An EE mobile phone store operated by BT Group in Reading, UK in 2020.

Jason Alden | Bloomberg | Getty Images

BARCELONA, Spain — A British telecommunications giant BT says it expects to launch its first so-called standalone 5G network in 2024.

Howard Watson, BT’s chief technology officer, told CNBC that the telecoms group plans to turn on its standalone 5G network, often referred to in the industry as “true” 5G, later this year.

“Others are talking about it. They talk about it. But we’re working to create the right ecosystem, which means the right set of devices,” Watson told CNBC in an interview at the Mobile World Congress technology show in Barcelona, ​​Spain.

It comes after a trial the company conducted with Swedish telecommunications infrastructure firm Ericsson and chip giant Qualcomm demonstrated network slicing. Network slicing is a configuration that allows multiple networks to be created on the same shared physical network infrastructure.

“We are already ensuring that the SIM cards our customers have in their current 5G devices can work independently in 5G,” Watson added. “So once we’ve determined there’s enough critical mass to have a real offering, with some chops behind it, we’ll launch it, and that will be later this year.”

So far, rival UK operators Vodafone and Virgin Media O2 have already rolled out 5G stand-alone solutions, with BT’s EE, the UK’s biggest mobile network, yet to launch its own stand-alone network. It remains to be seen if Apple’s new iPhone 16 supports 5G on its own in Europe when it launches this fall.

What does “5G standalone” mean?

Standalone 5G will give you a portion of the network or a certain amount of bandwidth with a certain latency commitment. Each network segment is effectively an isolated part of the network that is designed to fulfill the requirements required by a particular application.

So, for example, if you’re a gamer and you need super low latency to play a competitive online game, you can use 5G alone to get nine to 10 milliseconds of latency, close to what you get from an HTTP connection to your home.

Latency is important for gamers as it measures response time lag. The higher the latency, the more lag you get when playing a game. This means less smooth gameplay.

“You might not want that 24/7,” Watson said. “So we could have a really flexible pricing mechanism that says you can have this from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.”

“So bringing it to life in customer propositions is how we’re going to market it, rather than coming in and buying a bit ‘stand-alone’.”

Milind Kulkarni, vice president and head of wireless labs at InterDigital, said the network slicing is one step in a series of technology upgrades that will lead to so-called 5G Advanced, an evolution of the 5G network.

“5G offers a fantastic platform with many capabilities to support many use cases, and we need to continue to focus on enabling more vertical markets and increasing its capabilities as we move through 5G Advanced,” Kulkarni told CNBC.

However, stand-alone 5G is different from 5G Advanced. 5G stand-alone refers to the development of a 5G network that is not built on top of 4G cores. While 5G Advanced is a complete evolution of the network.

BT and other network operators are looking to stand-alone 5G as a way to make more money from the next-generation networks they first started rolling out around five years ago.

The future of 5G

BT’s consumer business underwent a major rebrand in 2023 that focused on rolling out a full range of services, an area where the telco has had less success than digital giants such as Meta, Google, Apple and Amazon.

BT is the UK’s leading telecommunications company, operating fixed and wireless networks across the country. BT’s consumer division has approximately 30% market share in broadband and mobile services.

Its corporate segment works with larger business clients.

It has run mobile network EE since acquiring it for £12.5 billion ($15.8 billion) in 2016.