Editor’s Corner—No surprises expected from this week’s 3GPP meeting—at least, not yet

Monica Alleven
December 10, 2018

As the industry convenes in Italy this week for another 3GPP meeting about 5G specifications, no alarm bells appear to be sounding among some of the biggest stakeholders as to whether or not standards-based 5G smartphones will be available as expected early next year.

Coinciding with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Summit in Maui last week, both Verizon and AT&T announced 5G smartphones they will launch in the first half of 2019. The announcements came after some confusion over what is or isn’t compatible with the most recent 3GPP specifications, as well as questions around whether updates to the 3GPP 5G spec would affect commercial smartphone launches in early 2019

To recap, 3GPP ratified the non-standalone (NSA) 5G New Radio (NR) specification in December 2017. But work continued to make specifications ready for implementation of commercial products and services. At a plenary meeting in La Jolla, Calif., in June, 3GPP completed the Standalone (SA) version of the 5G NR standard. The organization declared Release 15—the first phase of 5G—to be “frozen.”

But changes were made up until September as well, and according to 3GPP—which includes global operators, device OEMs and infrastructure vendors—it’s well understood that the September 2018 version of the NR specifications at large constitutes the basis for initial 5G deployments.

That means this week’s meeting should not have material consequences, even though with each quarterly meeting, the 3GPP has a new version of specifications. In addition, work continues on Phase 2 of the 5G process, referred to as Release 16, which will be finalized at the end of 2019.

In response to recent interest in the correction process for 5G NR specifications, 3GPP published a blog outlining how its change request (CR) process works to fix bugs after specifications are initially approved. Representatives of Nokia, Qualcomm, Intel, Ericsson, Samsung and Motorola all signed off on the blog.

For those of us who are not intimately involved in the 3GPP standards process, it gets confusing pretty fast. That could be in part because the real work gets done within each working group ahead of the big quarterly plenary meetings, so when the groups finally gather to endorse the change requests this week, “there won’t be any surprises or new items,” according to Qualcomm’s Wanshi Chen, who serves as the RAN 1 chairman in the 3GPP, and Lorenzo Casaccia, VP and 5G standards lead at Qualcomm.

“The declaration of completion in March always, of course to us, never meant that the specs were perfect in March,” Casaccia explained in an interview. “It meant that the specs were stable enough that you could build products and put trials together.” In the meantime, the pre-commercial products would gradually align to whichever corrected version the 3GPP generated.

The important thing is that in September, there was a certain confidence in the industry that the September version was stable, in a deeper sense, to use it for commercial products, he said. It’s a bit nuanced, but they’re not going to go back and re-do the waveform or rethink OFDM. “We are not going to go back and discuss fundamental concepts from scratch,” he said.

That jibes with the observations of industry analyst Michael Thelander, CEO and founder of Signals Research Group (SRG), which has been following the 3GPP’s 5G work since at least the start of the standardization process in late 2015. At the plenary level, 3GPP might need to resolve things if there are inconsistencies among the work groups, but “the real work gets done in the working groups,” he said.

One of the reasons for the change requests is once teams start implementing pieces of the spec, they come across holes or find things that weren’t considered when it was first formed, according to Chen. Another reason is for consistency’s sake—making sure the terminology is clear and consistent between the different RAN work groups. Typically, the first release of a major new generation—like 5G, in this case—is going to see a long tail of CRs.

Sources say the upshot is, with the exception of Verizon because it started its 5G fixed wireless offering using the 5G Technical Forum (TF) specs that were mostly exclusive to Verizon—which by the way, gets a lot of credit for pushing forward the whole 5G ecosystem—operators are not expected to be ripping out their base stations/hardware (or asking their vendors to do so.) Updates are to be software-driven. (Verizon is transitioning its 5G TF fixed wireless service to the standards-based 5G NR systems as equipment becomes available before expanding to any more neighborhoods and cities.)

Throughout SRG’s coverage of the process, it has consistently used quotation marks when referring to “completed” specifications, such as those in Release 15, often noting the work yet to be done. At one point, upon seeing a reference to an “intermediate freeze,” SGR noted that hopefully, affected parties know that when something is frozen and then turned into slush/a partial freeze and then frozen again, you end up with pot holes.

Of course, the question can always be posed: Did the industry rush 5G too much? In 2017, a somewhat controversial decision was made to accelerate the NSA implementation of 5G NR, paving the way for large-scale trials and deployments based on the specification starting in 2019 instead of 2020.

Casaccia said it’s a legitimate question, but he points out that until something is declared to be completed, people will continue to bring new ideas. It’s not as if people will magically become self-restrained and stop pushing their favorites. It’s human nature to continue until the very last second. If they had six more months or a year to work on the specs, the end result probably would be the same, or something very close to it.

To be sure, neither AT&T nor Verizon gave specific dates for when they will release their 5G smartphones in 2019. They could be saving further details for CES 2019 next month or Mobile World Congress 2019 in Barcelona at the end of February, or some time in between. The big question for them is: Will these changes to the specs mean 5G smartphone launches are delayed?

“We are confident that the September specs will meet the needs for a non-standalone based smart phone launch,” said Gordon Mansfield, VP of Converged Access & Device Technology at AT&T, in statement responding to a query from FierceWirelessTech.

Expectations are high that this week’s meeting in Sorrento, Italy, will be more business as usual, but one can’t help but wonder if there will be some surprises afoot. Regardless, it would seem to ring true that 3GPP’s work is never really done.