Ask An Engineer: What Impact will the Coronavirus Pandemic have on 3GPP Wireless Standards?
An interview with InterDigital’s Diana Pani
The 3GPP wireless standards are vital to our work and shape much of the core of our business at InterDigital. In light of the novel Coronavirus and its impact on communities in every corner of our globe, we want to explore the potential impact the pandemic will have on the 3GPP releases scheduled for the coming years, namely Release 16 this year and Release 17 next year. As a future-looking company, we believe it’s important to consider the foreseeable impacts the pandemic might have on the long awaited 5G rollout and its evolution.
This week, InterDigital’s Communications team had a virtual chat with Senior Director of 5G Standards and Research Diana Pani, an active contributor to the standardization of radio access protocols within 3GPP, former RAN2 Vice Chair, and current chair for 3GPP 5G sessions, to better understand the state of 3GPP standards and outlook for 5G. Read on below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IDCC: Diana, like many others at InterDigital, you have been directly involved with 3GPP standards work for years. We understand that with Release 16 and 17 have now been pushed back three months, due to the global pandemic?
Diana: Yes, Rel-17 and some aspects of Rel-16 have been officially pushed back by 3 months.
The key and most important aspect to consider is that Rel-16 ASN.1 freeze date in June remains unchanged, but the functional freeze date has been postponed from March until June. ASN.1 is used to define message syntax of certain protocols between the network and devices. Typically, we have three months between the functional freeze and ASN.1 freeze in order to allow us to do a thorough review and make corrections to both functional aspects and to ASN.1. Given the importance of completing the ASN.1 freeze and the release on time, 3GPP working groups are doing both ASN.1 review and completing some remaining functional aspects in parallel. The main target is to complete Rel-16 on time as scheduled. This of course increases the chance of finding issues that cannot be solved in a non-backward compatible manner, but this risk is always present, and we have means to deal with it.
From my perspective, 3GPP has not shifted Release 16 completion. There is a huge effort by the 3GPP community to keep the freeze dates by using virtual meetings and progressing discussions by email and conference calls. The plenary session in June, when the freeze was and is still scheduled, was shifted by two weeks to allow more time to finalize the corrections and make Rel-16 more stable.
IDCC: Will the plenary session take place in the virtual space somehow to follow social distancing practices?
Diana: Yes. The March plenary took place about a week ago, and was all done by email. The June plenary is also expected to be done in the virtual space.
3GPP has actually been doing these virtual meetings since February, and every working group in 3GPP has tried different methods to move things forward. So, for example, RAN1 meetings, which address physical layer aspects, were done purely by email over two weeks, instead of the typical one-week in person meetings. The RAN2 working group, which I'm involved in, also took place over two weeks. In addition to email discussions we also had conference calls, which actually helped our progress significantly. Other groups are considering introducing conference calls in follow up virtual meetings.
The virtual meetings in February allowed the groups to make a surprising amount of progress and complete an important part of the work. This is why I think we will maintain the June timeline for Release 16. I know people were very skeptical about how much progress could be made over email and conference calls, but in the end, I think we were pretty productive. Of course, we were much less efficient than before, but we were still very productive.
IDCC: Why do you think these efforts were so productive?
Diana: There are two aspects that contributed to the progress we made. First, quite simply, everybody knew we were in an unusual situation because of the pandemic. Secondly, Release 16 is at the end of the release, so whatever remains as an open issue is likely to be very specific and detailed, while most of the more complicated and controversial issues that require face-to-face discussion were already completed by the end of the last year. For Release 16, we were left with several small but detailed issues, and given the global circumstance, delegates were more willing to compromise and finish the release for the good of the whole industry, rather than fighting for specific individual objectives. There was a nice atmosphere of people wanting to compromise and progress things, which was very nice to see. Of course, the virtual meetings were a lot more work for delegates and leadership, but 3GPP leadership did a great job organizing and facilitating the discussions in a way to encourage progress and consensus.
IDCC: Like the rest of the world, we don't know how long this pandemic will endure, or how long we're going to have to practice social distancing. What kind of impact do you think this will have on the overall standards development outlook for the next couple of years?
Diana: That's a very good question and it's been a topic of discussion with 3GPP leadership. Leadership has suggested and hopes that we'll be back to normal functioning by August. I and a few others proposed that we should be more conservative and prepare as if we'll have no more face-to-face meetings until the end of the year and will need to continue meeting in a virtual space. What we're trying to do in 3GPP is find ways to make meetings more efficient. Every group is exchanging ideas on how we can make progress, assuming that we may have to do this virtually for a year.
IDCC: We've discussed Release 16, but what about Release 17? That release was shifted to December 2021, correct?
Diana: Yes. Rel-17 has been shifted by three months. When the first meetings were cancelled in February – coincidentally when Release 17 meetings were supposed to start – 3GPP leadership decided to not conduct any Release 17 work until groups could meet again face-to-face. The rationale behind that decision is because the beginning of a release always produces a lot of diverging views, and it's difficult to reach consensus unless you're having a coffee, a chat, or explaining the technical details face-to-face.
However, given the current projections for the pandemic, 3GPP leadership has decided that we will start Release 17 over virtual meetings.
IDCC: Do you think the pandemic will have a significant impact on the timelines or the efficiency of the standardization process? We don't know the timeline for the pandemic, and probably won't for some time -- how significant do you think that impact will be?
