Don’t rush 5G standards – especially when you don’t have to

5G time
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The current momentum of 5G is leading to mounting pressure to rush the standards process, which isn’t complete. Here’s why that would be a huge mistake – and why it’s unnecessary.

The past several months has seen an explosion in 5G momentum. It seems that every week brings another high-profile demonstration or an announcement of a new trial. The result of all this attention has dramatically shortened everyone’s prediction for when 5G products will debut in the market. Just a year ago, the assumption was that 5G would be here in 2020 at the earliest. Now, experts are targeting 2019 with initial deployments scheduled for this year.

And why not? The 3GPP published the first 5G specifications in December, and January’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) saw a raft of 5G product announcements. Most significantly, high-profile demonstrations of 5G technology took place this past month at Super Bowl LII and the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, showcasing real-world applications for the blisteringly fast radio connection between devices and cell towers.

However, despite the successful demonstrations from carriers and mobile device manufacturers, the 5G standards process is not complete. The December announcement from 3GPP included specifications for the tower-to-device connection, while specifications for network services – the technology that will enable IoT, automated driving, augmented reality and whatever killer app we haven’t conceived of – has yet to be finalized.

Current projections point to a June release date, but the momentum described above is leading to mounting pressure to rush the standards process. This would be a huge mistake, as we saw from a hurried standards process for 3G and 4G. Slowing down and taking our time would result in a more robust standard – and ultimately better, more sustainable products that truly deliver a transformative experience for consumers.

Fortunately, slowing down the standards process doesn’t have to restrict the great 5G momentum that has been generated over the past several months. Creating a realistic environment for testing could bridge the standards gap without creating the kind of complexities we saw with 3G and 4G. This would give manufacturers and carriers a way to move forward with 5G development as the industry develops a truly robust set of 5G standards.

Lessons learned from 3G

A rushed standards process created all sorts of complexities and inefficiencies for 3G and 4G, and there are important lessons to be learned from that.

3G focused on voice without considering the inevitable explosion in cellular data. The original 3G standards, R99 and R4 were based on ATM transport, and it wasn’t until R5 that the switch was made to IP. This transition required closer interaction with higher layers that created timing issues. At the same time, proprietary protocols such as NBAP and RRC that sit between the user equipment (UE) and the base station created all sorts of interoperability issues between different network elements, further complicating routing and creating enormous inefficiencies. Rushing 5G standards would create a similar level of complexity – it will just manifest in different ways.

Fortunately, the 3GPP specs agreed to in December standardized the reuse of existing 4G infrastructure and focuses on areas where changes are required to handle larger bandwidth and low latency applications. This allows for a step-wise approach towards the deployment of 5G, and allows us to take our time with crafting the remaining standards without inhibiting 5G development.

Creating a realistic 5G testing environment

Carriers and manufacturers do not have to wait to continue the development process. While we all wait for a robust set of network services standards, developers can use testing to bridge the gap. Testing can go a long way in simulating conditions that are not possible today given existing network infrastructure. But accurate, reliable testing will require a realistic testing environment, which is hard to come by at this early stage.

Over-the-air conditions pose a major problem. As the name implies, the very short range frequencies that 5G promises to leverage have a range of only a few feet, making testing in potential real-world conditions difficult. They are also extremely susceptible to line-of-sight issues, as objects just a few inches across can cause interference.

5G developers are going to have to create a testing chamber with laboratory conditions, including simulator antennas placed to create narrow beams. Real-world conditions can be replicated by distorting signals and introducing channel model effects. But this, of course, requires sophisticated end-to-end testing expertise.

In addition to laboratory conditions, developers can take advantage of existing infrastructure to conduct real-world testing. One of the myths of 5G is that it requires mmWave bands. However, most early deployments in Asia run on sub-6 GHz bands, which are in ample supply in other global markets, especially in the 3.5, 4.5 and 4.8-5 GHz ranges. Carriers can conduct 5G testing today on these existing networks without having to wait for the rest of the standards process to play out.

As we saw with 3G and 4G, standards development needs to progress in a careful, deliberate manner. But this shouldn’t stop 5G development. Developers can create real-world testing environments both in the lab and in the field to test 5G deployments. This will allow the 5G momentum that has been built up over the past several months continue while letting the standards process play out.

Kalyan Sundhar, vice president for mobility, virtualization and applications products at Keysight TechnologiesWritten by Kalyan Sundhar, vice president for mobility, virtualization and applications products at Keysight Technologies

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