What’s next for 5G: A look at Release 17

The current version of 5G is known in the standards bodies as Release 16. Release 17 was just ratified by the 3GPP – the group responsible for the standards definitions. Here’s how 5G will be even better in the next implementation.

5G mobile wireless network technology / connections
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The current crop of what are called “projects” – definitions and standardized ways of implementing the technology

We’ve barely rolled out 5G, and we’re already looking at what’s next! But as with all tech, the evolution of 5G service isn’t standing still for very long. Here’s a look at what is coming in the next two years as we see the next version of 5G (known as Release 17) rolled out, and what it means to users.

The current version of 5G is known in the standards bodies as Release 16, which is powering the current generation of 5G deployments. Release 17 was just ratified by the 3GPP – the international organization responsible for the standards definitions for 5G and previous versions of the cellular standards going all the way back to 3G (from where it got its name).

The current crop of what are called “projects” – definitions and standardized ways of implementing the technology -- are expected to be completed by mid 2021, at which time they will be submitted for ratification and released as standards (it usually takes 1-2 years after that to make it into products). Here are some of the key areas they are focusing on to make 5G even better than the current implementation.

Enhancing the radio networks

Current versions of 5G, and some earlier 4G deployments as well, utilized something called Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) antennas to direct signals to specific user locations. It’s a bit similar to taking a round light bulb and putting a reflector behind it to focus the signal at a specific target.

The advantage is a stronger signal and less interference, resulting in a better connection and increased range. Being able to do this dynamically for many different users also allows for more capacity of connections. Enhanced MIMO will provide better coverage, especially in the high Millimeter Wave (MMWave) bands where high density deployments primarily in urban areas and public places like arenas are prevalent.

Many current deployments of 5G share the same spectrum with 4G networks. It’s a way for operators to get 5G up and running quickly without the need for new radio spectrum. But in doing so, how the spectrum is shared can have significant impacts on both 4G and 5G coverage, capacity and robustness.

Dynamic spectrum sharing will allow allocation of bandwidth to be accomplished dynamically based on the current usage of the 4G and 5G networks, and adjusted based on current conditions. This will significantly enhance the quality of both for their respective users and increase capacity for operators.

Multi-SIM is the capability to assign two different numbers to the same phone by placing more than one SIM card in the device and allowing the user to select (or automatically select based on some criteria) which to use. This is especially useful for multiple country usage where a local SIM can be placed in the device when travelling, thus eliminating the high roaming charges. Currently Multi-SIM is unique to each manufacturer, but Release 17 will seek to make it universal and therefore easier to design and deploy.

Multicasting, especially for public safety needs, is a much sought-after capability. In times of emergency, there is clearly a need to broadcast a signal to all devices simultaneously. Look for this capability to be added in Release 17.

There is never enough spectrum available for the expected growth in wireless connectivity, and operators are always looking for more. While millimeter wave  (MMWave) has some inherent limitations compared to what’s known as Sub-6 lower band frequencies, specifically the inability to penetrate into buildings and limited capabilities beyond line of sight connections, it nevertheless has some major advantages for dense areas over smaller geographies (e.g., inside an arena, localized to factory setting in private 5G networks). Moving to higher bands – 60GHz and even beyond, will make far more spectrum available to cover the growing needs of all the uses envisioned for 5G and beyond.

IoT support

New Radio Light (NR-Light) is a new class of radio enabling the need for extremely large numbers of connections over relatively lower speeds in mass deployment scenarios (e.g., meters, weather sensors, smart cities, health monitoring, etc.). It’s meant to extend beyond the current NB-IoT available in 4G/LTE. It supports 10-20MHz of bandwidth for 100MBPS of downlink and 50MBPS of uplink (up to 10x that of current NB-IoT), thus making it suitable for things like video and personal smart devices like wearables.

This effort in massive 5G IoT will continue to evolve and produce higher bandwidths in the future, and will continue to be a companion component to NB-IoT and eMTC (LTE-M), which are also being looked at for potential use with satellite based systems.

Enhancing device positioning capability

The popular GNSS systems already in use with 5G will be enhanced for improved accuracy, latency, capacity, and are expected to achieve accuracy down to the centimeter level (less than half an inch in English measurement). This is critical for many IoT and autonomous applications like self-driving vehicles, as well as precision machinery and public safety. Part of this project will also look at improved use of unlicensed spectrum to enhance location definition resolution that will be critical to many industrial IoT solutions.

Supporting extended reality

Current uses of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), both known as extended reality (XR), are limited by the need to have a very high speed and extremely low latency connection to make it possible for real-time simulations without producing user confusion and negative user experiences. This is often accomplished by either a high speed wired connection, or a specialized local area wireless connection. However, the goal is to have XR systems be mobile and available anywhere (e.g., in an ambulance while caring for a patient, for repair people servicing equipment, for public safety navigating unfamiliar buildings, etc.).

 A Release 17 project is looking at optimizing performance in use cases for AR, VR, XR, where achieving low latency, high bandwidth and continuous data streaming is critical to quality of service for mobile workers. Without this capability, XR becomes a “nice to have” but may not be able to supply the critical needs of enterprise-class deployments in markets like healthcare/telemedicine, public safety, security, manufacturing, etc.


Optimizing peer-to-peer connections (C-V2X)

Truly autonomous vehicles will need not only to connect and talk to the “cloud,” but will also need to communicate with a myriad of smart objects in its immediate vicinity (e.g., smart signs, nearby vehicles, pedestrians, public safety equipment and workers, etc.).

The best way to do all of this is to piggy-back C-V2X (Car – Vehicle to anything) on an existing high speed low latency network like 5G. Release 17 will be adding on to the current somewhat limited C-V2X capabilities to include more usage types and better power efficiency of portable battery operated devices. This is a key growth area for 5G as more autonomous vehicles must communicate with pedestrians, traffic lights/signs, and even with first responders

Bottom Line: We’re still at the early stages of 5G deployments as the original Release 16 capabilities are still being rolled out. But it’s important that 5G tech doesn’t stand still, as many use cases exist for which 5G is not currently optimum. Next-gen additions to 5G will add some significant new capabilities that will expand the capabilities and usefulness of 5G for many users and new business models. As such, keeping an eye out for these new capabilities over the next 2 years will be important for nearly any enterprise and/or public organization.