Over 20 of the mobile sector’s heavy hitters from across the ecosystem on Sunday declared their intention to accelerate the standardization schedule the 3GPP’s 5G New Radio (NR) specs by proposing an interim NR spec that could enable large-scale standards-compliant trials and deployments of 5G NR as early as 2019 rather than 2020.
On the eve of MWC17, which officially kicks off in Barcelona Monday, 22 operators and vendors – including AT&T, NTT DoCoMo, SK Telecom, Vodafone, Ericsson, Qualcomm Technologies, BT, Telstra, KT, Intel, LG Uplus, KDDI, LG Electronics, Telia, Swisscom, TIM, Etisalat Group, Huawei, Sprint, Vivo, ZTE and Deutsche Telekom – said in a statement they will support the corresponding work plan proposal for the first phase of the intermediate 5G NR spec at the next 3GPP RAN Plenary Meeting in March in Croatia.
The first 3GPP 5G NR specification is slated to be part of Release 15. However, under the 3GPP’s current timeline, commercial deployment of Release 15 networks and devices won’t happen until 2020 at the earliest.
Consequently, the companies are proposing to introduce an “intermediate milestone” to complete specification documents related to a configuration called “Non-Standalone 5G NR” that will essentially enable LTE to support certain 5G use cases, which could in turn bump the standardization schedule forward by a year. From the press release:
Non-Standalone 5G NR will utilize the existing LTE radio and evolved packet core network as an anchor for mobility management and coverage while adding a new 5G radio access carrier to enable certain 5G use cases starting in 2019. The new proposal and the intermediate milestone also re-affirm and solidify the schedule for the complete standard, including Standalone 5G NR in Release 15.
The statement also says that the intermediate Non-Standalone 5G NR spec will be forward-compatible with the full 5G NR spec in Release 15.
While the majority of cellcos have no plans or any real need for 5G before 2020, the ones that are keen to get started have been frustrated by the slowness of the standardization process. Many of the initial 5G NR tests and trials that emerged in 2016 have by necessity utilized pre-standard 5G radio technologies – some of them on spectrum bands that have not been officially designated or harmonized for 5G usage – in the hopes of pushing the industry forward with de facto standards that would eventually be incorporated into Release 15, which in turn would encourage cellcos to invest in 5G gear today that could always be software-upgraded to be 3GPP-compliant once the standard was completed.
However, the new proposal issued Sunday appears to an indication that operators aren’t willing to take 5G to market before the 3GPP standard is ready, and can’t wait until 2020 for that to happen.
That said, support for Non-Standalone 5G NR isn’t universal – at least not yet. One notable absentee from the list of companies supporting the proposal is Verizon, which launched the 5G Technology Forum (5GTF) in 2015 to develop a draft 5G standard based on the 3GPP’s work in progress (although other 5GTF partners such as Ericsson, Intel, LG and Qualcomm do support the Non-Standalone 5G NR proposal). Nokia – who recently announced the first successful completion of a 5G connection based on the 5GTF draft – is also not onboard.
Even so, the joint statement says that the proposal’s “broad Industry support” will help cellcos “address the increasing global demand for enhanced mobile broadband services with 5G NR in 2019, while continuing to address the broader vision for 5G NR in 2020 and beyond.”
“We support both the Standalone and Non-Standalone configurations of 5G NR,” said Tom Keathley, senior vice president- wireless network architecture and design at AT&T. “Our focus is on prioritizing important specifications in the standards to bring 5G to market as quickly as possible. In the process of defining any standard, it is normal to make some decisions earlier than others. These accelerated decisions on key components of 5G NR standards will allow an earlier start on the development of the infrastructure and devices of tomorrow’s 5G deployments.”
Seizo Onoe, executive vice president and chief technology officer of NTT DoCoMo, said his company intends to commercially launch Non-Standalone 5G NR by 2020. “Acceleration of the standardization schedule will facilitate early implementation of the standard-compliant 5G NR.”
“We are pretty encouraged by the increasing voices heard within the telecom industry that the process of NR specification should be expedited,” said YongGyoo Lee, senior VP of Network Strategy at KT. “KT views that Non-Standalone and Standalone modes are equally important for the sake of completeness of the Standard Specification. However, we believe that early introduction of 5G networks, compensated by already-prevailing LTE coverage, is a reasonable approach for the operators when taking the ROI factors into the consideration, and it justifies the slight preference for [Non-Standalone] mode in terms of priority.”