5G NR NSA is just a small step – 3GPP outlines some next steps

The first set of 5G New Radio (NR) standards – for Non-Standalone (NSA) systems – may be finalized, but that is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to the full 5G platform. Not only does 3GPP have to complete Release 15 in June with the Standalone version of NR, plus the 5G Core Network, but it is already engaged in initial work on study items for Release 16.

That should be ratified next year, and will significantly enhance 5G capabilities, especially when it comes to new use cases enabled by ultra-low latency, massive density, device-to-device communications and unlicensed spectrum.

Last week, a 3GPP plenary meeting was held in Chennai, India. Lorenzo Casaccia, VP of technical standards at Qualcomm, updated the industry on progress in a blog post, writing: “The primary focus for the completed 3GPP Release 15 5G NR NSA standard is enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) services, as well as establishing the foundation for the 5G NR design to support the future evolution. But the work in 3GPP continues to make the specifications ready for implementation of commercial products and services. As such, there are ongoing efforts in 3GPP to stabilize the Release 15 specifications and essentially take care of bug fixes, or ‘Change Requests’ in 3GPP lingo.”

As for Standalone, the main focus, he explained, will be “on the upper layers with full user and control plane capability and on the next-gen core network architecture including, for example, network slicing, a more granular QoS model, and a more advanced security architecture.”

The roadmap for NR technologies in Release 16 (and future Releases after that) includes ultra-reliable ultra-low latency communications; spectrum sharing; vehicle communications for autonomous driving; low power wide area networks; and a lot more.

Some study and work items have already been approved for the next phase, and others will be approved in the coming months, some at the next plenary, to be held on June 11-14 in La Jolla, California, close to Qualcomm’s headquarters.

Meanwhile, 3GPP has also started work on a network data analytics function (NWDAF), which could also be part of Release 16. This machine learning-enabled function would standardize the way that 5G operators could monitor the status of a network slice or third party application performance.

Serge Manning, a senior technology strategist at Sprint, told a conference in Madrid last week that NWDAF was in its early stages of standardization but could become “an interesting place for innovation”. He explained that Release 15 specs would consider the network slice selection function (NSSF) and the policy control function (PCF) to be potential “consumers” of the NWDAF.

“Anything else is open to being a consumer,” he added. “We have things like monitoring the status of the load of a network slice, or looking at the behavior of mobile devices if you wanted to make adjustments. You could also look at application performance.”

The NWDAF would be able to make use of any data in the core network. The 3GPP will not standardize the analytics algorithms, but the types of raw information the NWDAF will examine, and possibly the formats of this. This could ease the path to dynamic network slicing in future by increasing the potential for automating the creation of slices, even on a per-customer or short term basis.