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Standards leadership in action: How Nokia convinced the 5G world that less is more

Standards leadership in action: How Nokia convinced the 5G world that less is more

Last year 3GPP approved a version of 5G that could radically reshape networks. Instead of connecting devices with the fastest, highest performance links possible, this new type of 5G would target devices that needed low-power, low-cost and low-bandwidth connectivity. 

This technology is being marketed as NR-Light, but most of us know it as RedCap – short for “Reduced Capacity.” As this newly minted standard produces the first commercial chipsets next year, we will see a variety of new RedCap-enabled devices emerge – from traffic cameras and parking meters to home appliances to wearables. RedCap connectivity could potentially bring billions of new devices onto global 5G networks as well as open 5G to many new industries.

But RedCap almost didn’t happen. When 5G first emerged, low-capacity connectivity was the furthest thing from the industry’s mind. It was Nokia that realized RedCap’s potential and pushed for the standard, using every diplomatic and technical tool at our disposal to build consensus among our peers.

Today there are many companies vying for the title of standards leader in our industry, and each contender uses different metrics to bolster their claims: essential patents, technical contributions, committee and working group memberships. Nokia has its fair share intellectual property and a prominent voice in the meeting rooms of standards bodies across the globe. But ultimately, leadership is not something that can only be tracked quantitatively. 

In fact, Nokia believes true standards leadership should be measured by the impact that a company’s standards work makes on society as whole and our industry at large. It is in these terms that Nokia truly shines, as our work on RedCap and on numerous other standards clearly shows.

Overcoming broadband inertia

While the ink was drying on the first 5G standard, 3GPP Release 15, in 2018, RedCap ranked low among the industry’s priorities. A lot of expectations were being placed on 5G to show its value over 4G, and that meant pursuing performance – faster speeds, higher capacities and greater mobility. 

In March 2018, Nokia submitted an early RedCap proposal to address lower data-rate 5G devices. We felt that there was tremendous opportunity for 5G in the internet of things. But to target the IoT world, 5G would require device chipsets that were not only much cheaper to manufacture, but also consumed far less power, operated over limited spectrum and utilized only a subset of 5G’s full capabilities. 

Network in a city

A traffic camera does not need a 2 Gbps downlink connection. In fact, it hardly needs a downlink connection at all, as its video feed utilizes the network’s uplink. Neither your fridge, nor your thermostat, nor your sleep apnea machine requires a robust connection, but there is sizable demand for connecting these devices via low-cost, low-complexity wireless modems. There is a demand for future-proofed modems so operators can take advantage of their long-term investments in 5G. And there is a desire among enterprises to have a single network that can support every manner of device, whether a simple sensor to robots with precise timing and accuracy requirements.  In all these cases, Nokia believed RedCap fit the bill perfectly. 

The initial feedback to our proposal, however, was not encouraging. In fact, we received little reaction at all from the 3GPP community because at the time everything was taking a backseat to mobile broadband.

But Nokia didn’t give up. We tried to convince different companies within 3GPP of our argument while soliciting the help of our customers. Those customer conversations helped us realize RedCap’s full potential. At first, Nokia felt the RedCap solution would appeal primarily to enterprise. But major operators we talked to saw even bigger potential for RedCap in the consumer realm. RedCap could ink all of the appliances in the connected home. New categories of devices opened up like smart watches, which by their very size, need smaller, simpler modems to support 5G. 

In 2019, we convinced our 3GPP peers to commission a study item on RedCap, which began right as the COVID-19 pandemic took root. Though the study was delayed by 9 months, the results were positive, concluding that RedCap could achieve a 60% cost savings over standard 5G UEs, with even greater potential cost efficiencies in future iterations of the standard.

That study was the final argument we needed to bring 3GPP on board. In 2022, RedCap received the name NR-Light and became part of the Release 17 standard. This year, the first NR-Light chipsets are being released for testing, which suggests commercial availability in 2024. This paves the way for migrating more and more services from LTE networks to more efficient 5G networks, which will free up 4G spectrum for 5G use, which will in turn unleash new waves of IoT applications on 5G.

Less is more

The work on RedCap is by no means done. This year, 3GPP is looking to create the next NR-Light specification, which reduce costs, power and complexity even further. This will make 5G viable for the most cost-efficient devices. As we come to the 3GPP table this time, though, RedCap has many champions besides Nokia.

RedCap is a clear example about how a counterintuitive approach can ultimately benefit the world. By making 5G less powerful we can greatly expand the scope of the network to new categories of devices. By convincing our peers of this “less is more” approach, we helped create a more vibrant, more relevant mobile industry. It is with this type of consensus building that we can bring our leadership in standards to bear. And RedCap is just a single example.

This summer, my colleagues at Nokia will offer up many more examples of how Nokia has helped shaped our society and our industry through standards leadership. Those efforts go well beyond 3GPP and mobile networking, encompassing devices, wireline networks and even multimedia.

In the meantime, I am eagerly awaiting my first NR-Light gadget. It will have been worth the wait.

For more details on Nokia standardization leadership, check out our Standardization page. 

Antti Toskala

About Antti Toskala

Antti Toskala is a Bell Labs Fellow who has worked with 3GPP for more than 20 years. Currently his work is focused on 5G evolution.

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