Confirming what everyone had expected for a long time, the body that sets wireless standards – the 3GPP – announced this week that it is dealing “Release 17” of the 5G standard into 2022. We wrote about this process back in May, and it remains our favorite post of the year.
Some background. Wireless standards are literally designed by committee, to ensure that all phones work the same everywhere and can connect with each other. The standardization process takes the form of engineering teams submitting code and specs, then those submissions are debated and refined in various sub-committees, before finally being ratified by the group. That middle step of “debated and refined” is actually fairly complex with multiple steps and pre-finalization releases. This process starts with everyone agreeing what features get built into the next version of the standard, each version is called a Release.
Release 16 which we wrote about in May got delayed as well, but was released more or less on time according to the revised schedule. Originally, the 3GPP had said Release 17 would be finalized by the end of this year. That is not happening, but no one really expected it to.
Release 17 is now schedule to be “frozen” by Q2/Q3 of 2021. We interpret “Q2/Q3” to mean late summer next year, let’s call it August. Not catastrophic, but definitely late. Given that Mobile World Congress is now scheduled for June of 2021, this timing makes sense. All the executives get together in Barcelona and hash out all the final issues. Then the engineers go finalize the details a month later. We read all of this as indicating that the 3GPP is fairly confident in the new schedule. We are long past the days when everyone had to figure out how Zoom works, and the standards committee meetings seem to be working again.
Also worth noting is that while the involvement of Huawei remains a tense issue, this story from Wired indicates that some of the key points of contention have likely been resolved. (That is a great piece for many reasons, but we particularly liked the details of the standards negotiations.)
Hopefully, this indicates that as with so many other things in the world, we are headed back to some form of normalcy.
What is crippling a lot of standards bodies is the final testing stages, where companies traditionally meet up to test their implementations against each other, These meetings serve to find ambiguities and errors both in the specifications themselves, as well as the compliance tests. Whilst most are putting some form of remote testing regime in place, it means companies need to ship their prototype hardware to a third party, trusted company. Given the fact that most of these pre-production prototypes are very commercially sensitive, this has been quite a challenge. Even where these issues have been solved, the lack of having participants able to have confidential chats in the coffee breaks to sort out issues has also slowed things down. So any promised dates are likely to be illusory. I suspect we’ll see a lot of effort in 2021 going into stripping features out of standards, so that something can be published with the minimum of testing.