The 3GPP, the international body that defines and approves the specifications that govern 5G at the international level, agreed last December on the priorities of the 5G update, officially known as 5G Advanced. The first specifications of 5G Advanced, which will be contained in Release 18, are expected to be approved at the end of the first quarter of 2024 and then improved during the rest of the decade with Releases 19 and 20, to continue later with 6G, in a continuous improvement process. Meanwhile, the 3GPP is expected to finish the work on Release 17 next March and formally approve it in June, with which the regulations that govern 5G, in its three phases, will finally be set.
The specifications of the different generations of mobile telephony, in the form of Releases, as they are known, are agreed upon at the international level within the 3GPP, a body dependent on the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which consists of multiple commissions of work that includes many world specialists and representatives of the world’s largest manufacturers of telecommunications equipment.
Each generation of mobile telephony consists of two or more Releases. The first Release that establishes the international regulations of a new generation is typically approved at the end of a decade and the mobile generation is developed throughout the following decade, with an important update of the regulations in the middle of the decade (although Intermediate Releases of lesser scope are approved).
In June, the third phase of 5G will be approved, with Release 17, which will offer better features and possibilities in enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), very low latency (URLCC) and machine-to-machine communications (mMTC)
This process of continuous improvement, with different Releases within the same generation, happened with 3G and 4G and will also happen with 5G and predictably with 6G, because each mobile generation is built on and is based on the progress made with previous generations (the messages SMS, for example, have remained unchanged for four decades).
An accelerated process with 5G
However, the approval process for the 5G regulations has been different from that carried out in previous generations, because it was decided to accelerate the deployment of 5G networks when there was still a lot of work to do to set and approve the necessary specifications for everything to work correctly.
In this way, at the end of 2017, the first specifications of the 5G “Non-Stand-Alone” networks (5G NSA New Radio) began to be distributed, with the hope of concluding Release 15 on time, in 2018, which was the first complete set of 5G standards, known informally as 5G Phase 1.
As the 3GPP explains on its official website regarding Release 15, since the initial specifications approved for 5G NSA allowed 5G networks to initially work on top of 4G LTE backbone networks, the main objective of Release 15 was to cover 5G Standalone networks ( 5G SA), that is, that 5G networks were fully autonomous, without any support from 4G.
Release 18 will lay the groundwork for the future evolution of 5G Advanced over the remainder of the decade, with vastly improved mobile broadband and new use cases for industry and consumer
But the task of expanding Release 15 with a new radio system and a next-generation Core, as well as the enhancement of LTE and the Evolved Packet Core, turned out to be a much more complex process than anticipated, with so its approval was not made in 2018 but until the summer of 2019 (the pandemic delayed another three months a calendar that was already half a year late). With the aggravating circumstance that there were already fully operational 5G NSA networks.
Release 15 requirements were shown in the 3GPP chart below. In parallel, while Release 15, which provided regulatory support for the initial phase of 5G, was still in its infancy, the priorities for Release 16 began to be set in mid-2018, as reflected in the following 3GPP calendar for December 2018 .
In the end, Release 16, known as 5G Phase 2, was definitively approved on July 3, 2020, with an extra three months of delay due to the impossibility of holding face-to-face meetings due to the pandemic, but according to the schedule set at the end of 2018. Release 16 actually introduces many improvements over the previous version of 5G NSA, as the following 3GPP listing highlights, but it was two years late compared to the usual approval schedule for previous generations of mobile phones. And, if that wasn’t enough, with 5G NSA and 5G SA networks already deployed around the world.
Certainly, Release 16 already introduces some improvements in this second phase of the 5G specifications, which should have been the subject of Release 17. The content of this Release 17 was approved in December 2019 but it will not be released until June of this year , if there are no new delays, as the graph below makes clear, from the 3GPP schedule. Meanwhile, last December the content of the next Release, 18, was approved, which should be approved in March 2024, as seen in the following two calendars on the 3GPP website.
The main problem that 5G networks are having is not that the different Releases that set the regulations that they must comply with are being delayed, but rather that in 2019, when the first commercial 5G networks began to be deployed, the entire telecommunications ecosystem promoted the characteristics of 5G networks so enthusiastically that they will hopefully be fulfilled when Release 17 is approved in five months and the telecoms teams have adapted and are happy with it.
In reality, the timetable for approval of the various Releases has suffered some delay, but not excessively. For some specialists, what happened is that when the first phase of the 5G specifications, Release 15, had to be approved, it was implied at the end of 2018 by the operators and the industry that the 5G networks would then work as the third phase of 5G, Release 17, which is expected to be approved until the middle of this year. In other words, 5G was “sold” as if there were already approved specifications that would not be a reality until four years later, an eternity in the telecommunications sector.
Release 17, which is actually the third phase of 5G, will actually provide a very substantial improvement over 4G LTE, phase one 5G NSA, and phase two 5G SA, as seen in the graph below , where its main features are highlighted and can be compared with the features of Releases 15 and 16.
