Every new generation of cellular technology has come with its own, new, air interface. 5G is no different, introducing 5G New Radio (NR). And, as with so much of 5G, 2017 promises to be a big year for 5G NR.
Long before AT&T announced 5G Evolution services based on LTE technologies last week, it was clear that service provider strategies and vendor positioning, alike, include LTE technologies as new air interfaces in their 5G service and marketing plans. With LTE continuing to evolve, its inclusion in 5G discussions makes sense (a topic we’ll come back to). But it also begs the question of why a new air interface for 5G is necessary. Beyond any interest in delineating a new technology with a new air interface, 5G NR promises a number of important features and functionalities: support for diverse spectrum, including low-band (sub-1 GHz), mid-band (1 to 6 GHz) and high-band, mmWave (24 GHz and up) assets; lower latency; added network capacity; improved spectral efficiency (lower cost-per-bit); improved service uniformity (EG, at cell edge); and the flexibility to support 5G’s diverse use cases (massive IoT, critical communications, and enhanced mobile broadband) with one unified design.
The 2017 Story
Against this backdrop – and a general interest in moving 5G forward – it’s not surprising that operators including AT&T, Verizon, and SKT have committed to commercial and pre-commercial 5G deployments this year incorporating mmWave spectrum and an air interface beyond LTE. It would be wrong to call the technology used in these launches “5G NR” since these operators aren’t waiting for the 5G NR specifications to be complete. Regardless, these launches are important, if only because they point to three key realities: enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) as the first 5G use case focus; demand for moving quickly on implementing new 5G air interfaces; the progress made to date in bringing that new air interface to life.
That progress begins, in large part, with the 3GPP. While Release 15 is often considered to include the first 5G set of specifications, the stage was set with a Release 14 Study item nailing down some key technology decisions such as the use of scalable OFDM waveforms. Release 15, however, will build on these decisions to yield a complete set of specifications, focused, at first, on enhanced MBB use cases. Standalone 5G operations utilizing a new 5G core network architecture (also being specified by the 3GPP), as well as non-standalone operations in tandem with the existing LTE network will be supported. And while the Release 15 workplan is scheduled to run through the end of 2018, there’s a reason for including it in “The 2017 Story.”
Decided in early March at a 3GPP plenary in Dubrovnik, an intermediate milestone was introduced into the Release 15 5G NR specification process. This milestone calls for the completion of the technical specs for non-standalone 5G NR (leveraging an existing LTE RAN and core as an anchor), with the completion of specs for standalone 5G NR following by six months. The proposal to move quicker on non-standalone 5G NR had broad support; a veritable who’s who of the mobile industry announced their support for acceleration at Mobile World Congress in February. More importantly, buttoning up the technical specs by the end of 2017 creates a trajectory for early deployments of standards-compliant NR-based 5G in 2019.
We may not see standards-based 5G launches in 2017. But we will see progress towards standardizing 5G NR in a way that supports commercial launches before the 2020 timeline that’s often cited. (Think a year earlier.) In the meantime, there’s lots of work still to be done.
Simply setting a date for the completion of 5G NR specifications won’t make them magically materialize. That would be nice, but it’s not the way things work. The specifications still need to be agreed on and delivered, driven by plenty of 3GPP meetings and technical discussions over the course of the year. Nobody underestimates the work to be done, including extensive NR test beds and field trials in support of modeling the technology across various spectrum bands across various geographies. Consider the CTO panel at NYU Wireless’ Brooklyn 5G Summit late last month where the feeling around getting all this technical wrangling complete by year-end was “cautiously optimistic.” Of course, with the number of firms committed to making it happen, betting against it seems risky.
Then, the real work begins.
Turning a radio standard into a 5G ecosystem will require a new set of over-the-air trials and interoperability testing. The difference from those trials and tests taking place in the near-term is that these will be compliant with the new 5G NR specification. Already, we’ve seen the stage set, with companies like Qualcomm announcing plans to support wireless operators and vendors in 5G NR trials across North America, Asia, and Europe while expanding its Snapdragon modem family to include 5G NR (in multiple bands) along with Gigabit LTE technologies in order to support commercial deployments starting in 2019.
This last point is particularly important. Bringing 5G to life will require early trials and deployments for proving out and honing the technology, as well as an ecosystem of standards-compliant networks and devices. From a commercial perspective, those networks and devices will need to exist within the context of, and embrace, LTE enhancements such as NB-IoT, V2X technologies, and Gigabit LTE; LTE, after all, continues to evolve and 5G coverage won’t be ubiquitous from day one. Luckily, with eMBB use cases being an early 5G focus, Gigabit LTE will be ready to provide a solid, consistent experience – and it’s up for discussion in our next post. Stay tuned.