5G’s Release 16 is complete, but COVID-19 may push Release 17 to 2022

5G’s Release 16 is complete, but COVID-19 may push Release 17 to 2022

Global partnership 3GPP is responsible for approving updates to the 3G, 4G, and 5G cellular standards that enable wireless phones and related devices to become faster and more power efficient with each passing sub-generation — a process that has yielded evolving 4G standards such as LTE and LTE Advanced, as well as the earliest global 5G standards. Today, 3GPP member companies are trumpeting the ratification of 5G Release 16, a major step on the path to improved 5G performance, though the partnership has quietly warned that the next 5G update is at “high risk” of being delayed, notably pushing back the release of 5G wearables.

5G Release 16 is set to bolster “standalone” 5G networks — towers that don’t depend on older 4G hardware and standards — by increasing upload and download speeds, as well as enabling 5G vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications and industrial IoT deployments, two of the new standard’s transportation and manufacturing industry-changing innovations. Embattled Chinese mobile company Huawei today praised the 3GPP’s completion of Release 16 despite the global COVID-19 pandemic, noting that it was “the first time ever that 3GPP has ratified a technological standardization outside of physical meetings,” though the milestone had been pushed back by months as normally in-person meetings were virtualized.

Cellular hardware and device makers typically wait on the completion of 3GPP standards before deploying their most important performance updates, as launching earlier could mean having to tear out and replace pre-standards hardware — something Verizon encountered with its pre-standards 5G network. Consequently, network hardware provider Ericsson waited until Release 16 was complete to publicize today its release of standalone 5G software, which it says has already been tested by T-Mobile and Telstra on their commercial networks. Virtually every cellular carrier across the globe will soon be adopting Release 16-based 5G, in some cases as a software update to tower hardware already deployed in the field.

While Release 17 is expected to bring a number of new features to 5G, including support for even higher-frequency (over 53GHz) millimeter wave spectrum, plus enhanced 5G IoT performance and location accuracy, one standout addition is NR-Light, a 5G variant that will work in energy-efficient wearables and industrial sensors. Using only a small sliver of radio spectrum, NR-Light will support 100Mbps downloads and 50Mbps uploads, giving 5G smartwatches enough bandwidth to record and share videos over cellular networks, amongst other innovations.

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Release 17 was scheduled to be complete in 2021, but key approval dates were shifted this March to September and December 2021 due to the pandemic, and now additional delays are being discussed. 3GPP planning documents suggest that Release 17 dates “will have to be shifted,” and at least one working group is discussing a four-month shift that would push Release 17’s finalization into 2022. Device makers hoping to release 5G-compatible smartwatches, such as Samsung, Apple, and Google, will therefore not be able to offer them during the 2021 holiday season, a potentially big leap forward for wearables that might well have been on at least some of the companies’ schedules. 3GPP expects that a September 2020 meeting will confirm the new timelines, so stay tuned for the latest developments.