The 3GPP -- the standards organization that essentially oversees the creation, development and, most importantly, the harmonization of 5G technology -- released its third and final bundle of initial 5G standards. But, according to those in the industry, there aren't many operators that are interested in it.
"The late drop was approved, but it was almost a non-event," said Mike Thelander of Signals Research Group.
Specifically, the plenary meeting of the RAN committee within the 3GPP -- which included representatives from the likes of Verizon, Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei, Samsung and other top operators and vendors -- at its recent meeting in Shenzhen, China, voted to approve the "late drop" of Release 15. Contained within that "late drop" are a bunch of extremely detailed technical specifications about how to run 5G and LTE networks, like how an LTE core network might interact with a 5G NR radio access network.
However, the mere existence of a "late drop" in the 3GPP's 5G release schedule is noteworthy.
As Qualcomm's tech specs chief Lorenzo Casaccia explained, typically the 3GPP's committees work to finalize standards around large bundles of different wireless technologies, and they work on a relatively sluggish schedule. For example, the 3GPP approved "Release 13" in 2016, and the specification included technologies like LTE in unlicensed spectrum and select LTE Advanced technologies. Release 14 was approved in 2017 and included technologies like multimedia LTE broadcasting and some priority services for mission-critical offerings.
However, things at the normally staid 3GPP began to heat up as the 5G hype machine gathered steam several years ago. As Qualcomm's Casaccia explained, operators around the world began demanding 5G standards earlier than they had expected, forcing the actual technicians working in the 3GPP to go into overdrive to deliver a completed 5G specification. To do so, they decided to take the unusual step of breaking the first 5G release, Release 15, into three separate sections. That way they could more quickly release the base part of the standard earlier in order to allow operators and equipment vendors to begin building 5G hardware sooner.
"I'm not going to say it was a great idea," Casaccia acknowledged, adding that "everything makes sense" from a technical point of view, but not necessarily from a public relations point of view.
The "early drop" of Release 15 was approved in December of 2017 -- a full year earlier than initially scheduled -- which allowed operators like AT&T and Verizon to begin working with their suppliers like Ericsson and Nokia on deploying equipment that could make transmissions using the new 5G New Radio (NR) portion of the standard. Importantly, the "early drop" of Release 15 exclusively targeted operators that already manage LTE networks -- the initial standard essentially required an existing LTE network to control the new 5G network. In 3GPP parlance, that's called "non standalone" (NSA) 5G, because the 5G network won't be able to stand on its own without an LTE overlay.
After finishing the "early drop" of Release 15, the 3GPP then immediately began work on the bulk of the initial 5G standard, which also included the so-called "standalone" (SA) option for 5G. That specification allowed operators to deploy 5G without an LTE network. Thelander said that wireless network operators in China had initially expressed interest in the SA version of 5G, but he said now it's unclear whether they will actually move forward with that version. The second, main drop of Release 15 was approved in June 2018.
After the June 2018 release, the 3GPP then began work on the last section of Release 15, dubbed the "late drop." Qualcomm's Casaccia said Release 15's late drop contains a number of variations on the standalone and non-standalone versions of 5G that operators including AT&T and some in Europe had initially expressed interest in. Now, though, both Thelander and Casaccia said that there doesn't appear to be much interest in the technologies included in the "late drop," but Thelander said they might be used by operators in the future as a stepping stone between a transition from non-standalone 5G to standalone 5G.
"The jury is out on whether anyone will use them ever," said Casaccia.
So now that all three parts of Release 15 are finished, and commercial 5G networks are beginning to pop up in cities around the world, does that mean the 3GPP's 5G work is finished?
Not at all, according to Thelander. He said a number of companies have submitted updates and fixes to the Release 15 specification that the 3GPP will need to work through.
And then there's the next release, noted Ericsson's Magnus Frodigh. In an interview at the recent Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, he said there are a wide range of technologies that could be included in Release 16. Specifically, he pointed to technologies ranging from integrated access backhaul to low-latency optimizations to vehicle-to-things communications to 5G in unlicensed spectrum to specifications specific to IoT technologies as items that likely will be included in Release 16.
Released 16 is expected to be approved in early 2020
And after that: Release 17. Ericsson's Frodigh said possible topics the 3GPP may address in Release 17 might include spectrum above 50GHz, enhancements for drones, options for 5G multicasts and broadcasts, IoT specifications for industrial sensors, and potentially AI and machine learning enablers for 5G network operations.
Finally, if the development of 4G is any indication, Release 17 could well be dubbed 5G Advanced.
And then, at least according to Nokia's Marcus Weldon, it might be time to start talking about 6G with Release 18. But let's just all agree it's too early to begin that conversation.