Credit: 3GPP

A group of more than 40 companies, including all four Tier-1 U.S. operators and the likes of Apple, Qualcomm, and Ericsson, has agreed to accelerate the release of a variant of 3GPP’s 5G New Radio (NR) specification to support next-generation deployments as early as 2019.

According to a blog post from Qualcomm’s VP of Technical Standards Lorenzo Casaccia, the new project plan introduces an intermediate milestone for the release of a Non-Standalone (NSA) 5G NR enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) configuration by December 2017 to enable deployments based on the technology in early 2019. In its own release, 3GPP confirmed the change, noting the NSA specs would be finalized by March 2018 in the new work plan.

That release accelerates 3GPP’s original 5G NR timetable by around six months – the schedule originally only called for the full 5G NR specs to be released in mid-2018 as part of 3GPP’s Release 15.

Casaccia explained that while Standalone 5G NR implies full user and control plane capabilities for 5G NR, a Non-Standalone 5G NR eMBB configuration will employ existing LTE radio and core networks as anchors for mobility management and coverage while also adding a new 5G carrier. This latter is what would be used in initial deployments, he said. But while NSA is a variant of 5G NR, Casaccia indicated 3GPP will work to define a framework for commonality and forward compatibility.

Among the companies to sign on in support of the intermediate release were major global carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile USA, Verizon, Sprint, Deutsche Telekom, China Telecom, DoCoMo, KT, Telefonica, SK Telecom, and Vodafone as well as handset vendors including Apple, Huawei, LG, Oppo, Samsung, vivo, Xiaomi, and ZTE and infrastructure partners like Qualcomm, Ericsson, Nokia, Intel, Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, and Broadcom.

The decision came at 3GPP’s most recent RAN Plenary meeting held in Dubrovnik, Croatia March 6-9. During that meeting, Casaccia noted 3GPP also approved a number of new 5G Study Items to further define the evolution of 5G services and capabilities for deployments in 2020 and beyond.

But Casaccia said locking in the new timetable is just the beginning of a massive amount of work that will need to be done to make deployments happen.

“Crafting a new project plan in 3GPP is only the start; there is still a lot of work to get done,” Casaccia wrote. “Achieving 5G NR deployments in 2019 will require more than just R&D test beds and a 3GPP specification. For example, it will require over-the-air trials and interoperability testing, compliant with the 3GPP 5G NR specification, to test and simulate 5G NR technologies in real-world scenarios across a broad set of use cases and deployment scenarios … In addition, an accelerated timeline for 5G NR deployments would be incomplete without supporting devices.”

“The next few years will be extremely exciting and challenging in the industry, as we continue to progress toward making our 5G vision a reality through technology standardization, prototyping and trialing, and ecosystem creation,” he concluded.