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Forget 5.5G, it's time to get ready for '5G-Advanced'

"Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it."

If that's true, then those in the 5G industry certainly have some studying to do.

A decade ago, in the early days of 4G LTE, the global wireless industry decided it needed some way to show off the fancy new technologies companies were adding to the baseline 4G standard. But how to do that?

Enter LTE-Advanced. A group of technologies carrying that label was approved by the 3GPP in 2011 as part of its Release 10 batch of specifications.

Then, just a few years later, China's Huawei sought to drum up support for its new networking technologies with its own spin on the "4G-but-better" idea – it introduced the 4.5G brand. The carrier discussed the notion at length, but 4.5G never really caught on. (Indeed, Nokia tried to one-up Huawei's decimals with its own 4.9G push, which also did not gain traction.)

5G, but better

Fast forward to 2020 and it's déjà vu all over again.

Huawei in November 2020 sketched out plans for 5.5G, arguing that new standards are needed to support high-speed uplinks, drones and hundreds of billions of wireless connections. The company's attempt to make 5.5G a thing drew plenty of criticism, but also some support.

"There are good reasons to talk about 5.5G that are unique to this moment – based on dynamics that didn't apply to 4.5G," wrote analyst Ed Gubbins with GlobalData.

But the 3GPP doesn't appear to be playing ball. The association – the primary driver behind the global wireless industry's standards-setting process – earlier this month quietly rolled out its own "5G-but-better" brand: 5G-Advanced.

3GPP spokesperson Kevin Flynn confirmed to Light Reading that, yes, 5G-Advanced is the official new name for Release 18 and beyond.

The 3GPP issues packages, or releases, of new wireless networking technologies roughly once a year. 5G first showed up in 3GPP Release 15 in 2017. Release 18 is currently scheduled for initial approvals at the end of this year.

"With Release 18 we enter the second phase of 5G. We have already approved something called '5G-Advanced' starting with Release 18," Qualcomm Senior Director of Technology Wanshi Chen told Light Reading in a recent interview. Chen was recently named chairman of the 3GPP RAN Plenary, the association's main group working on 5G networking standards.

5G-Advanced and 6G

But what is 5G-Advanced, and what will it do?

In a presentation this week at its 5G Summit virtual event, Qualcomm's John Smee said 5G-Advanced will feature six key elements:

  • Network designs featuring edge and cloud computing.
  • New radio designs that support technologies including full duplex communications.
  • Resilient technologies that block hacks and other threats.
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies.
  • Coordinated spectrum sharing techniques.
  • Services that merge the physical and digital worlds.

Smee described Release 18 as "the start of 5G-Advanced" and suggested it would put the industry on "the path toward 6G."

If history is any indication, expect at least one wireless network operator to apply the 6G brand onto technologies introduced under the 5G-Advanced moniker. After all, that's exactly what AT&T did in 2017 when it applied the "5G Evolution" brand to LTE-Advanced technologies.

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

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