While the industry has been talking about 5G for years, it’s really just getting started when you think about it from a 5G standards perspective.
Granted, there’s nothing like a good old conversation about wireless standards to get the debate going around the dinner table during the holidays. Before you know it, the entire room is buzzing about ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC), Integrated Access and Backhaul (IAB) and 5G NR-U.
OK, back to reality. For starters, let’s take stock in what’s here now. In the standards world, 3GPP Release 15 is considered Phase 1 of 5G; it defined the foundation for the 5G network by presenting different architectural models for Non Standalone (NSA) and Standalone (SA) deployments, allowing mobile operators to select the most suitable ones for their network, according to GSMA’s head of Technology, Carlos Bosch.
U.S. incumbent operators are deploying first with the NSA version—which uses LTE as an anchor—and are expected to start moving to SA in 2020. (Yes, Dish Network is pursuing an SA strategy, but it’s contingent on the T-Mobile/Sprint merger happening.)
What’s so great about SA? NSA is an intermediate mode whereas SA is the purest, native form of 5G, which is also the most powerful version of 5G, according to Bosch. SA will provide operators with the full set of 5G functionalities and the optimal performance, such as data downlink speed (up to 20 Gigabits per second) and ultra-low latency (1 millisecond latency).
NSA modes rely on 4G core infrastructure that can’t take advantage of all 5G enhanced functions, and it’s not capable of supporting the optimal 5G performance levels, while its advantage is to provide the operators a means to deploy a “light version” of 5G early in the process.
Release 15 vs. Release 16
Some of the features in Release 15 are the new 5G radio module, enhancements to improve 5G performance such as evolved Mobile Broadband (eMBB), network slicing and service-based architecture, which is critical to 5G as it consolidates both hardware and software and, for the first time, allows for activities to take place on the cloud.
“Release 15 got several features closer to ultra-reliable low-latency communications with the evolution of vehicle-to-everything communication, mission-critical communications and network slicing,” Bosch said via email.
The main features deployed with Release 16, which moves into Phase 2 of 5G, include ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC), a tailored IoT mode that enables support for massive IoT (mIoT and industrial IoT) and further enhancements and extensions to vehicle-to-everything (V2X), including support for autonomous driving, tailored to 5G.
In addition, Release 16 will support a new set of functions under the umbrella term “5G Efficiency” that will make 5G more efficient in terms of energy, with reduced power consumption, location and position services and performance enhancement, including better antennae performance, Bosch said. Release 16 was approved in 2018 and it’s set to be “frozen,” referring to the final set of features, in the first quarter of 2020.
Equipment based on Release 16 will start coming to market beginning near the end of the second quarter of 2020 and into the second half of 2020 from early adopter manufacturers. “We expect products to continue rolling out over the course of several years, aligning with network deployment,” he said.
IAB, 5G NR-U
One of the features in Release 15 that holds a lot of promise but isn’t yet deployed in the U.S. is Integrated Access and Backhaul (IAB). The primary goal here is to improve capacity in areas where fiber might be sparse, challenging or cost-prohibitive to deploy. Basically, it increases the efficiency of deploying small cells, making it so that an operator doesn’t need fiber at every single small cell if it incorporates IAB into its system.
“I think it’s a very good tool,” said Chris Pearson, president of 5G Americas, in an interview. It’s not replacing fiber, but when it comes to operators densifying their networks, it’s something they’re likely to look at very closely. “It could be a very efficient way of helping you to deploy more small cells,” he said.
Some question whether IAB is only for millimeter wave or sub 6 GHz spectrum, and the way the standard is written, it does not limit IAB to any specific frequency bands, he added. Lower frequency spectrum may be too valuable to use for backhaul, so probably where it will be most relevant is where an operator has a lot of millimeter wave. The backhaul link, where both ends of the link are stationary, is especially suitable for the massive beam forming possible on the higher frequencies, according to 5G Americas.
Another coming attraction, this one in Release 16, is NR-Unlicensed, or NR-U. Extending on what’s been going on with LTE-U and LAA, NR-U will be able to operate in one of two modes: Standalone licensed access, where NR operates in an unlicensed band with no assistance from a carrier in a licensed band; and license assisted access (LAA), where the operation of NR in the unlicensed band makes use of a carrier in the licensed band for assistance, such as control signaling.
This has implications, for example, for the 6 GHz band, which is being studied in the U.S. for additional unlicensed uses. It’s another way to increase download speeds for end users. In the stand-alone mode, where it doesn’t require an anchor from LTE or a 5G core, it also can be beneficial for going into new vertical markets where enterprises want their own unlicensed private networks.
Already, there are 46 5G networks deployed globally, which is “tremendous,” according to Pearson, who says the industry deserves a pat on the back for how far it’s come with 5G. Remember, it was 2017 when the industry decided to accelerate the NSA implementation of 5G NR through the 3GPP, paving the way for large-scale trials and deployments based on the specification starting in 2019 instead of 2020.
“I think the industry has done a great job to get to where we are,” he said. “There’s great stuff that’s been accomplished so far, and there’s even greater technical features that are going to be deployed in the future.”—Monica @malleven33