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The Road to 6G Becomes Clearer with 3GPP Release 17

The Road to 6G Becomes Clearer with 3GPP Release 17
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by Kevin Hietpas, Senior Product Manager, Pasternack

Now that 5G deployments are on a roll, the wireless industry is working on implementing 3GPP Release 16 and working through the details of Release 17, whose system design was completed last March. It’s a big leap forward in many ways, so let’s delve into some of its most impressive contributions.

From my perspective, the single most important contribution of Release 17 is the inclusion of satellite communications or non-terrestrial networks NTNs in 3GPP parlance. It will help close the digital divide by providing almost universal coverage, further enhance much-needed location accuracy for first responders and has the potential to provide connectivity for virtually any kind of device.

The standards for NTNs are designed to serve two specific sectors. As its name implies, the IoT-NTN standard focuses on IoT and defines narrowband connectivity in a 200 kHz-wide channel. While data rates for IoT-NTN are about the same as 2G, they should be sufficient for most IoT devices, two-way messaging, asset tracking, and sensor monitoring.

In contrast, the NR-NTN standard supports 5G New Radio (NR) access technology for high-speed communications. Like its terrestrial counterpart, it will be able to support applications like gaming and video streaming. Both these use cases place traditional wireless carriers in direct competition with services such as Starlink (and soon others) that provide the same types of services, as well as the ability to provide 5G coverage in remote areas over sea and land where coverage is not available.

Another critical feature of Release 17 is an improvement in positioning performance that is essential for everything from IoT devices and asset tracking to E991 location. Release 16 introduced time-based positioning methods such as multi-round-trip time, downlink and uplink Time Difference of Arrival (TDOA), and angle of arrival and angle of departure. Release 17 boosts positioning with more precise location accuracy of only 20 to 30 cm.

The millimeter-wave bands also get attention by scaling 5G NR from the current 24.25 to 52.6 GHz band up to 71 GHz (the FR2 band), while also supporting the global 60 GHz unlicensed band. Other notable features of the release include enhancements to MIMO and multi-beam capabilities and the design of the uplink control and data channel to improve reliability across multiple transmissions.

To extend the battery life of mobile devices, Release 17 adds features that allow battery-powered devices to last longer on a charge, such as reducing the frequency of paging and measurements that determine the performance and addresses the quality of the communication link. Release 17 also address repeaters that will likely be needed at millimeter-wave frequencies to reduce the number of small cells required for indoor and outdoor communications.

Whenever autonomous driving appears, it will rely on communication between vehicles and virtually every other IoT device they will encounter. This was originally to be achieved with dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) for which 75 MHz of spectrum at 5.9 GHz was allocated by the FCC in 1999 when cellular technology was near the end of its second generation and was far less advanced than it is today.

Thanks to a massive campaign by the wireless industry to use cellular technology rather than what was proposed three decades ago, the FCC in 2019 dedicated 30 MHz of that spectrum for what’s now called cellular-to-everything, or C-2X. This effectively makes it the de-facto standard for the age of vehicle autonomy. To address this, the 3GPP included C-V2X in Release 16, covering vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), vehicle-to-pedestrian (V2P), and vehicle-to-cloud (V2C) communication. Release 17 expands on these efforts with a considerable number of additional features and enhancements to existing ones that flesh out how C-V2X will be achieved.

Moving Onward and Upward

After the inauguration of Release 17, the industry will focus on Release 18 (5G Advanced), whose development efforts began late last year. It will nudge wireless technology closer to what is envisioned for 6G, whose particulars should emerge by mid-decade. Release 18 will further enhance massive MIMO performance and efficiency and improve performance for mobile devices operating at both sub-7 GHz and millimeter-wave frequencies. It will also address mobile integrated access/backhaul (IAB) and smart repeaters, as well as greater use of AI and machine learning that will continue to permeate entire networks, from user devices to the cloud.

The capabilities of Release 17 go far beyond what’s presented here, and each one incrementally expands what the wireless industry can deliver as it moves into its sixth generation. It should be very interesting times for manufacturers in the RF and microwave industry.

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