Down a 5G Rabbit Hole

Strange things are happening everywhere. Covid, volcanoes, locusts, murder wasps. Even the staid world of wireless standards is undergoing its own frictions. And while the impact of that is admittedly less serious than all those other plagues, there are still some important long term implications.

It turns out we may have to wait a bit longer for 5G. Recently, the organization responsible for determining the wireless standards, the 3GPP, admitted what we had been expecting for some time – they will delay the finalization of “Release 16”. Similar to the approach with software, the wireless standards are broken into different pieces, called Releases. Each Release has a set of features that improve the network. The whole point of wireless standards is that everyone agrees to them so that the whole system is inter-operable. You can pick up an iPhone in Santa Monica and dial a number in Ulan Bator, Mongolia and someone will pick up. This means that it is literally designed by committee. The 3GPP has run this process fairly smoothly (all things considered) for 20+ years.

However, the core of the process is periodic in-person meetings where all the various stakeholders sit in a room together and vote on various additions or corrections to the standard. It is a slow, deliberative process, that works fairly well. Of course, today no one is flying to Krakow to attend one of these meetings. Just like everyone else, the 3GPP members are suffering from ‘disruptions’ to their productivity. Release 16 was supposed to be finalized in March, now they are saying June. And Release 17 is now scheduled for December, but no one we spoke with has any confidence in that.

How much does this matter? Our phones all still work. So no disaster. But a lot of companies are betting pretty heavily on 5G. Release 16 has several important features in it, the kinds of things that feature heavily in marketing materials for equipment vendors and chipmakers. (Here is a primer on Rel. 16 & 17 from Ericsson.)For example, Network Slicing is always on those lists of great features that 5G enables, that comes in Release 16. (Yes, there was some in Rel. 15, but Rel. 16 has some crucial pieces.) Equipment vendors have to delay finalizing their products until the Release is finalized, so all the new features probably won’t be commercial until the end of the year. Again, not a disaster, but definitely a problem for many for the product people and their telecom customers.

We have been skeptical about a lot of the proposed 5G deployment timelines for a while. There is a lot in the standard and even before Covid, the operators already had a lot on their plates. So promises of 1 Gbps mobile data rates and mmWave technologies look to get delayed even further, which is a big problem for a few companies in particular. We joked a few months back that many of those features are going to take so long that we will call them 6G, and that doesn’t seem like a joke anymore.

And we are just getting started. 5G has transcended its meager origins as an obscure standard, it has transmogrified into a political and cultural touchstone. It is now a symbol of the US-China Technology Cold War. The delay in the standard is likely to open it up to further doses of political chaos.

Light Reading has done a great summary (and here) of the cascading issues faced by the 3GPP working groups. Specifically, the problem is located around the US government’s efforts against Chinese equipment major Huawei. The government has blocked Huawei from doing any business in the US and is seeking to do the same in other countries. This has become a political issue in many countries notably including Germany and the UK. (Parliament just held a full day of testimony on the subject.)

The US has been issuing a steady stream of …. rules?… limiting US companies from selling to or even interacting with Huawei. This process has been….less than entirely clear?….resulting in a lot of confusion. In theory, US companies cannot share any technology with Huawei. But when we look at the in the context of the standards things get very (even more?) confusing. Can a US company license intellectual property to Huawei? Can a US company include its technology in the standards if they know that Huawei will benefit from that? There are laws on the books to cover this, but the current reality is extremely unclear.

This is of course a problem for the wireless standards. As we noted way back in the second paragraph, the whole point of the standards is to ensure that everyone’s equipment interoperates with everyone else’s equipment. Those Fierce Wireless pieces we linked to above make a reasonable case for the potential of 5G splintering into two versions. For those of us who have been in wireless for a while, the days of competing standards are ancient history. Every time we see one of those standards maps from the early 2000’s, we sigh with relief that “at least we don’t have to do that anymore”, except, now maybe we do.

Ancient Navigation Charts

At least we don’t have to do this anymore…

If all this wasn’t enough, it gets even weirder. In March, the US President signed into law the “Secure 5G and Beyond Act of 2020” which essentially calls on the Administration to present a 5G plan for the US 180 days from signing of the law, so September. (Yes, we read the whole thing.) At the time of signing, the President also issued a preliminary document “The National Strategy to Secure 5G of the United States of America” (And yes, we read this one too). These documents are both full of vague generalities and well-meaning intentions, but one thing caught our attention.

Promote United States Leadership in International Standards Development and Adoption
The United States Government will work to preserve and enhance United States leadership on 5G in relevant organizations that set standards in concert with the private sector, including but not limited to commercial, academic, and like-minded international partners. This will include efforts such as expanding Federal interagency coordination, participation, and influence in standards-setting organizations. The United States will emphasize the need for open and transparent processes to develop timely, technically robust, and appropriate standards. The United States will promote and support increased participation by the private sector and ensure that such participation is informed by appropriate public-private coordination.

So the stated strategy of the United States government is to insert itself into the standards-setting organizations.

Which leaves us with a standards process that is already delayed, at a moment when there is risk of fragmentation of the 5G standard, and the US government is coming to ‘help’.

Please let us know if you have any questions. You can find us bunkered down in our cellar, crafting tin foil hats.

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