Just last week, 3GPP completed 5G NR Release 16 — the second 5G standard that will greatly expand the reach of 5G to new services, spectrum, and deployments. This is a major milestone for the entire mobile and broader vertical ecosystem, as this new set of 5G specifications unlocks many new 5G opportunities beyond the traditional mobile broadband services. Release 16 not only continues to enhance the solid Release 15 technology foundation to bring better 5G system performance and efficiency, it also delivers key technologies for transforming new industries. For this blog post, I will provide a short summary of the different projects that were completed as part of this new 5G standard.
Enhancing the foundational aspects of 5G NR
Release 16 brings a plethora of enhancements to the foundational aspects of the 5G system, in terms of coverage, capacity, latency, power, mobility, reliability, ease of deployment, and more. Let me highlight a few important areas below that will enable the benefits across a broad range 5G use cases.
Massive MIMO enhancements
As with every recent 3GPP release, one work area with strong ecosystem focus is to further improve MIMO performance and efficiency. Release 16 worked on many technical areas, including enhancing multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) to support higher ranks, supporting multiple transmission and reception points (multi-TRP) and better multi-beam management to improve link reliability (very important for millimeter-wave bands), and improving reference signals to reduce peak-to-average power ratio (PAPR). For all MIMO-capable devices, Release 16 also supports full-power uplink to improve coverage at the cell edge.
Release 16 improves performance, efficiency, and reliability of 5G NR MIMO design.
Enhanced ultra-reliable, low-latency communication (eURLLC)
In order to address new vertical use cases such as factory automation, Release 16 is enhancing the 5G URLLC foundation to deliver even better link reliability (up to 99.9999%). For these use cases, simply increasing the number of re-transmissions is insufficient, as there is usually also a stringent latency bound. Among others, one key technology to overcome this system challenge is coordinated multi-point (CoMP). It utilizes multi-TRP to introduce redundant communication paths with spatial diversity, so even when a path is temporarily blocked, the communication is uninterrupted by using the remaining paths.
eURLLC further enhances 5G system reliability and latency.
New power-saving features
Another foundational aspect that garnered a lot of interest is to further reduce device power consumption, so battery-powered devices can have extended battery life. In Release 16, several new power-saving features were introduced. For instance, a new wakeup signal (WUS) can let the device know if a transmission is pending or allowing it to stay in low-power mode, skipping the next low-power DRX (discontinuous reception) monitoring period. Others include optimized low-power settings, overhead reduction, and more efficient power control mechanisms.
Reducing device power consumption for extended device battery life.
Integrated access and backhaul (IAB)
One key challenge to broadly expand 5G NR mmWave network coverage is the cost of deploying additional mmWave base stations, which usually requires new fiber optics backhaul installations. To make mmWave densification more cost efficient, Release 16 introduces integrated access and backhaul that allows a base station to provide both wireless access for devices and wireless backhaul connectivity, thereby eliminating the need for a wired backhaul. IAB can open doors to a more flexible densification strategy, allowing operators to quickly add new base stations dynamically, before having to install additional fibers to increase backhaul capacity.
IAB will make mmWave deployments more cost-efficient.
Other foundational enhancements
The aforementioned areas are just a subset of the broad scope of Release 16 projects, there are many more that will further enhance the foundational aspects of the 5G system, including improvements in mobility management, spectrum aggregation, interference management, and device capability signaling. Release 16 also adds many new system capabilities like 2-step RACH, data collection, and VoNR circuit-switch fallback. For more details about these items, please join my webinar to learn more.
Expanding the reach of 5G
We envisioned 5G to be the unifying connectivity fabric for our hyper-connected future, and Release 16 pioneers the 5G expansion into new industries. It is the first 5G NR release that delivers system solutions for new use cases beyond mobile broadband. Let me highlight a few key projects below.
Unlicensed spectrum (NR-U)
To expand 5G’s reach beyond traditional public mobile networks, 3GPP completed two projects in Release 16 that are essential for new vertical deployments. The first is 5G NR-U, allowing 5G to operate in unlicensed spectrum. It defines two operation modes, anchored NR-U requiring an anchor in licensed or shared spectrum and standalone NR-U that utilizes only unlicensed spectrum, i.e., does not require any licensed spectrum. It Is the first time that 3GPP defines a cellular technology for “standalone” usage in unlicensed spectrum. Release 16 not only supports the existing global 5 GHz unlicensed band widely used by Wi-Fi and LTE LAA today, but it can also open doors to the greenfield 6 GHz band that brings a massive 1200 MHz of unlicensed bandwidth in the U.S.
Deploying 5G NR in unlicensed spectrum — two modes of operation.
Non-public network (NPN)
The second Release 16 project that I want to highlight is the added support in the system architecture for private networks (called “non-public networks” or NPN, in 3GPP parlance). Private networks utilize dedicated resources (e.g., small cell base stations) that are independently managed, provide security and privacy that allow sensitive data to stay on-premise, and delivers optimizations for local applications (e.g., low latency). Private networks can benefit a wide range of new 5G deployments such as industrial IoT use cases.
5G private networks bring benefits to industrial IoT.
Time sensitive networking (TSN)
As part of the effort for 5G to support new Industry 4.0 use cases (e.g., factory automation), 5G NR in Release 16 added support for TSN integration that can ensure time-deterministic delivery of data packets. The project includes system components such as synchronizing with precise time using generalized precision timing protocol (gPTP), mapping of TSN configuration into 5G quality-of-service (QoS) framework for deterministic messaging and traffic shaping, and providing efficient transport of Ethernet frames via header compression.
Integrating 5G as a TSN bridge.
Utilizing 5G to enhance automotive safety is another focus area for Release 16. While Release 14 C-V2X introduced sidelink (V2V, V2I, V2P) to support basic safety use cases, Release 16 builds on Release 14/15 by introducing a NR-based sidelink that will enable new advanced safety use cases while also paving the path for autonomous driving. Release 16 supports reliable and efficient multicast communication based on HARQ feedback and uses distance as a new dimension at the physical layer, which enables “on-the-fly” multicast groups based on distance and applications.
5G V2X sidelink offers significant benefits for future autonomous driving.
High-precision device positioning
A major Release 16 project that expands the reach of 5G beyond providing connectivity is positioning. It established the baseline for 5G-based positioning, designed to meet the initial requirements of 3 meters indoor and 10 meters outdoor accuracy. Release 16 defined an array of both single- and multi-cell positioning techniques, comprised of roundtrip time (RTT), angle of arrival/departure (AoA/AoD), and time difference of arrival (TDOA). In addition, to support use cases in industrial IoT environments, it also defined new evaluation scenarios that support new indoor channel models.
5G positioning will support a wide range of new vertical use cases.
Other 5G expansion areas
Release 16 also brought several LTE Advanced Pro technologies into the 5G platform. To start connecting 5G massive IoT, both eMTC and NB-IoT can now be deployed in-band with 5G NR services, and they are supported by the new 5G core network. For terrestrial TV delivery using “high power high tower” broadcast, enTV (initially defined in Release 14) is further improved in Release 16 to support higher mobility and better coverage.
We are just at the beginning of the 5G era, and there is plenty of work ahead of us before we can realize the full potential of 5G. Now that Release 16 is finally completed, we will be focusing on ramping up our Release 17 efforts. With the ongoing travel restrictions, much of the 3GPP standardization work will be done in online meetings. It won’t be easy, as our success is based on close collaboration and consensus across the ecosystem. It’s going to be a great challenge, but a welcoming one, and I am glad that our team is ready for it. Full steam ahead!