Diana: It depends on how long it will last, of course. I think it's inevitable that it will have an impact and delay of things. Like I said, virtual meetings are not as efficient as meeting face-to-face. Whatever we could achieve in one week of face-to-face meetings, now requires two weeks of emails and conference calls. Even then, I don't even think we can achieve 50 percent of what we were achieving face-to-face in one week.
So of course, it's going to delay things, but at the same time, it might also force a prioritization of our features. Maybe 3GPP would consider prioritizing some of the most important features and re-scope Rel-17 work to complete them on time. The alternative is to slow down the entire release schedule and prolong the implementation of feature improvements in future releases. The other option being considered is hosting additional ‘ad-hoc’ meetings in January next year.
IDCC: Early industry analysis suggests that consumer demand for 5G wireless services may fall somewhat because consumers impacted economically by the pandemic may not have as much money to spend on services. Do you think the other aspects of 5G will follow suit? Given the 5G consumer focus on enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) use cases, and increasing enterprise focus on ultra-reliable low latency (URLLC) and the massive machine type communication (mMTC) 5G use cases, will the pandemic’s effects be felt equally across all three corners of the spectrum?
Diana: I don't think it will necessarily impact one use case more than others. I think what could be impacted is the priority in which things are developed.
The pandemic has inevitably impacted life as we know it, and certain things like remote diagnostics, surgery, etc. that require URLLC may become more important and necessary than ever with 5G. Proximity detection, gaming, AR/VR, virtualization, etc. may also become very important and go up the priority list. At the same time, there are certain things within eMBB that still need to be improved to support some of the high data rate requirements of emerging use cases.
IDCC: Isn’t the eMBB use case increasingly important right now because so many people are in home isolation watching Netflix and streaming video, causing some video services to throttle down their streaming speeds because the demand is so high?
Diana: Right, but don't forget that some of the capacity issues are actually on the network side and not really on the wireless side.
IDCC: That's true.
Diana: I personally feel it's very difficult to know which use cases will be impacted. The way 3GPP works is, if they have time, they will address several use cases simultaneously, because they always prepare for the future. We're preparing for use cases that most customers don't even have in mind yet – everything we do today will not be deployed for another four years, at least.
So, I think the short-term impact won't be felt immediately. If we must prioritize, that's where we may feel the impact. The operators and industry players will let us know what's essential to them so that we can focus our attention accordingly.
This scenario could actually re-scope Release 17 a little bit, but as of now, 3GPP is not planning on revisiting the scope of Rel-17. The plan is that 3GPP will get things done on time with this shift. For example, they are already considering adding new meetings during the year or next year (virtual, of course), in an effort to adhere to this new three-month timeline shift.
IDCC: Thank you for sharing these considerations. To switch topics a bit, will the pandemic have any impacts on spectrum we should address?
Diana: I know that some of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) meetings where future use of certain spectrum is discussed have been delayed, and some of the spectrum auctions are being postponed as well. That certainly could delay some of the operators from getting the spectrum they need for deployment.
IDCC: Do you mean, that is because they don't have all of the spectrum they need right now for those deployments?
Diana: Well, I think some operators have already gotten some spectrum, but they also rely on future spectrum to expand and be able to provide all the services that they've promised or want to provide. So far, operators have purchased some spectrum both in the mmWave spectrum and below 6GHz spectrum. However, additional spectrum will be dependent on further auctions and availability. Until then, operators cannot plan for further deployments.
That might cause some delays, but most operators already have one part of the spectrum to kick off their initial 5G deployments and further 5G enhancements.
IDCC: Finally, what does this pandemic tell us about the importance of the wireless industry – and 5G – to the world?
Diana: First of all, I think it shows the importance of being able to stay connected, especially during these critical times and while the majority of the world population is in full isolation. It's one of the first times I started to truly appreciate the criticality and importance of having the technology we have today – to allow us to function remotely for a large number of aspects. We can stay in touch with family and friends, work from home, learn online, be diagnosed remotely without going to the hospital, and be able to do almost anything from our phones.
If you look at what is going on right now, we see that 5G is being used for health monitoring, remote diagnostics for doctors, and 5G robots used in hospitals in Wuhan to protect staff from the virus. We'll even see an importance placed on supporting video gaming. Virtualization, a key feature of 5G, is also proving extremely important nowadays because everything has been moving towards the cloud and it is what allows us to function remotely. I think everybody now understands the importance of being able to be virtual and have remote capabilities. And 5G offers all those opportunities.
This blog contains forward-looking statements within the meaning of Section 21E of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended. Such statements include information regarding the company’s current expectations with respect to the impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on 3GPP wireless standards, the timeline for their development, and demand for 5G services. Words such as "expects," "projects," "forecast," “anticipates,” and variations of such words or similar expressions are intended to identify such forward-looking statements.
Forward-looking statements are subject to risks and uncertainties. Actual outcomes could differ materially from those expressed in or anticipated by such forward-looking statements due to a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, the duration and long-term scope of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its potential impacts on standards-setting organizations and the company’s business. We undertake no duty to update publicly any forward-looking statement, whether as a result of new information, future events or otherwise except as may be required by applicable law, regulation or other competent legal authority.
InterDigital is a registered trademark of InterDigital, Inc.
For more information, visit: www.interdigital.com.