5G standards groups tweak process amid COVID-19 outbreak

3GPP, the main global body that prepares specifications for new wireless technologies, is experiencing first-hand the pitfalls of having to take what historically were productive face-to-face meetings and do them in an electronic format.  

The organization, whose participants hail from all corners of the world, started going electronic back when the COVID-19 shutdown was primarily confined to China. Chinese contributors, including Huawei, are a big part of the work that 3GPP conducts. In February, the 3GPP leadership announced that second-quarter meetings, originally scheduled to be in China, were being relocated to other locations. That was before meetings for the foreseeable future went electronic.

The impact of going mostly virtual? A meeting that originally was to last one week stretched into two as it required a mix of email discussions – hundreds of them – followed by conference calls, according to Diana Pani, senior director of 5G Standards and Research at Interdigital. Pani chronicled the situation in a blog.

There are plenty of online tools that they and everyone else can use to accommodate meetings with a large audience, but they aren’t doing video calls because it takes up so much bandwidth and they experienced a lot of connection issues during earlier attempts to connect folks all over the globe.

Suffice it to say, getting hundreds of engineers to agree on specific technical parameters is a challenge, and when you remove the ability to meet face-to-face, the time it takes to reach consensus gets longer. Signals Research Group (SRG) opined in a report in March that from its perspective, there are a few pros and cons associated with e-meetings. 3GPP delegates seem more willing to compromise on non-controversial agenda items, and frivolous comments are reduced because it takes a lot more effort to write an email than to stand up, grab a mic and start talking.

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However, “the downside, and it is huge, is that e-meetings are very inefficient overall, and it is virtually impossible to reach agreement on controversial agenda items,” wrote SRG CEO Michael Thelander.

Pani said face-to-face meetings are a great way to keep things moving along and eventually reach consensus. “It’s a lot simpler for people to converge when they’re face to face. By email, I can continue to say no, no, no, no all the time. It’s a lot easier to say no if you don’t see the person face to face,” she said. If you see a person face to face, you’re more prone to find ways to compromise.

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During regular meetings – before the novel coronavirus swept over the world – 3GPP delegates would hold regular coffee breaks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and that’s where a lot of the side discussions took place. There might be a few or up to 10 or 15 people gathered around to argue or discuss a topic at a faster pace than in the bigger meeting, where a chairperson oversees the flow and delegates raise their hands for a chance at the mic.

The typical plenary meeting nowadays includes about 300 people, where the scope of the work and timeline get discussed. Then there are working group meetings where the actual technical discussions take place. Some group meetings, like the RAN 1 for example, host 500-600 people.

The size of these groups has been increasing with 5G, due in part to all the new verticals looking for new business opportunities and the emergence of more companies in the supply chain.

3GPP leadership in March announced a shift in the timeline for some of their releases. The Release 16 Stage 3 freeze was pushed back three months to June. They had already decided that the RAN1 working group meeting in May will primarily focus on Release 16 maintenance items rather than spending time on new Release 17 study items, which were on the docket, according to SRG. The important thing is that the Release 16 ASN.1 freeze date in June remains unchanged, according to Pani.

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Some of the items to be considered for Release 17 are related to V2X; satellite communications to extend coverage to remote areas; AR/VR for things like gaming; and operations at higher frequencies, she said.