open RAN

The 5G standard is getting an upgrade

The 3GPP – the primary standards group developing 5G technologies – is putting the finishing touches on its "Release 17" package of specifications, with its final "protocol coding freeze" due in June. Concurrently, the O-RAN Alliance earlier this month released its own second major package of open RAN specifications, an offering the group said would enable "open intelligence" in 5G networks.

Taken together, the developments help reflect the fact that 5G technology isn't static, and that vendors and operators from across the globe continue to work together to modify the standards underpinning 5G networks in order to add new features and functions. Thus, it's likely that the 5G networks of the future will have far more capabilities than the initial 5G networks that launched just a few years ago.

 (Source: Fiona Graham / WorldRemit on Flickr CC2.0)

(Source: Fiona Graham / WorldRemit on Flickr CC2.0)

For example, the 3GPP's latest batch of specifications contain a number of noteworthy upgrades and a handful of interesting new features.

According to a lengthy Qualcomm blog post on the topic, the 3GPP's new Release 17 promises to expand 5G networks into a completely new spectrum band: 52.6GHz to 71GHz. That's important considering the 60GHz band is widely available on an unlicensed basis around the world, thus potentially allowing network operators to offer high-speed services in the millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum bands without needing to acquire new spectrum licenses. (Of course, it's also worth noting that most US operators have shifted their attention away from mmWave bands for 5G in favor of their new midband spectrum spectrum holdings.)

Another noteworthy service that could be enabled by Release 17, according to Qualcomm, is 5G NR-Light. This technology promises to bring low-power, slow-speed Internet of Things (IoT) wireless connections to 5G networks. "They allow efficient support for lower complexity devices such as wearables, industrial sensors and surveillance cameras," wrote Qualcomm's John Smee.

Other technologies within Release 17 include battery-waving technologies, improved positioning capabilities, and support for some satellite-based services.

The 3GPP's completion of its Release 17 specs – during a time when the association was handling everything virtually – will allow phone and equipment vendors to start building components that support the new features. But it will ultimately be up to network operators to introduce those new services to users, a process that could take years.

Finally, it's worth noting that the 3GPP's new batch of specs represents the end of the group's work on standard "5G" tech. The association confirmed to Light Reading last year that "5G-Advanced" is the official new name for the 3GPP's Release 18 and beyond.

"With Release 18 we enter the second phase of 5G," 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.

Opening the RAN

But the 3GPP isn't the only standards group working on new technologies for 5G. The O-RAN Alliance is a relatively new standards association that's focusing on creating open connections between various networking elements within 5G. The group's goal is to allow network operators to snap new networking components into their networks, a capability that isn't available under most standard, traditional networking systems that are often supplied by one big vendor like Nokia, Ericsson or Huawei.

In a release earlier this month, the O-RAN Alliance touted its new "Release 002" batch of specifications. "Features in Release 002 include specifications for Traffic Steering, Quality of Service and Quality of Experience Optimization, RAN Slicing, and Service Management and Orchestration," according to the group.

The alliance explained that, last year, it began packaging its various specifications into "Minimum Viable Plan" releases. "This plan delivers the specifications needed by the open RAN ecosystem to create products that meet the highest priority needs of operators," the group explained. The alliance's "Release 001" batch of specs focused on creating open interfaces for technologies like fronthaul, transport and cloud.

In a lengthy blog post, top O-RAN Alliance officials outlined the roughly 40 new specifications contained in "Release 002." Those specs cover everything from network slicing to Non-real-time RAN Intelligent Controllers (Non-RT RICs) to security protocols that align with guidance from the US government.

The O-RAN Alliance's post on the topic is authored by Chih-Lin I of the China Mobile Research Institute and Sachin Katti, a longtime executive in the US wireless industry who founded Kumu Networks and is now the CTO of Intel's network and edge group. Those authors are noteworthy considering ongoing concerns among some Western policymakers over the influence Chinese vendors have on international standards. The global wireless industry in general has worked to push against those concerns in order to maintain international telecommunications standards and interconnections.

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

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