I switched on my own. And, I’m happy with it.