It was right around this time last year, at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2017, when Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) led a coalition of companies that committed to accelerate the schedule for the global 5G NR standard. As a result, 3GPP agreed to an accelerated work plan for 5G NR Release 15 and, after thousands of meeting hours across the various 3GPP Groups, we successfully completed the first global 5G standard this past December. This sets the stage for 5G NR standard-compliant trials and commercial deployments with smartphones in consumers hands in the first half of 2019.
So, what's next in 5G standardization efforts?
The casual observer may think that with a completed 5G standard, most of the heavy lifting from an R&D and standards perspective is behind us. Although the December 2017 milestone was a huge step toward making 5G a commercial reality in 2019, there is still a tremendous amount of work to do -- such as driving the evolution and expansion of 5G in order to realize the full 5G $12.3 trillion opportunity.
While attending the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) RAN Plenary meeting in Chennai, India, recently, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight three immediate next steps for the 5G standardization, all of which are well underway in 3GPP:
1. Stabilization of the 5G NR Release-15 Non-Standalone (NSA) specifications for commercial launches utilizing the existing LTE core network
2. Finalization of 3GPP Release-15 specifications for Standalone (SA) 5G NR utilizing the next generation core network
3. Preparation for 5G evolution work in 3GPP Release-16 and beyond to further expand the 5G ecosystem
Stabilization of the 5G NR Release-15 specifications for commercial launches The primary focus for the completed 3GPP Release-15 5G NR NSA standard is enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) services, as well as establishing the foundation for the 5G NR design to support the future evolution. But the work in 3GPP continues to make the specifications ready for implementation of commercial products and services. As such, there are ongoing efforts in 3GPP to stabilize the Release-15 specifications and essentially take care of bug fixes, or "Change Requests" in 3GPP lingo. (See Demystifying the 3GPP .)
Qualcomm has been at the forefront of standard-compliant real-world testing with early prototyping and productization which is essential to driving this iterative feedback into accelerated commercialization. This is exemplified by our industry-leading interoperability testing with infrastructure vendors and global operators, as well as our unparalleled momentum with the Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 5G modem. In addition, inside 3GPP, Qualcomm is one of the companies leading the definition of the 5G conformance testing framework, which is another essential component for making 5G a commercial reality in 2019.
Finalization of 3GPP Release-15 specifications for Standalone (SA) 5G NR The 5G standard completed in December 2017 supports a specific configuration called Non-Standalone (NSA) 5G NR. NSA utilizes the existing LTE radio and core network as an anchor for mobility management and coverage, while adding a new 5G radio carrier.
The intermediate Release-15 milestone in December 2017 was accelerated to enable large-scale trials and deployments starting in 2019 based on the NSA configuration. However, Release-15 will include both the NSA and Standalone (SA) variants of 5G NR. SA 5G NR is being specified by 3GPP and utilizes the new 5G next-generation core network architecture (5G NGC). SA 5G NR is expected to be completed in June 2018.
NSA and SA share common 5G NR physical layer specifications for the air interface, so these common aspects were completed as part of the December 2017 milestone. Therefore, the main focus for the SA standardization is on the upper layers with full user and control plane capability and on the next-gen core network architecture including, for example, network slicing, a more granular Quality-of-Service (QoS) model, and a more advanced security architecture.
Preparation for work in 3GPP Release-16 and beyond -- and ecosystem expansion Making 5G NR eMBB a commercial reality is a huge step for the industry, but it just scratches the surface of what is possible with 5G technology. 3GPP has begun preparing for work in 3GPP Release-16 and beyond. Just as LTE has evolved with new features and use cases since its first introduction in 3GPP Release-8, 5G NR will continue to evolve and expand.
The focus of 3GPP Release-16 and beyond will be the expansion of the mobile ecosystem to new areas -- new types of services/devices, new deployment/business models, and new spectrum bands/types. The rich roadmap of 5G NR technologies (Figure 1) coming in Release-16 and beyond spans from ultra-reliable low-latency communications (5G NR URLLC), to the utilization of unlicensed and new spectrum sharing paradigms (5G NR-U and 5G NR-SS), to vehicle communications for autonomous driving use cases (5G NR C-V2X), to the continued evolution of the 3GPP low power wide area (LPWA) technologies (NBIOT/eMTC) and a lot more. Various study and work items have already been approved in 3GPP to define this next phase and others will be approved in the coming months.
As an R&D engine fueling the 5G industry, Qualcomm has already started work on the next wave of 5G NR technologies that will pave the way to the subsequent 5G NR standard releases. At MWC 2018, we demonstrated three of these 5G NR expansion areas. In the same way that our early R&D work on 5G led to the accelerated completion of the first 5G NR standard for enhanced mobile broadband, these demonstrations highlight our continued commitment to inventing technologies that drive the mobile ecosystem forward. As I hope you can see, even though we now have our first 5G standard, there is still significant work to do, both in R&D and in standards, to make our 5G vision a reality.
— Lorenzo Casaccia, Vice President, Technical Standards, Qualcomm Technologies