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Understanding 3GPP

3GPP is becoming increasingly important as the mobile ecosystem expands beyond smartphones.

3GPP is becoming increasingly important as the mobile ecosystem expands beyond smartphones.

The smartphone has become indispensable in our everyday lives. The average consumer is increasingly spending more and more time on smartphone streaming, sharing, communicating, searching, and so much more. There is thus a rising need for mobile devices that connect to high-speed internet access virtually anywhere and everywhere. Powering these mobile broadband connections are global 3G and 4G LTE wireless/cellular technology standards that are constantly evolving for better performance and efficiency. And now, with 5G approaching, the next generation of wireless technology standards are being developed. 5G will not only usher in the next generation of enhanced, immersive mobile broadband experiences, it will also expand cellular technology to virtually every industry, every object, and every connection.

Despite the revolutionary impact and ubiquity of these technology standards, there is very little knowledge out there on how 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) — the standards body responsible for designing the technologies to drive the global standards. Cellular technology is constantly evolving with new features and new services that add significant value to the ecosystem. New features are introduced into the cellular system by 3GPP via releases, very similar to releases of major operating systems for smartphones or personal computers.

Understanding 3GPP, and how evolving 4G and 5G standards are developed, is becoming increasingly important as the mobile ecosystem expands to connect much more other than smartphones. From automobiles, to public safety, to the Internet of Things (IoT) and much more, an expanding number of industries/entities are now engaging with the 3GPP ecosystem.

3GPP came into being in December 1998. The partnership unites seven telecommunications standard development organizations (ARIB, ATIS, CCSA, ETSI, TSDSI, TTA, TTC), the organizational partners and provides their members with the global cellular radio standards for different generations of wireless network.

The transition to new generations, like the ongoing transition from 4G LTE to 5G, provides important inflection points within the telecom industry. In 2016, 3GPP started defining 5G global standards for a new radio access technology — 5G NR (New Radio) and a next-generation network architecture — 5G NextGen to address these requirements.

In March 2017, 3GPP approved acceleration of the 5G NR standardization schedule by introducing an intermediate milestone for an early variant called nonstandalone 5G NR. This will enable early 5G deployments, anticipated in several markets, and support the requirements for enhanced mobile broadband services. By 2022, the number of 5G subscriptions is forecast by the Ericsson Mobility Report to reach more than 500 million. 3GPP has also unveiled the approved logo for 5G. The logo has familiar LTE waves weaved into a new wave pattern in green color to represent LTE-advanced pro version.

In parallel, 4G LTE continues to evolve as it will play an essential role in next-generation 5G networks. It is expected that both 4G LTE and 5G NR will be submitted together to meet ITU 5G (or IMT-2020) requirements. Unlike previous generations, there are no longer competing standard bodies working on potential solutions for 5G. The vast impact that 5G is expected to have across a wide-range of industries makes understanding the 3GPP organization and working procedures more important than ever.

Despite the importance of 3GPP in developing global standards, there are three common misconceptions about 3GPP across the industry:

3GPP develops technical specifications, not standards. This is a subtle, but important organizational clarification. 3GPP is an engineering organization that develops technical specifications. These technical specifications are then transposed into standards by the seven regional standards setting organizations (SSOs) that form the 3GPP partnership. The regional SSOs are also responsible for establishing and enforcing an Intellectual Property Rights  policy.

3GPP is not an authority; rather it is a member-driven organization. Beyond administrative IT services such as managing the 3GPP website, all the engineering work that gets initiated and completed in 3GPP relies on the R&D, technology inventions, and collaboration of 3GPP individual members from across the ecosystem and world. In fact, even the chairperson and vice chair-people of the different 3GPP groups are elected from the member companies, and must act impartially on behalf of 3GPP.

3GPP work is done in a distributed, piecemeal manner with limited overall end-to-end supervision. 3GPP does define specifications for complete end-to-end cellular systems including the user equipment (or devices), radio access, core network, and service framework. However, the complexity and scale of these systems, requires division of work for these specifications into smaller, more specialized pieces (e.g., RF, security). Thus, 3GPP is organized into 16 specialized working groups (WGs), which, along with the three governing technical specification groups (TSGs), accomplish most technical work.

India Moves Closer to 3GPP

Telecommunications Standards Development Society, India (TSDSI), an industry-led not-for-profit organization, is recognized by DoT as India’s Telecom Standards Development Organization (TSDO). TSDSI came into existence on January 7, 2014 as an outcome of the Govt. of India’s resolve vide the National Telecom Policy 2012 (NTP 2012) to setup a Telecom SDO in India. Its objective is to contribute to next-generation telecom standards and drive the ecosystem of IPR creation. TSDSI’s 41 members include top telecom service providers, manufacturers, software solution providers, R&D organizations, academia, industry associations, PSUs, and government department.

TSDSI members have submitted a few technical contributions toward the development of 3GPP narrowband Internet-of-Things (IoT) standard, backed by four patents filed by CEWIT and IIT Hyderabad (one granted and three pending). These proposals are being discussed by 3GPP for possible adoption in the NB-IoT standard.

India remains one of the largest telecom markets in South Asia in terms of size and development potential. India’s mobile subscription base crossed the 1.2 billion mark in January 2017. Total subscriptions are estimated to increase by 4 percent per year, exceeding 1.4 billion in 2022. The entry of a greenfield 4G operator in 2016 has triggered an uptake of data and intensified competition across 4G services. In line with the global wave for 5G, the Indian operators are getting future ready and have started working on identifying and formalizing standards for the rollout of 5G. 5G rollout and adoption is expected to be massive, with anticipated increase in data consumption, fast increasing digitalized life and services, growth of smart cities, and the need to have an all-encompassing network architecture which can utilize all available spectrum bands rather than replace the existing networks.

Current Update

By the second half of 2017 the focus of 3GPP work will shift to Release 15, to deliver the first set of 5G standards – including new work as well as the maturing of the LTE-Advanced Pro specifications.

In June of 2016, the 3GPP Technical Specifications Groups agreed on a detailed work plan for Release 15.

The plan includes a set of intermediate tasks and check-points to guide the ongoing studies in the WGs. During discussions about the work plan, in 2016, the importance of forward compatibility – in both radio and protocol design – was stressed, as this will be key for phasing-in the necessary features, enabling all identified use cases, in subsequent releases of the 5G specification.

“The technical and commercial demands of creating and deploying these standards are monumental. As a consumer, I look forward to the wireless standards being as unwavering as the color of traffic lights and certainly more consistent than interfacing with display projectors. As a supplier of simulation, design, test, and measurement solutions, I admit that the past 20 years of fragmented standards have created wonderful business opportunities. It is thus difficult for me to find a neutral space. But while it will take a few years, I believe the market forces will drive a common standard to reality.”

Roger Nichols
Director of 5G Program,
Keysight Technologies

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