But the 5G networks with Release 17 will not be launched until the end of this year, 2022 at the earliest, because logically a few months must pass for the manufacturers’ equipment to comply with the new regulations. In practice, it will be from 2023 when the new 5G networks deployed and tested show all the potential they can give and very attractive use cases begin to proliferate.
5G Advanced underway, with Release 18
The telecommunications industry, however, is not giving up, and is already promoting 5G Advanced, if not 6G. Actually, the 5G Advanced is the important update of the 5G specifications that will take place in the middle of this decade, with Release 18, whose basic content was approved last December. It’s the typical mid-decade upgrade that’s already happened with 4G and 3G. With the important difference that these last two generations of mobile telephony had not had three phases before the update in the middle of the decade, nor had they been promoted as excessively as has happened with 5G.
The priorities of 5G Advanced, as shown in the official 3GPP list below, approved a month ago, are truly impressive and highlight the road ahead for the generation of 5G networks. At the moment, at the beginning of 2022, there is some disappointment with the possibilities that 5G networks now offer, but this is due, in large part, to the fact that they must be a reality between 2023 and 2025, which will be when the three phases of 5G will be fully operational and deliver their full potential. And throughout the second half of this decade, the new advances proposed with 5G Advanced will be produced, with three new Releases, 18, 19 and 20, each of them with almost two years of hard work for its approval.
Ericsson published, on October 13, an interesting informative article in its technology magazine ETR on how the company sees the evolution of 5G towards 5G Advanced, with an overview of Releases 17 and 18.
As Ericsson says in the article, “In addition to enhancements to existing [5G] use cases such as mobile broadband, industrial automation, and vehicle-to-anything (V2X), Release 17 will support new use cases. use, such as the security of public networks, non-terrestrial (satellite) networks and non-public networks”. In the meantime, he adds, “the initial planning for Release 18 indicates that 5G will evolve significantly in the areas of artificial intelligence and augmented reality.”
In a graph, Ericsson shows the possible evolution of 5G in the remainder of the decade, according to the plans foreseen by the 3GPP. It is a calendar with the approval of the next three Releases that is quite optimistic because, for example, it states that Release 18 will be approved by the end of 2023, when the 3GPP plans do not suggest that it be before the second quarter of 2024, and that Releases 19 and 20 take a year and a half to approve each of them, when for Release 17 it has taken about three years (due to the pandemic, certainly).
Source: Ericsson Technology Review (13 octubre 2021).
All in all, the Ericsson chart is interesting because it shows the first three phases of 5G (one 5G Basic and two 5G Evolution), followed by four phases of 5G Advanced, the last of which was shared with a “basic” version of 6G towards 2028, already with Release 21. As indicated by Ericsson, 5G Advanced will include new solutions and components that will increase network performance for enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) and multiple new vertical applications. It is clear that 5G is nothing more than a label for a continuous process of improving mobile networks and their more widespread use.
5G Advanced, adds Ericsson, will introduce more intelligence into mobile networks by including artificial learning techniques at different levels of the network and later new verticals and use cases thanks to improved artificial intelligence techniques based on a single platform. As standardization work progresses within 3GPP, Ericsson is committed, as is already the case with 5G, that “5G Advanced will support all use cases from a single system design, with backwards compatibility and configurations diverse guaranteed, while ensuring maximum simplicity”.
Ericsson is not the only one who is very enthusiastic about the great possibilities that 5G Advanced will offer from the second half of this decade and perhaps a little earlier. In recent months, the main manufacturers, especially Huawei, Nokia and last week Qualcomm, have published different documents and organized non-face-to-face meetings to account for 5G Advanced.
On August 5, Huawei organized an event in Beijing in which different representatives of the telecommunications industry, most of them Chinese but also Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung, explained the evolution of 5G Advanced from the perspective of the network, whose link can still see. The event was accompanied by the presentation of a fourteen-page document with the vision of the entire industry in the “new era of intelligent connection”.
As Juan Montojo, vice president of standards at Qualcomm said in a presentation on January 11, Release 18 will lay the future foundations for the evolution of 5G Advanced for the rest of the decade, with the improvement of 5G mobile broadband and some cases of expanded use cases, which will allow 5G to proliferate in virtually all types of devices and use cases. “Release 18 is only the beginning of the evolution of 5G Advanced with the future improvements that Releases 19, 20 and later will provide,” he stressed, in line with what other large telecommunications equipment manufacturers have said, who think to five years view.
The future of 5G is therefore revealed to be exciting. At least at the level of technological developments and international regulations, which make its use possible at an international and unified level. Now the economic model of 5G also needs to progress at the same pace and allow the entire current mobile telecommunications ecosystem to consolidate and be profitable for users, operators and equipment manufacturers, because it is clear how necessary technology and standards such as a large and robust market.