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3GPP Chair Wanshi Chen on creating 5G standards during a pandemic

In March, Qualcomm Senior Director of Technology Wanshi Chen was selected by the 3GPP – the main standards group for 5G – to be the chairman of the 3GPP RAN Plenary. It's considered one of the most prestigious roles in the organization because it oversees the projects managed by the technical specifications groups and determines what projects move forward. The group is currently working on Release 18 of the 5G standard, which it plans to have approved by December.

But the 3GPP standards process can be challenging. The specifications are developed by working groups that are formed by member companies and often those member companies present very different solutions. Chen and his colleagues must evaluate those solutions, negotiate with each other and reach a consensus that will hopefully benefit the entire telecom industry.

Chen spoke with Light Reading about his new role and the challenges of developing standards during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic when negotiations and consensus-gathering has to be handled virtually instead of face-to-face.

Chen (Source: Qualcomm)
Chen
(Source: Qualcomm)

The below conversation between Chen and Light Reading contributor Sue Marek has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Light Reading: What does it take to be successful in standards?

Wanshi Chen: I think to be successful you have to love what you are doing. Some folks have been working with the 3GPP for a long time. But at the same time, we have new people who come into the working groups. Of course, a lot of delegates do have solid technical background and have doctorates in relevant fields.

The 3GPP is contribution-driven. For many of the projects different companies conduct some pre-standards research. And then during that standardization process they will do additional research and simulations and analysis. Then they will share how they think things should be done for a particular project or release.

Naturally, different companies will have different views. But then what we do in 3GPP – and the chair in particular – we look at how to manage things to ensure fair discussion and make sure everyone's voice is heard.

At the same time, the 3GPP is consensus driven too. Everything has to be a consensus. For example, for a particular design you may have five or more different options proposed by five different companies. Typically, we have an in-person meeting where everyone is in a room and they look at screens and we debate the different options and see if we can find a consensus. Many times, the final compromise proposal will be different from any individual proposal because everyone has their contribution. We have to be constructive because everyone has the same goal. If the progress is not made toward a consensus, it is not doing good for anyone.

For a particular project you might have tons of issues. And different companies may have similar views on a certain issue but then disagree on other issues. So, you might work together on the issue you agree on and then argue against the same company on another issue.

Because of this, working in standards takes a lot of non-technical skills because you have to understand each other and find compromise and common ground to make progress.

Light Reading: Is it difficult for the 3GPP members to avoid face-to-face meetings during the pandemic?

Chen: This pandemic has impacted our standardization efforts. These standardization efforts involve in-person interaction. With technical issues you are more willing to listen more carefully in person.

In many cases when different companies have different delegates with different views, often these issues can be resolved in five minutes by sitting down and talking together.

This is not possible with electronic meetings. Everything has to be done by email and conference calls. Even finding a time slot that is available for the majority of the delegates can be difficult. We avoid midnight conference calls and typically we can only schedule three hours of meetings per day. During physical events we can have eight hours of meetings per day.

With emails, some people in different regions of the world are sleeping and the response is slow, so this causes anxiety and all these things contribute to the inefficiency of the process. But at the same time, we have tried very hard to see how we can handle this process better. We have set up a lot of guidelines to try to improve the process, and the 3GPP has developed tools to facilitate more efficient discussion electronically.

We have improved the efficiency a lot over the past year, but we can't match the efficiency of having physical meetings. We have also tried to set up procedures so that we can make progress as best as we can. We also have set aside some time that we are calling an "inactive" period where we are not going to have virtual events and email discussions.

Light Reading: Is the 3GPP RAN technical working group a high-profile group now because of all the changes in the radio access network?

Chen: I do believe that the RAN working group has always had the responsibility to be open and accommodate different views and find the best way forward. This has always been the philosophy. If you look at what has changed over the last five to ten years, in 4G the companies involved in RAN came from the traditional wireless players: operators, equipment vendors, etc.

But a few years back with the start of 5G, because 5G is designed to accommodate different use cases – eMBB (enhanced mobile broadband) URLLC (ultra-reliable low latency communications) and MMBC (massive machine type communications) – these drew a lot of new players to 3GPP.

We see vehicle companies, public safety companies and power companies all becoming involved in the 3GPP. And we also interact with other forums and standard bodies.

We try to work with these other organizations and handle any requests that they make. It is challenging because the working groups only have limited capacity. The beauty of 3GPP is we try to find some compromise so that everyone is equally happy or equally unhappy.

Light Reading: What are your priorities moving forward?

Chen: The chair's job is to manage the group and address the approved projects and finish them on time. If there are any issues, we have to figure out how to resolve them. My job is to ensure everyone's voice is heard.

On Release 18 we will have the first five-day workshop and then we will take until December to develop procedural guidelines to figure out how to move it to the finish line. My first priority is to figure out how this project will be managed. I have to listen to the voice from all the players and find a balance.

With Release 18 we enter the second phase of 5G. We have already approved something called "5G Advance" starting with Release 18. We need to not just address the immediate needs but also look at projects that will have longer term commercial deployments.

Light Reading: Are you looking at 6G yet?

Chen: The 3GPP has not discussed it, but every single company has something in mind. It is important for us to first figure out the second phase of 5G, which is 5G Advanced. It is important to have a solid foundation to move from 5G to 6G.

I believe 5G will be around for ten years. We need to make sure 5G is a commercially successful standard.

At the same time, we have to be open minded and look at these longer term projects because they might help us to better understand the limitations of 5G so we can do better for 6G.

— Sue Marek, special to Light Reading. Follow her @suemarek.

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