Release 17 clears 3GPP, setting stage for 5G Advanced

It used to be that you could sort of track the progress of standards through the 3GPP by marking the cities where meetings took place. For example, in 2019, the 3GPP RAN Plenary reported on standards work from Sitges, Spain.

The Covid-19 pandemic eliminated in-person meetings of the 3GPP, so that kind of goal post no longer works. Until in-person meetings resume, which could happen by the middle of this year, those who are trying to keep track of the latest machinations in wireless specifications can look at the nitty-gritty details of the actual specs.

3GPP Release 17 was deemed completed on Wednesday, with its scope largely intact, according to Juan Montojo, vice president of Technical Standards at Qualcomm. It previously was expected to be completed by the second half of 2021, but 3GPP pushed back the dates in December 2020, citing the transition to e-meetings and elimination of face-to-face encounters.

Technologies covered in the release include further enhancements to Massive MIMO, enhanced integrated access and backhaul (IAB) and RF repeaters and UE power savings, to name a few. Montojo shares a complete list in his blog.

Interestingly, an important Release 17 project is to scale the existing 5G New Radio (NR) design to expand millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum range from 24.25—52.6 GHz up to 71 GHz, also known as FR2-2 band in 3GPP, according to Montojo. “It includes the support for the global 60 GHz unlicensed band, which can open doors to new use cases and deployments,” he wrote.

Release 17 is an evolution of 5G but it’s by no means the end of it. Release 18 addresses more 5G Advanced, which is what the industry is calling some of the tech that comes between 5G and 6G. Work for Release 18 begins in the second quarter of 2022 since Release 17 is functionally complete, according to Montojo.

“Release 18 is the inaugural standard release for 5G Advanced, and we expect a couple more releases following it to be focused on 5G,” he told Fierce. “If the transition from 4G to 5G is an indication of when 6G will start (i.e. the same ~10-year cadence), then the normative work on 6G will likely begin in the Rel-21 timeframe.”

He declined to comment as to when Release 17 will be supported in commercial devices/networks since it depends on many factors, including market demand, but advised looking at commercialization timelines of previous releases as a rough guide.

In the early days of Covid, 3GPP participants weren’t too keen on quitting the face-to-face meetings that moved the industry forward. Like so many things, they figured a lot more could get done when meeting in-person versus trying to accomplish as much electronically.

In December 2020, the group set a deadline of March 2022 for the freeze of Release 17, followed by coding protocols frozen and stabilized by June 2022. (Based on our understanding, 3GPP leaves some wiggle room for corrections to be made into the record before everything is finalized.) Back then, they thought they were going to be back to in-person meetings in the second half of 2021, and of course that didn’t happen.

According to Montojo, the return to face-to-face meetings is not expected before June 2022.