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How Trump and the coronavirus could impact 5G standards

The 3GPP – the world's leading standards body when it comes to 5G technology – has already delayed the release of additional specifications for the technology, due to the spreading coronavirus.

Now, though, some of the group's participants are warning that more changes may be inevitable.

Further, new legislation in the US requires American officials to become more involved in the creation of the 5G standard, in order to protect US national security in general and to prevent Chinese espionage specifically. What effect that development may have on the 3GPP's efforts is unclear at best.

Delays and changes
As the coronavirus began spreading across the world, the 3GPP canceled its face-to-face meetings in February and March because of concerns about the virus.

The group said in February that it didn't expect to cancel any of its planned specifications releases, but late last month it reversed course and announced it would delay the discharge of its "Release 16" batch of technologies to June 2020 and its "Release 17" batch of technologies to December 2021.

"Virtual meetings are not as efficient as meeting face-to-face," explained Diana Pani, senior director of 5G standards and research for wireless technology company InterDigital, in a post by the company. "Whatever we could achieve in one week of face-to-face meetings now requires two weeks of emails and conference calls. Even then, I don't even think we can achieve 50% of what we were achieving face-to-face in one week."

Nonetheless, many expect "Release 16" to be finished under the new timeline, considering work on that batch of technologies is mostly finished. (The 3GPP typically releases "packages" of new technologies every year or so. The group's first batch of 5G technologies was approved in 2017 under "Release 15.")

However, the real question is how the 3GPP will handle Release 17. The group officially voted in December of last year to move forward on a wide variety of new and fancy technologies – including Sidelink, Multi-SIM, XR and others – that could be eventually packaged into Release 17. The 3GPP initially proposed halting work altogether on Release 17 until after the pandemic, but InterDigital's Pani explained that, "given the current projections for the pandemic," 3GPP leadership decided instead to begin Release 17 work virtually.

So how might the ongoing spread of COVID-19 affect Release 17? It all depends on how long 3GPP meetings stay virtual. "Leadership has suggested and hopes that we'll be back to normal functioning by August," Pani said. "I and a few others proposed that we should be more conservative and prepare as if we'll have no more face-to-face meetings until the end of the year and will need to continue meeting in a virtual space."

Many are expecting serious changes to the development of Release 17. "Maybe 3GPP would consider prioritizing some of the most important features and re-scope Release 17 work to complete them on time," suggested Mike Thelander, an analyst with Signals Research Group who regularly attends 3GPP meetings, in a recent report on the group's activities. "The alternative is to slow down the entire release schedule and prolong the implementation of feature improvements in future releases. The other option being considered is hosting additional 'ad-hoc' meetings in January next year."

Thelander also suggested that the 3GPP could use a "phased approach" to Release 17 as it did with Release 15, breaking up the specification into discrete packages released over a series of months or years.

"From our perspective, another delay to Release 17 and/or a reduction in Release 17 functionality, wouldn't be the end of the world," Thelander wrote. "Vendors and operators have a lot they could be doing to commercialize, deploy and/or optimize 5G NR [New Radio] features, which have already been standardized in Release 15 or which are part of Release 16."

An American intervention
COVID-19 isn't the only external force that could have a major effect on the 3GPP's work. New legislation passed by US lawmakers and signed by President Trump last month would in part require American officials to participate in the development of 5G standards. Although the legislation doesn't specifically mention the 3GPP, it's likely that the group would be the starting point for any such effort.

Specifically, the legislation requires the Trump administration to develop "a plan for engagement with private sector communications infrastructure and systems equipment developers to encourage the maximum participation possible on standards-setting bodies related to such systems and infrastructure equipment standards by public and private sector entities from the United States."

Shortly after Trump signed the legislation, the White House issued an 11-page "national strategy to secure 5G" positioning document that covers a variety of topics, including securing the supply chain for 5G equipment and addressing the US government's role in 5G standards.

"The United States Government will work to preserve and enhance United States leadership on 5G in relevant organizations that set standards in concert with the private sector, including but not limited to commercial, academic, and like-minded international partners," states the White House document. "This will include efforts such as expanding Federal interagency coordination, participation, and influence in standards-setting organizations. The United States will emphasize the need for open and transparent processes to develop timely, technically robust, and appropriate standards. The United States will promote and support increased participation by the private sector and ensure that such participation is informed by appropriate public-private coordination."

To be clear, a wide range of companies, entities and individuals from all over the world – including representatives from operators, vendors, trade groups and analyst firms – already participate in the 3GPP's standards-setting process. However, the 3GPP has worked hard to stay outside politics.

Nonetheless, the group has already experienced some blowback from the ongoing dispute between the US and China. For example, Light Reading reported last year that executives from Sprint, AT&T and FirstNet did not attend a 3GPP meeting in Shenzhen, China last year, despite attending other 3GPP meetings. None of the companies offered any reasons for their absence, but some in the industry said their decision to skip the meeting stemmed from the deteriorating relationship between the US and China.

"The risk that 3GPP is going to break down is pretty high," wrote the Wall Street analysts at Jefferies in a note to investors last year, according to the Financial Times. "If Chinese companies are prohibited from licensing technologies that they have already seen – and which in many cases they have heavily influenced – [the risk is] they could just use it."

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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