The only reason you’re able to read this right now is because of the Internet standards created by the Internet Engineering Task Force. So while standards may not always be the most exciting thing in the world, they make exciting things possible. And occasionally, even the standards themselves get weird.
That’s the case with the recent 5G standards codified by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the industry group that establishes the standards for cellular networks. 3GPP finalized Release 16 on 3 July.
Release 16 is where things are getting weird for 5G. While earlier releases focused on the core of 5G as a generation of cellular service, Release 16 lays the groundwork for new services that have never been addressed by cellular before. At least, not in such a rigorous, comprehensive way.
“Release 15 really focused on the situation we’re familiar with,” says Danny Tseng, a director of technical marketing at Qualcomm, referring to cellular service, adding, “release 16 really broke the barrier” for connected robots, cars, factories, and dozens of other applications and scenarios.
4G and other earlier generations of cellular focused on just that: cellular. But when 3GPP members started gathering to hammer out what 5G could be, there was interest in developing a wireless system that could do more than connect phones. “The 5G vision has always been this unifying platform,” says Tseng. When developing 5G standards, researchers and engineers saw no reason that wireless cellular couldn’t also be used to connect anything wireless.
With that in mind, here’s an overview of what’s new and weird in Release 16. If you’d rather pore through the standards yourself, here you go. But if you’d rather not drown in page after page of technical details, don’t worry—keep reading for the cheat sheet.
One of the flashiest things in Release 16 is V2X, short for “vehicle to everything.” In other words, using 5G for cars to communicate with each other and everything else around them. Hanbyul Seo, an engineer at LG Electronics, says V2X technologies have previously been standardized in IEEE 802.11p and 3GPP LTE V2X, but that the intention in these cases was to enable basic safety services. Seo is one of the rapporteurs for 3GPP’s item on V2X, meaning he was responsible for reporting on the item’s progress to 3GPP.
In defining V2X for 5G, Seo says the most challenging thing was to provide high data throughput, reliability, and low latency, both of which are essential for anything beyond the most basic communications. Seo explains that earlier standards typically deal with messages with hundreds of bytes that are expected to reach 90 percent of receivers in a 300-meter radius within a few hundred milliseconds. The 3GPP standards bring those benchmarks into the realm of gigabytes per second, 99.999 percent reliability, and just a few milliseconds.
Matthew Webb, a 3GPP delegate for Huawei and the other rapporteur for the 3GPP item on V2X, adds that Release 16 also introduces a new technique called sidelinking. Sidelinks will allow 5G-connected vehicles to communicate directly with one another, rather than going through a cell-tower intermediary. As you might imagine, that can make a big difference for cars speeding past each other on a highway as they alert each other about their positions.
Tseng says that sidelinking started as a component of the V2X work, but it can theoretically apply to any two devices that might need to communicate directly rather than go through a base station first. Factory robots are one example, or large-scale Internet of Things installations.
Release 16 also includes information on location services. In past generations of cellular, three cell towers were required to triangulate where a phone was by measuring the round-trip distance of a signal from each tower. But 5G networks will be able to use the round-trip time from a single tower to locate a device. That’s because massive MIMO and beamforming allow 5G towers to send precise signals directly to devices, and so the network can measure the direction and angle of a beam, along with its distance from the tower, to locate it.
Then there’s private networks. When we think of cellular networks, we tend to think of wide networks that cover lots of ground so that you can always be sure you have a signal. But 5G incorporates millimeter waves, which are higher frequency radio waves (30 to 300 gigahertz) that don’t travel nearly as far as traditional cell signals. Millimeter waves mean it will be possible to build a network just for an office building, factory, or stadium. At those scales, 5G could function essentially like Wi-Fi networks.
The last area to touch on is Release 16’s details on unlicensed spectrum. Jing Sun, an engineer at Qualcomm and the 3GPP’s rapporteur on the subject, says Release 16 is the first occasion unlicensed spectrum has been included in the 5G’s cellular service. According to Sun, it made sense to expand 5G into unlicensed spectrum in the 5 and 6 GHz bands because the bands are widely available around the world and ideal for use now that 5G is pushing cellular service into higher frequency bands. Unlicensed spectrum could be key for private networks as, just like Wi-Fi, the networks could use that spectrum without having to go through the rigorous process of licensing a frequency band which may or may not be available.
Release 17 Will “Extend Reality”
Release 16 has introduced a lot of new areas for 5G service, but very few of these areas are finished. “The Release 17 scope was decided last December,” says Tseng. “We’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s in there.” In general, that means building on a lot of the blocks established in Release 16. For example, Release 17 will include more mechanisms by which devices—not just cars—can sidelink.
And it will include entirely new things as well. Release 17 includes a work item on extended reality—the catchall term for augmented reality and virtual reality technologies. Tseng says there is also an item about NR-Lite, which will attempt to address current gaps in IoT coverage by using the 20-megahertz band. Sun says Release 17 also includes a study item to explore the possibility of using frequencies in the 52-to-71-GHz range, far higher than anything used in cellular today.
Finalizing Release 17 will almost certainly be pushed back by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which makes it difficult if not impossible for groups working on work items and study items to meet face-to-face. But it’s not stopping the work entirely. And when Release 17 is published, it’s certain to make 5G even weirder still.
Michael Koziol is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum where he covers everything telecommunications. He graduated from Seattle University with bachelor's degrees in English and physics, and earned his master's degree in science journalism from New York University.