The state of standardization in 2023
On Saturday Oct 14, we celebrate World Standards Day, which honors the efforts of hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals devoted to standardizing everything from our units of measurement to the communications technologies that interconnect the world. With that anniversary in mind, I would like to take this opportunity to look at the state of standardization in the communications industry, exploring what we have collectively accomplished in 2023 so far.
Like every activity depending on face-to-face collaboration, the pandemic took a big toll on standardization. While organizations like 3GPP, IEEE, IETF and the O-RAN ALLIANCE were able to continue their work through digital collaboration during the pandemic, face-to-face meetings are key to the kind of consensus that standards bodies need to build. For the first time in three years, standards forums met in person in 2023, and the result was a blossoming of productivity. Here are some of the major milestones we achieved in communications standardization this year.
5G hits its stride
Many of our past standardization efforts bore fruit in 2023. We saw increased deployments of 5G standalone networks and thus the full realization of 5G-core versatility. Reduced Capability (RedCap) chipsets appeared this year, which means we’ll likely see the first commercial RedCap devices in 2024, which will interweave 5G closely with the internet of things.
Meanwhile, we made substantial progress in standardizing the next iteration of 5G. 3GPP is nearing completion of the crucial work for the first 5G-Advanced specifications, Release 18, which will add to 5G’s portfolio by enabling new positioning and timing capabilities, making extended reality (XR) truly mobile, and transforming the way we slice, automate and power the network. 3GPP is set to finalize the core of Release 18 this year, and it’s already taken the first steps toward agreeing on the scope and content of Release 19.
In all, the standards bodies have produced a rich library of standardized features for 5G, but I will be the first to admit that commercial 5G networks have been rather lean when it comes to implementing these features, which so far have been based mainly on Release 15. On self-reflection, we standards leaders should be doing a better job at portfolio management, ensuring we are focusing on the right specifications and meaningful features that provide timely value for service providers and enterprises.
That said, I would caution us against only pursuing a few “big ticket” items for each 3GPP release. Sometimes even minor specifications wind up having a big impact. Take, for instance, fixed wireless access. No one envisioned FWA would be a big component of 5G services several years ago, but it emerged this year as a very simple, yet profitable, way for service providers use their spare 5G capacity to attract new customers and monetize their 5G networks.
In addition, the standards community in 2023 redoubled its focus on more application-driven 5G standardization efforts. The Linux Foundation accelerated the CAMARA project, which, along with the GSMA’s Open Gateway initiative, is creating technical standards that will enable application developers and communications service providers to quickly produce new software applications for new enterprise, industrial and consumer use cases. 5G networks are fundamentally software-based, which means they are programmable through application programming interfaces (APIs) and other software development tools. By exposing these APIs to application developers, service providers can generate new business opportunities and monetize their networks.
Wi-Fi, L4S and satellite
The IEEE was hard at work in 2023, as well, to create the next generation of Wi-Fi networking based on the 802.11be standard, better known as Wi-Fi 7. Though the standard won’t be officially ratified until 2024, but the Wi-Fi Alliance has already launched its certification program. The first commercial Wi-Fi 7 devices will hit the market pretty soon.
In January, the IETF took a big step toward standardizing L4S, which stands for Low Latency, Low Loss throughput. L4S tackles queuing delay, the single biggest problem impacting end-to-end network latency. As devices, applications and networks increasingly support L4S in the future, the quality of experience will greatly improve for real-time internet applications like video conferencing, multiplayer gaming and XR. Specifically, the IETF granted request-for-comment (RFC) status to three foundational L4S documents, which is a key step toward including L4S in the technical standards governing internet protocols. L4S is already part of the Cable Labs standardization suite and is being standardized by 3GPP.
Going from local-area to low-earth orbit, we find that 2023 was a watershed year for non-terrestrial networks (NTN). Specifications from Release 17 have sired the wave of chipsets that support standardized connections to satellite networks on terrestrial radio modems. We’ve already seen the likes of SpaceX and other satellite communications dive into NTN with proprietary solutions or pre-Rel-17 standard-compliant solutions, but the creation of a global NTN standard means we can bring the same interoperability and economies of scale we enjoy in the mobile world to satellite communications.
The first steps toward 6G
We may not see the first commercial 6G networks until the end of the decade, but we’re already hard at work laying the foundations for the next generation of networking. The European 6G initiative Hexa-X wrapped up two and a half years of pre-standardization work in June, identifying key technology concepts and use cases for a future 6G standard.
India joined the global 6G conversation in 2023 by outlining its Bharat 6G Vision. The Indian government established the 6G Technology Innovations Group (TIG) with the aim of making India a global leader in the next generation of networking. The TIG has set up six task forces that will recommend a 6G research and standards framework to global standardization forums.
In September, the International Telecommunication Union Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) adopted and sent for approval its IMT-2030 framework recommendation, which serves as a roadmap for the future capabilities and use cases of 6G networks. And to cap off the year, the ITU’s World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) will meet in November and December to decide on the spectrum to be studied and potentially designated for 6G in the future. The WRC’s decision will ultimately determine how – and at what cost – 6G networks get built. 6G standardization in 3GPP won’t start before 2025, but we’re rapidly completing the groundwork and research necessary to kick off this process.
A lot of people are asking why we’re even bothering with 6G now. Can’t it be delayed until 5G is fully realized or even skipped entirely? My answer is a resounding no.
By starting the standardization process, we’re not creating technology for technology’s sake. We’re predicting the future needs of service providers, enterprises, industries, governments and even societies. Then we’re envisioning the technologies that will meet those needs in the next decade. We must constantly re-invent the future; otherwise we will stagnate. And it’s through standards – ensuring everyone has access to these future technologies – that we help the world act together.
To learn more about Nokia’s work among in global standards, check out our Standardization webpage.