3GPP agrees to two-speed process for 5G NR standards

As expected, the 3GPP has agreed to a proposal to fast-track standardization of a subset of the 5G New Radio (NR) specifications. That means the non-standalone technology – which requires an LTE anchor network and core – will be frozen at the end of this year, six months ahead of schedule, which could enable standards-based 5G deployments as early as 2019. The standalone specs, which do not require any LTE network, will follow in mid-2018 as planned.

“A major decision was taken this week in RAN on the 5G new radio workplan,” said 3GPP chairman Dino Flore. “In particular, the group agreed to have an intermediate milestone for the early completion of the non-standalone (NSA) 5G NR mode.”

He  added: “In non-standalone mode the connection is anchored in LTE while 5G NR carriers are used to boost data rates and reduce latency. With the updated workplan, NSA will be finalized by March 2018. At the same time, the group reinstated its commitment to complete the Standalone 5G NR mode by September 2018 and put in place a plan to achieve that.”

AT&T had originally proposed this two-speed approach last fall, but was voted down by Verizon, which is using its own pre-standard technology to deploy fixed 5G services next year. However, at Mobile World Congress, a score of operators and many of the major vendors pledged support for the approach, and they carried the day at last week’s 3GPP RAN plenary meeting in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

The mobile giants are not united in support for the plan. Telefonica, Orange and Nokia expressed fears that the focus on non-standalone NR will divert attention and resources from the more flexible, and potentially disruptive, standalone version, and from an end-to-end platform including the 5G core (see Wireless Watch March 6 2017).

However, Telefonica’s, Nokia’s and Verizon’s names did appear in a 3GPP presentation about the new timetable, though Orange remains absent.

The 3GPP is committed to ensure commonality and forward compatibility with standalone NR, and the non-standalone specs will include a low latency version. The prioritization of NR band definition, and band combinations with LTE, will be discussed separately.

Meanwhile, Verizon is pursuing its pre-5G roll-out plans, using technology it has developed separately from the 3GPP process via its 5G Technology Forum initiative with its key suppliers. It insists the specifications will be easily adapted to be fully compliant with the standards once those are finalized. The operator’s president of operations, John Stratton, told an investor conference last week that fixed wireless services were on schedule to be launched from 2018 as planned, but mobile 5G would not arrive until 2020.