The 3GPP is expected to unveil its initial 5G specification this week, possibly as early as Wednesday. The spec will cover 5G non-standalone New Radio (NR), and its release will mean that chipset vendors can go ahead and design silicon based upon this standard.
Initially, the 3GPP was supposed to release this 5G NR specification in March 2018. But after receiving pressure from many operators, including AT&T, Sprint, Telstra, and Vodafone, the standards body group said last March that it would fast-track the spec and release it this month. The full Release 15 specification is still planned for release in June 2018.
For AT&T, the importance of deploying a network based upon the 5G NR standard is not just being able to achieve interoperability among vendors, it’s also about price. According to Hank Kafka, VP of radio access and devices at AT&T, the standards are necessary to get a high volume of chipsets that in turn results in low-cost devices. “It’s important for scale,” he said during an interview with SDxCentral.
Kafka noted that the 3GPP’s effort to get the 5G NR standard out this month means that operators can shorten the interval of time between launching the network and getting the devices on the network. And he believes that because of the acceleration, it’s more likely that there will be one global 5G standard. No one, Kafka said, wants a repeat of what happened in the 3G era when the wireless industry had two standards — GSM and CDMA.
AT&T has said that with this acceleration of the 5G NR standard from the 3GPP, it believes that it could launch standards-based 5G by late 2018.
Sprint is also taking the standards-based approach. According to Ron Marquardt, VP of technology at Sprint, the company plans to launch 5G in late 2019, and it has partnered with Qualcomm Technologies and SoftBank to develop 5G NR in the 2.5 GHz band. It’s also working with its RAN suppliers to accelerate the development of 5G NR for Band 41 spectrum.
Like AT&T, Marquardt said Sprint is very committed to taking the standards-based route to 5G. “I believe everyone agrees that a fully standardized solution is in the best interest of the entire industry,” Marquardt said in an email to SDxCentral. But he noted that the pre-standard 5G deployments that will occur will likely be small scale.
Sprint, of course, initially forged its own path with 4G when it deployed WiMAX, while the vast majority of operators deployed 4G LTE. Marquardt noted that even though WiMAX was fully standardized, that wasn’t enough because it didn’t achieve a critical mass of ecosystem adoption. “You can only go so far as a big fish in a little pond,” he noted. “Ecosystem is essential, and non-standard solutions, by definition, will never have it.”
Verizon’s Non-Standard Route
Verizon, meanwhile, is forging ahead with its pre-standard approach. The operator said earlier this month that it plans to launch fixed residential 5G service in three to five markets in the second half of 2018 that will be based upon the company’s own specifications that it released in July 2016. Company executives have asserted that gear built for their specification will only require a software upgrade to make it standards compliant.
And Verizon is not alone. Korea Telecom is also deploying a pre-standard 5G trial network in 2018 so it can provide service for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Operators that take a non-standard approach can be a challenge for the vendors that support those operators. Ericsson has said it will support Verizon’s deployment of pre-standard 5G gear.
However, Nokia is going the standardized route. According to Jane Rygaard, head of 5G marketing at Nokia, the company learned from its work on pre-standardized gear, but in September it announced it was working with Qualcomm and focusing on equipment that will use the 5G NR standard. “5G is happening faster than expected, and that has definitely pushed the standardization,” Rygaard said.