The industry has agreed, through 3GPP, to complete the non-standalone (NSA) implementation of 5G New Radio (NR) by December 2017, paving the way for large-scale trials and deployments based on the specification starting in 2019 instead of 2020.
Vodafone proposed the idea of accelerating development of the 5G standard last year, and while stakeholders debated various proposals for months, things really started to roll just before Mobile World Congress 2017. That's when a group of 22 companies came out in favor of accelerating the 5G standards process.
By the time the 3GPP RAN Plenary met in Dubrovnik, Croatia, last week, the number of supporters grew to more than 40, including Verizon, which had been a longtime opponent of the acceleration idea. They decided to accelerate the standard.
At one time over the course of the past several months, as many as 12 different options were on the table, but many operators and vendors were interested in a proposal known as Option 3.
According to Signals Research Group, the reasoning went something like this: If vendors knew the Layer 1 and Layer 2 implementation, then they could turn the FGPA-based solutions into silicon and start designing commercially deployable solutions. Although operators eventually will deploy a new 5G core network, there’s no need to wait for a standalone (SA) version—they could continue to use their existing LTE EPC and meet their deployment goals.
Meanwhile, a fundamental feature has emerged in wireless networks over the last decade, and we’re hearing a lot more about it lately: The ability to do spectrum aggregation. Qualcomm, which was one of the ring leaders of the accelerated 5G standard plan, also happens to have a lot of engineering expertise in carrier aggregation.
“We’ve been working on these fundamental building blocks for a long time,” said Lorenzo Casaccia, VP of technical standards at Qualcomm Technologies.
Casaccia said it's possible to aggregate LTE with itself or with Wi-Fi, and the same core principle can be extended to LTE and 5G. The benefit, he said, is that you can essentially introduce 5G more casually and rely on the LTE anchor for certain functions.
In fact, carrier aggregation, or CA, has been emerging over the last decade. Dual-carrier HSPA+ was available, but CA really became popularized with LTE-Advanced. U.S. carriers like T-Mobile US boast about offering CA since 2014 and Sprint frequently talks about the ability to do three-channel CA. One can argue that aggregation is one of the fundamental building blocks enabling the 5G standard to be accelerated.
Of course, even though a lot of work went into getting to this point, now the real work begins. 5G has officially moved from a study item to a work item in 3GPP.
Over the course of this year, engineers will be hard at work as the actual writing of the specifications needs to happen in order to meet the new December 2017 deadline.
AT&T, for one, is already jumping the gun, so to speak, preparing for the launch of standards-based mobile 5G as soon as late 2018. That’s a pretty remarkable turn of events given rival Verizon’s constant chatter about being first with 5G in the U.S.
Verizon is doing pre-commercial fixed broadband trials now and plans to launch commercially in 2018 at last check. Maybe that will change, maybe not.
Historically, there’s been a lot of worry over whether other parts of the world will get to 5G before the U.S. Operators in Asia in particular are often proclaiming their 5G-related accomplishments and aspirations, especially as it relates to the Olympics. But exactly how vast and deep those services turn out to be is still to be seen.
Further, there’s always a concern about fragmentation. Some might remember years ago, before LTE sort of settled the score, when the biggest challenge in wireless tech was keeping track of the various versions: UMTS/WCDMA, HSPA and HSPA+, cdma2000, 1xEV-DO, 1xEV-DO Revision A, 1xEV-DO Revision B and so on. It’s a bit of a relief to no longer be talking about those technologies. And most likely, those working on 5G remember the problems in roaming and interoperability that stemmed from these fragmented network standards.
But the short answer to why the industry is in such a hurry to get to 5G is easy: Because it can.
Like Qualcomm’s tag line says: Why wait? The U.S. is right to get on board the train. With any luck, there will actually be 5G standards that marketing teams can legitimately cite to back up claims about this or that being 5G. We can hope.—Monica | @malleven33