The 3GPP is this week likely to approve a controversial plan to speed up the development of the new radio (NR) specifications that will form a vital part of the forthcoming 5G standard.
That plan has secured the backing of some of the world's best-known vendors and operators. Service providers including AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM), SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) and Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) hope that "NR acceleration," as it has been called, will provide an immediate spur to 5G, allowing them to launch commercial 5G services in 2019 rather than 2020, as they had originally intended.
Operators would do this by using the locked-down 5G NR specifications in tandem with an existing 4G network. This "non-standalone" variant of 5G could prove valuable to service providers aiming for a speedy rollout of mobile broadband services based on the use of "mid-band" spectrum (between 3.5GHz and 6GHz), says Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with the Heavy Reading market research group.
Accordingly, supporters of the plan want to see the deadline for the finalization of NR specifications brought forward by six months, to the end of this year. (See 3GPP Plans Early Mobile 5G Spec for December 2017.)
But the NR acceleration proposal has come in for heavy criticism from some equally high-profile players. During last week's Mobile World Congress, France's Orange (NYSE: FTE) and Spain's Telefónica told Light Reading that locking down the NR specifications too soon would be a mistake. Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) appears to be another prominent opponent while Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) has also expressed reservations. (See Telefónica's Blanco: 5G NR 'Acceleration' Is 'Big Mistake', Orange Also Objects to 5G NR Acceleration and Nokia Pitches Full 5G Suite but Shies Away From 5G Acceleration Push.)
Their chief concern, says Brown, is that focusing on "non-standalone" 5G will slow down work on the ultimately more important "standalone" version of the technology, which is set to include a next-generation (NG) core network as well as the 5G NR specifications.
Work on "standalone" 5G is due to be finalized in mid-2018 -- the same freeze date that was originally penned in for non-standalone NR specifications. But there is some anxiety this date could slip if the industry's attention is consumed by the development of the NR specifications between now and the end of 2017.
"Some operators fear non-standalone NR will take priority and that some of the important aspects relating to the wider system architecture, the NG core and over-the-air control plane will not get addressed in time," says Brown.
Operators such as Verizon seem keen to bring "standalone" 5G to market as soon as possible without dependency on the 4G radio access network. This would make it easier to provide fixed wireless access services over higher frequency bands -- the 5G "use case" on which Verizon is concentrating initially.
Others, such as Telefónica, are simply unhappy that NR specifications could take priority over what they see as the far more important features that will come with an NG core. That includes "network slicing," the ability to run multiple virtual networks supporting different services with their own characteristics over the same physical infrastructure. "That is something you will need new architecture for," says Brown. "There are versions of it in 4G EPC [evolved packet core] but not really the whole hog."
Eager to keep a foot in each camp, some players have insisted that speeding up NR development will not threaten the timeline for "standalone" 5G. "We don't have concerns," says Changsoon Choi, a senior manager with the corporate R&D center for South Korea's SK Telecom. "There is an aggressive plan to do the next-generation core for mid-2018 and so when we go to commercialization both 5G core and 5G radio will be ready."
Despite the heated rhetoric from those taking a more adversarial stance, Brown thinks the whole dispute poses few risks and will certainly not derail 5G standardization activities. "Major vendors have committed to maintain the mid-2018 schedule for standalone specification," says Brown. "They're trying to balance competing interests from their largest customers."
But given the degree of support for NR acceleration, he also reckons the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is likely to approve the proposal during a meeting in Croatia this week. Besides the operators already mentioned, the scheme has also drawn backing from a number of smaller telcos and some big-hitting vendors, including Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. , Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), LG Electronics Inc. (London: LGLD; Korea: 6657.KS) , Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) and ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763). "There is a weight of influence behind this and I think it will probably carry," says Brown.
That could leave a few telcos feeling distinctly uneasy about the 5G roadmap over the next few months.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading