Roger Nichols

Building One 5G Wireless Standard to Rule Them All... Eventually

Blog Post created by Roger Nichols Employee on Mar 22, 2017

You are sitting down to your meeting and the precious hours you spent crafting your message to this important audience have resulted in a presentation resting safely on your laptop computer. You are dressed for success and your audience hungers for the rich fruit of your perspective.


The meeting starts on time... but then 15 miserable minutes pass while you and three other impromptu IT “experts” struggle to find the right port, adaptor, and monitor setting to connect your laptop to the projector. If you have never experienced this problem, allow me to suggest that you probably do not exist.


Verging on revolution

Are we incompetent operators of IT tools? No. We simply lack a single standard, and I have little hope for convergence. On the other hand, in 5G we are on the verge of something completely revolutionary—a single and globally deployed standard for mobile communications.


Since the earliest days of radio, smart people have formed standards organizations to ensure that Marconi’s magic could be applied in a manner enabling us to communicate from afar. A quick perusal of the internet will yield fascinating tales surrounding the standardization of Morse code, radio channels, distress channels (and even “SOS” itself), and spectrum management.


Many were developed during predecessors of today’s ITU meetings—and those meetings produced documents that read remarkably like those created today. From 2G forward, we had global standards for cellular communications, but we did not have the potential of a single standard until we reached the fourth generation—and that convergence was forced to cower while the WiMAX/LTE duality threatened the peace of the mobile world for a few tense years.


Patiently progressing toward 5G communications

Members of the 3GPP have been working in concert now for more than a year (and ITU for longer than that) to define a fifth-generation standard—the most ambitious development in mobile communications since the advent of analog cellular. Gaining alignment around the globe and across segments of our industry requires difficult technical work hashed out in long meetings, frustrating discussions, email rants, and legal battles. All of this is amongst a demographic of mostly engineers and mathematicians, and our little technical club is not known for its smooth social skills.


I do not mean to belittle standards work. Those of you who are not associated with such bodies may be surprised at their scope and breadth. 3GPP has three technical specification groups, each responsible for several technical working groups that develop the details of the specifications. This means around 1,500 people in 20 committees meeting up to eight times annually generating massive amounts of documentation distilled from tens of thousands of technical submissions.


Allow me to provide some perspective: a colleague who attends 3GPP RAN4 recently sent a copy of “3GPP TR 38.803 v2.0.0.” This is a 200-page, 11 MB feasibility study on the radio frequency and coexistence aspects of the new 5G wireless air interface. This work-in-progress document represents just one part of one part of one part of one part of the gestating standard: during this sub-group’s last meeting no fewer than 37 documents were submitted for consideration for just the topic of radio testability (one of my favorite topics).


The recent 3GPP decision to accelerate the standard comes after a yearlong argument. I will discuss the ramifications in a later post but suffice to say this was driven by a discussion of the tradeoffs relating to enabling new business models, standards “fragmentation,” and the risk of a standard that falls too far short of the 5G communications vision we see so beautifully portrayed in every company’s 5G presentation.


Wrestling with conflicting urges

I continue to be overwhelmed by the technical and commercial demands of creating and deploying these standards. As a consumer, I look forward to the wireless standards being as unwavering as the color of traffic lights and certainly more consistent than interfacing with various display projectors. As a supplier of simulation, design, test, and measurement solutions, I must admit that the past 20 years have created wonderful business opportunities spawned by the fragmentation of standards.


It is thus difficult for me to find a neutral space here. But while it will take a few years, I believe it will happen… You tell me—will we truly end up with a single global standard?