First wave of 5G radio standards are now official

It’s seemed a long time coming, but 5G is finally real, in terms of finalized 3GPP standards anyway. The first wave of 5G New Radio (NR) specifications, NSA (Non-Standalone, which requires an LTE core) was approved just before the holiday began, at a 3GPP RAN plenary meeting in Lisbon, and most of the big vendors leapt to announce support.

At the end of a week of meetings, Balazs Bertenyi presented details of the RAN group’s approval of initial specs and said the next goal was to complete all the Release 15 standards – including Standalone 5G NR – by June 2018.

Completing Release 15 will be the main priority for the coming months, although the group will also work on progressing some key study items for 5G Phase Two (Release 16).

Telefonica, Qualcomm, Deutsche Telekom, NEC, Huawei and Docomo were the first to issue releases celebrating the launch of 5G NR NSA. In total, 30 vendors and operators issued the joint statement, saying: “The completion of the first 5G NR standard has set the stage for the global mobile industry to start full-scale development of 5G NR for large-scale trials and commercial deployments as early as in 2019. This standard completion is an essential milestone to enable cost-effective and full-scale development of 5G NR, which will greatly enhance the capabilities of 3GPP systems, as well as facilitate the creation of vertical market opportunities.”

Meanwhile, Ericsson and Qualcomm said in another statement that they had worked with nine MNOs – AT&T, NTT Docomo, Orange, SK Telecom, Sprint, Telstra, T-Mobile US, Verizon and Vodafone – to showcase multivendor interoperability between systems supporting the new standard specs, in live demonstrations held in the Ericsson Lab in Kista, Sweden and the Qualcomm Research lab in New Jersey.

These tests supported various aspects of the new standards including:

  • Flexible OFDM waveform numerologies supporting spectrum allocations from low to high bands, for wideband operation and low latency services.
  • Dynamic, slot-based frame structures to enable future-proof and ultra-lean design.
  • A self-contained subframe structure that allows for data transmissions that support diverse use cases including those that require low latency, high peak rates or high reliability.
  • Control and data channel support for Massive MIMO features based on beam-centric design to improve spectral efficiency and achieve higher data rates.
  • Control and data channel support for adaptive beamforming and beam-tracking techniques to enable use of millimeter wave spectrum to deliver extreme data rates and capacity in a mobile environment.
  • Channel coding schemes based on advanced low-density parity-check (LDPC) codes to support large data blocks and extreme peak rates, and polar codes for reliable control channels.

A month earlier, Qualcomm had claimed the world’s first end-to-end interoperable data connection based on (then non-finalized) Release 15 specs, in the 3.5 GHz band. It worked with China Mobile and ZTE on this test.

Getting the first 5G NR standards completed on time has been no mean feat. The work schedule was shaken up last year when AT&T led a move for Release 15 RAN to be split into two phases – non-standalone and standalone. Because the former would not require the completion of a 5G core standard, it could be implemented more rapidly, supporting operators which wanted to deploy 5G as early as 2019 but still wanted to be fully standards-compliant (unlike Verizon, which is initially deploying based on its own homegrown specs, which it will then migrate to support 3GPP standards).

There were concerns from some operators, such as Deutsche Telekom and Orange, and from Nokia, that it would be counter-productive to fast-track one aspect of the standards, since this might delay work on others, and loosen the integration between RAN and core specifications. However, the impatient operators won the day, and the 3GPP groups were faced with a tough deadline – end of 2017 for NSA and mid-2018 for Standalone. This seems even more daunting when it is considered that up to 800 engineers were submitting up to 3,000 proposals per meeting.

“Given operator interest, we’ve been doing everything we can to improve the time from spec freeze to commercialization. It is a race to launch 5G devices…so as decisions were made in meetings, we shared them with the ASIC team implementing hardware. It’s all pipelined to incorporate the final changes,” said John Smee, a VP of engineering for corporate R&D at Qualcomm, explaining in an interview how chipmakers have to track developments in the 3GPP committees in order to get standards-compliant products to market as quickly as possible to kickstart the ecosystem.

“After Release 14, we had an idea what we were shooting for in terms of a general architecture, but the specifics of slot structures, signaling, channel coding, pilot structures and so on were gelling through 2017,” he told EETimes.

Release 16 is expected to support many additional 5G functions, including shared licensed and unlicensed spectrum, ultra-low latency connectivity and coordination among base stations.