There's a growing sense that the next big update to the 5G standard won't be finished until 2022, mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moreover, there are widening fears that the global geopolitical tug-of-war between the US and China could fracture the 5G standard in a way that would create a Chinese version of the technology and a US version of the technology.
Technologists working on 5G standards "have been forced to meet virtually instead of face to face, and this has resulted in slower progress," explained Brian Daly, AVP of standards and industry alliances for AT&T, in comments at a recent virtual event, the 5G Ecosystem Digital Symposium.
Indeed, the 3GPP – the organization that has been driving the development of interoperable cellular networks since the early days of the wireless industry – announced last week that the organization would take a look at its release schedule during its December round of meetings.
"We want to give a clear statement in December on how long the ... work will take. This situation is not ideal, but these are not ideal times," the association's Georg Mayer said in a statement.
"There is some risk of that further being delayed toward the later half of 2022 because of the ongoing COVID situation and the impacts that has on the global standards process," AT&T's Daly explained.
The reason? Video conferencing over Zoom is hard for everyone, even the networking engineers who are working on some of the most advanced technologies in the world.
Daly said much of the work that happens at technology standards conferences occurs in hallways and during dinners. "When you're in a virtual meeting, you lose that," he explained. "It's created an email flood."
Daly added: "We've had to rethink and re-engineer the entire process."
Others concur that the "Release 17" package of 5G technologies might not hit the market until 2022.
"Although no decisions have been made, it is definitely more than likely that Release 17 will get delayed until 2022 and/or the release will undergo downscoping, meaning the removal of proposed functionality that is currently planned for the release," wrote Michael Thelander, president and founder of SRG Research and Consulting Services, in response to questions from Light Reading. "From what I understand, there won't be physical meetings until at least the second half of 2021 and things go much slower with online meetings. I expect there to be more formal decisions made at the fourth quarter plenary [meeting] or potentially the first quarter of next year. I think 3GPP wants to make one big decision versus delaying things by three months, then another three months, then another."
However, Tantra Analyst founder Prakash Sangam speculated that the timeline for Release 17 will likely be shifted by just a few months to December, 2021.
The 3GPP – which comprises engineers from member companies all over the world – 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 released its second batch – dubbed "Release 16" – earlier this year. Release 17 had been scheduled for release sometime in 2021, but now that's increasingly looking like it might be delayed by up to a year. Release 17 is scheduled to include a wide range of new technologies ranging from Sidelink to 5G Light to more advanced device power saving technologies.
Splitting the 5G standard
In a related development, there are growing concerns that the Release 17 delay could leave room for a fracturing in the 5G standard between the US and China. The two countries are in the grips of a tightening trade war, and 5G has taken on a starring role in the debate amid US efforts to block China's Huawei from global markets over security concerns. Huawei continues to argue its equipment cannot be used by the Chinese government for spying.
Nonetheless, increasingly heated rhetoric on both sides – as well as worries among US legislators of a Chinese takeover of the 5G standards-setting process – is raising fears of a bifurcation between US and Chinese allies over the standard for 5G and, potentially, 6G.
"There's certainly no benefit if we fragment the standards," AT&T's Daly said, pointing to previous global splits between GSM and CDMA technologies. "There's benefit in one global standard."
"I think/hope that cooler heads will prevail and that the demise of 3GPP has been greatly exaggerated," noted Thelander. "As a practical matter, 5G NR [New Radio] greatly leverages LTE and I would expect the same thing with the next generation of technologies ... So even if there was a political split, it would be hard to establish a complete technology split. Inevitably, western IP [intellectual property] would be part of a 'China standard' and China IP would be part of a 'Western standard' or we'd end up with a crap standard that satisfies no one but some politicians."
"I also seriously don't think China will risk creating its own standard," added Sangam of Tantra Analyst, noting the country already tried that with its TD-SCDMA.
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