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3GPP Rel. 16–Stage set for the next phase of 5G, but who is leading?

After a week-long marathon session of online meetings, 3GPP finalized Release 16 (Rel. 16) paving the way for the next phase of 5G. Kudos to the grit of the leadership team, who, while fighting the COVID-19 disruptions, and defying the skeptics, delivered the specification on time. Rel. 16 brings new concepts to 5G, and further improves and optimizes many of the features introduced in Rel.15. Being a 3GPP member, I got a front seat to witness the whole process. In this article, I will briefly explain the features, examine the benefits, and discuss their relevance to the hot topic of 5G technology and IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) leadership.

Side note: To learn more about how the 3GPP standards development process works, please refer to my article series Demystifying Cellular Patents and Licensing.

New concepts

Rel. 16 brings in a lot of new concepts to 5G, including NR–Unlicensed (NR-U), Integrated Access Backhaul (IAB), C-V2X, Time Sensitive Networking (TSN), and Precise Positioning. Actually, the first three were introduced in 4G LTE, but now their enhanced versions are being brought to 5G. Also, with 5G, they are set to have a much more profound impact on the industry and the verticles. The last two are completely new to cellular networks. Let us take a quick look at each of them:

NR-U – As the name suggests, this allows 5G to utilize unlicensed spectrum, both in NSA and SA modes. NR-U is even more significant when you consider that FCC recently released 1200 MHz of unlicensed spectrum in the 6GHz band. This spectrum comes in very handy for operators to expand their coverage and capacity of 5G networks, as well as allows industries and enterprises to deploy their own private networks. In 4G LTE this feature was called Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) or LTE-U.

IAB – IAB enables cost-effective and efficient deployments of 5G by using wireless for both access (user traffic) and backhaul. It is especially useful for dense deployment of millimeter-wave sites, for which providing fiber backhaul is cost-prohibitive and logistically challenging. IABs have many more advancements than their much simpler 4G predecessor called Relays. 

Side note: To learn more about the role of IAB and the techniques that simplify and improve the efficiency of their deployment, follow my article series 5G operator dilemma: Focus on coverage or capacity.

Sidelink (C-V2X) – This is an expanded version of device-to-device connectivity, called LTE-Direct in 4G. In the later release of 4G, the same feature was morphed for C-V2X. 5G takes it even further by expanding it to newer applications such as public safety, emergency services, and others.  

TSN – TSN is one of the defining features of 5G Industrial IoT (IIoT). Offering microsecond-level time-synchronization, TSN enables 5G to replace industrial ethernet, and the associated cabling, and make modern factories untethered, flexible and agile, a basic need for industry 4.0. 

Precise Positioning – This feature solves the perennial challenge of location positioning where it is either hard to get GPS/GNSS coverage, or its accuracy is insufficient, for example, indoors or IIoT applications. The positioning feature solely utilizes the cellular network, through round-trip delay, angle of arrival, and other techniques to provide sub-meter level accuracy.  

 Enhancements to Rel.15

There is a long list of enhancements that will substantially improve performance, battery life, mobility, reliability, latency, and efficiency of 5G networks. The list includes MIMO/beamforming enhancements such as better beam and power management; more efficient handling of carrier aggregation and dual connectivity (4G+5G), as well as the interplay between them; power efficiency improvements such as improved DRX (Discontinuous Reception) and better radio resource management; mobility enhancements such as more robust handovers, and fast recovery of a failed handover, which are very useful in fast-mobility use cases (trains); a whole slew of enhancements for Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC) such as Coordinated Multipoint (CoMP), traffic prioritization, increased redundancy, flexible scheduling, better HARQ, better access mechanisms, interference management techniques and many others.

When will Rel. 16 be commercial?

Like many such intermediate releases between generational shifts, Rel. 16 will be commercialized in groups of relevant features, based on the specific applications and services operators introduce or enhance. For example, features such as NR-U and IAB might have an immediate need to improve the coverage and capacity of 5G networks being deployed now, so there is a good chance that they will be commercialized sooner. Features such as Sidelink and TSN might have longer gestation periods. Many of the improvements to Rel. 15, which will likely be firmware/software upgrades, might be implemented during the next upgrade cycle of existing networks, or natively supported in the new 5G deployments. The bottom line is, with the standards finalized, the ecosystem can now focus on building products and start the next phase of their 5G journey. I expect the first features to appear in networks starting from early 2021.

Standards development, technology, and IPR leadership

Standards development is a collaborative and consensus-based process, involving more than 700 members of 3GPP.  With so many companies involved, it is evident that not everybody contributes equally, and not everybody has the same focus on all the topics. Many companies would have their favorite subject areas, or have specific interests, and, of course, specific expertise. 

Being a keen industry observer, I look at different indicators to ascertain the technology leadership of companies. First and the most important one is who brought fundamental concepts to the standards. It indicates that they may have foundational IPR, i.e. important patents in those technologies. Second, who is most actively contributing to the standards at the development stage. This will indicate the interest and expertise of those companies on that specific subject, and subsequently some level of IPR. Third, and the most misunderstood is rapporteur-ship in 3GGPP. Being a rapporteur for a certain feature indicates some level of interest, and possibly mastery, but still, the leadership has to be established through novel concepts and contributions. 

When you look at Rel. 16, the new concepts I mentioned above, such as NR-U, IAB, and Sidelink, were extensions of their presence in 4G LTE, and those were originally introduced by Qualcomm. So, I would expect them to be leaders in those technologies and have a strong IPR position. Companies such as Samsung have been a major contributor to MIMO specifications even from the earlier releases, and that has continued in Rel 16 as well. Nokia was the rapporteur for IoT related topics such as TSM and URLLC, LG was the rapporteur for Sidelink features. So, it is reasonable to expect them to have expertise and may be IPR in those fields. Companies such as Huawei send lots of delegates to 3GPP, by that virtue, you will find their representative in almost every group. So, they might have contributed to many features, but it is hard to ascertain their value. Similar is the case with Ericsson. 

When it comes to technology and IPR, quality always beats quantity. Standards leadership is only one indicator, albeit a strong one. The ultimate IPR position becomes much clearer when actual patents are recognized as having priority and when their quality is evaluated. 

Side note: To learn more about patent quality vs. quantity discussion, please check out my earlier articles here and here.

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Prakash Sangam
Prakash Sangam is the founder and principal at Tantra Analyst, a leading research and consultancy firm covering IP strategy, 5G, IoT, AI, as well as client and cloud computing. He has more than 20 years of wireless industry experience working for Qualcomm, Ericsson, and AT&T. A prolific writer, blogger, and speaker, Prakash enjoys analyzing technical and business challenges and transforming them into impactful strategies and persuasive messaging. He is a regular contributor to Forbes, EETimes, RCR Wireless, Medium, and other leading publications and has been on the speaking circuit for leading industry events, including Mobile World Congress, and CTIA. Prakash holds a Bachelor’s of Engineering in electronics and communications from Karnatak University in India, and a Masters of Business Administration from San Diego State University. He can be reached on twitter @MyTechMusings

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