The next chapter in 5G's technology story is about to get written.
The 3GPP -- the industry association tasked with fleshing out the world's 5G standard -- finished its latest meeting in Sitges, Spain, last week, and members voted to move forward on a wide variety of new and fancy technologies and capabilities that could eventually be incorporated into commercial 5G networks.
However, actual users probably won't see the results of the group's efforts anytime soon. That's because the 3GPP plans to spend the next year or so fleshing out the technologies under discussion into actual specifications. And then, only after all that work, will vendors and operators be able to begin offering them to customers. That whole process could take years to play out.
Nonetheless, the efforts last week by the 3GPP are important considering the association comprises members from across the global wireless industry, from chipset purveyors to network infrastructure vendors to wireless network operators hailing from countries ranging from the UK to China to the US. Thus, what comes out of 3GPP meetings often reflects the long-term 5G technological roadmaps of some of the world's biggest technology companies, as well as the ways in which 5G providers hope to actually make money from their efforts.
So what exactly came out of the 3GPP's meeting last week? Members of the association voted to begin official work on a handful of new technologies they hope to eventually implant into the wider, official 5G technology standard. Those technologies include:
- Sidelink: This technology would allow mobile phones to communicate directly with each other, sort of like how walkie-talkies do today. The technology stems from the C-V2X standard developed for communications among automobiles, and could be applied to a wide range of applications, like communications among devices inside a building where there is no cellular coverage. As noted by Prakash Sangam of Tantra Analyst, LG is taking the lead in the development of this technology within the 3GPP.
- 5G up to 71GHz: While 5G was designed for the so-called millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum bands between 20GHz and 50GHz, it was not initially intended to be used in bands above that range. But now the 3GPP will look at ways to apply the technology up to 71GHz, where there are a number of unlicensed spectrum bands. Qualcomm and Intel are leading this effort.
- Multi-SIM: Following a Department of Justice investigation into the use of eSIM technology, the wireless industry is now moving forward with efforts to deploy eSIM more widely in areas including the US. The 3GPP's latest effort around multi-SIM seeks to improve the eSIM standard. For example, according to a report from Signals Research Group, the association will look to ensure that an incoming call on one SIM would not affect ongoing activity on another SIM in the same device. Vivo is taking the lead on this work item.
- 5G over satellites: This technology would optimize 5G over non-terrestrial networks (NTN) such as satellite networks. MediaTek and Eutelsat, a European satellite company, are leading this work item.
- Better 5G positioning: This item "focuses on industrial IoT applications where precise location information is required," wrote the analysts with Signals Research Group in their comprehensive look at the 3GPP's latest efforts. "In addition to more enabling more precise location information (for IIoT use cases), this item will include a latency component, meaning there is an additional objective that the location information is provided in a timely manner." The Center for Advanced Technology in Telecommunications and Distributed Information Systems (CATT), which is part of NYU Wireless, is taking the lead in this work item.
- 5G Light: As the analysts at Signals Research Group noted, 5G Light is designed to apply the technology into areas where low-power, wide-area networks (LPAN) are involved. "For example, NR-Light can occupy just 10 or 20MHz of bandwidth and deliver 100 Mbps of downlink and 50 Mbps of uplink throughput, making it a suitable technology for use cases such as high-end wearables or industrial IoT cameras and sensors," wrote Lorenzo Casaccia of Qualcomm. Ericsson is leading this work within the 3GPP.
- XR: Qualcomm's Casaccia wrote that "there is an opportunity to re-architect how mobile XR [mixed reality] services can be delivered. Utilizing edge cloud servers to augment on-device processing and bring low-latency photo-realistic graphics and visuals in a more power efficient way, industrial design of XR devices can be unbounded from the traditional thermal, power, and form factor constraints. We call this boundless XR." Perhaps not surprisingly, Qualcomm is leading this work in the 3GPP.
- Device power savings: Already there has been some concern that initial 5G devices require too much battery power, and partly as a result are putting off too much heat. The 3GPP is looking at ways to further reduce the power requirements of 5G devices. MediaTek is leading this work.
There are plenty of other items on the 3GPP's checklist -- the association voted to begin work on a total of 24 different technology projects -- but many of them involve either updates and enhancements to previously established technologies (like Integrated Access Backhaul (IAB) or Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS)) or are mostly arcane issues that only a handful of engineers really care about (like additional enhancements to Massive MIMO.)
To be clear, all these technologies are scheduled to be released under the 3GPP's "Release 17" batch of specifications. The 3GPP has been the organization driving the development of interoperable cellular networks since the early days of the wireless industry, and it 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." The 3GPP is scheduled to release its second batch of 5G technologies -- dubbed "Release 16" -- early next year. Release 17 is currently scheduled to be released sometime in 2021.
After the 3GPP releases its specifications, then vendors can begin incorporating those technologies into their products. Then, those products can be sold to wireless network operators, which can then begin using the technologies in actual services to customers.
A debate over timelines
Analysts who attended the 3GPP's event last week noted that one of the most contentious issues discussed in Sitges involved deadlines. Two separate groups within the 3GPP that are working on different technologies set different deadlines for when they'll complete their work on their respective Release 17 efforts. One group, RAN, said it will finish its work within 15 months, but another group, SA, said it will need 18 months to finish its work. The two groups were not able to reconcile those different timelines, which is unusual within the 3GPP.
"Both parties are moving forward with their own timelines," wrote the analysts with Signals Research Group. "Presumably, this issue will get resolved at the March plenary once the dust has settled. To some extent, this whole debate is a moot point. Completing Release 17 in fifteen months without the features and functionality that various vertical markets want included [in SA] isn't a good option. Conversely, adding three months to the schedule isn't the end of the world if it gets everyone what they want. It is also a better option than shifting the functionality to Release 18."