We’ve all been talking about 5G for years, but the standards needed to make it a global commercial reality have yet to appear. That has been seen by many as a potential point of delay. And who wants to wait when something as good as 5G is being promised?
It’s an issue that 3GPP is tackling with a proposed accelerated schedule for 5G standardization that could see large-scale trials and deployments as early as 2019. That’s good news of course, but there are also risks. Let me explain.
The accelerated introduction of 5G capable networks will make specifications available earlier, helping vendors to firm up their platform designs. It also means that operators who have not conducted pre-standard 5G trials won’t be at a disadvantage to those who have, and avoids the ecosystem fragmenting into too many proprietary offerings.
But what’s making this new, faster schedule possible?
It all comes down to a phased approach of the initial release of 3GPP specifications (Release 15). So far we have thought about connecting the 5G New Radio (NR) to a Next Generation Core, the new 5G core. This is the standalone approach.
Standalone vs non-standalone approach
The new accelerated schedule relies on the non-standalone approach, or NSA. This has the 5G NR connected to an existing LTE network that serves as an “anchor” using the dual-connectivity approach. With this method, all the control functions of the 5G radio are performed by the LTE network - the 5G radio is just an extension of the LTE network, a capacity boost. This initial phase omits the disruptive elements of 5G.
This eMBB-related capacity boost allows new spectrum to be used in the most efficient way to ease capacity shortages in dense areas.
Another focus is low latency - potentially coupled with ultra-reliability - URLLC. Low latency functionality can become a true differentiator that can power a huge number of applications. URLLC has been included in the first phase Work Item (3GPP Release-15) and needs a standalone (SA) deployment of 5G.
But this accelerated approach for NSA carries some risks. Some vendors want to copy most technology components directly from LTE. Although this ramps up the speed, it hinders the notion of a stronger differentiation for 5G.
The six-month gap between the finalization of non-standalone and standalone specifications also means a non-standalone-only ecosystem could proliferate.
Lacking some of the truly game-changing capabilities of 5G, this would put a serious dent in the credibility of the grand 5G vision.
Despite these risks there is a good deal of optimism that everything will be ok – there are a lot of big players signed up to this and we know from experience that the more the industry pulls together, the better the chances of getting it right.
The Brooklyn 5G Summit is currently exploring the latest developments in 5G on 19-21 April 2017. Check out the event program and register for the free live or on-demand stream via IEEE.tv.
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