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What does 3GPP Release 17 actually do?

May 26, 2022 | Much has been said and written about the coming promise of Release 17 (Rel-17) as it nears completion, but what does the new standard actually include? And what new features will it offer? A quick roundup…

3GPP Release 17, another in the line of the 5G New Radio (NR) specifications, reached its “functional freeze” in mid-March 2022. Rel-17 marks the end of the “first phase” of the 5G standard. There are many summaries of what Release 17 includes, so these are just a few features I found interesting:

  • Continued NR enhancements so that it addresses the various high availability, (ultra-low) latency and high throughput requirements associated with industrial, manufacturing and/or other use cases. This includes adapting eMTC/NB-IoT to operating over satellite communications and the creation of “NR-Light” (aka reduced capability) NR devices that support less complex IoT devices, such that fewer antennas are required while energy efficiency and coexistence with other NR devices is improved.
  • Support for higher mmWave bands (up to 71 GHz) and the global 60 GHz band along with “enhanced” integrated access/backhaul (IAB) which basically allows the same spectrum to be used for providing service to subscribers and backhauling traffic. Introduced in Rel-16, this approach helps operators expand mmWave coverage without pulling fiber right away which is one of the most expensive aspects of cell site builds.
  • Improved positioning: In Rel-16, the most stringent positioning requirements are measured in meters with latency of less than one second. In Rel-17, accuracy can go down to the centimeter level while latency can reach 100 milliseconds. Put another way, that is the difference between an automated guided vehicle (AGV) delivering a pallet to a waiting truck versus crashing into the wall beside it.
  • In Cellular Vehicle to Everything (C-V2X), the PC5 interface (aka, sidelink or “device-to-device” communications) can be used to communicate with roadside equipment. One new PC5 capability in Rel-17 uses the device-to-device communications to extend network coverage beyond the area directly covered by the carrier’s network. This sounds interesting, but there are two obvious challenges: there are few C-V2X deployments nor vehicles that support it. At present. In a few years’ time when Rel-17 reaches carrier networks, maybe there will be more.
  • In a similar vein, the 3GPP is also looking to incorporate support for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into Rel-17. Some of the use cases for UAVs include cellular connectivity for delivery/transportation, hotspot connectivity, agricultural or gas/oil pipeline IoT monitoring and data collection, public safety communications during disasters/emergencies, etc. These use cases sound cool, but it seems like practical considerations constrain their implementation – e.g., weight and battery life, regulations regarding UAV use (FAA Part 107), etc.
  • Support for extended reality (XR) applications – i.e., AR/VR applications or, more dramatically, the Metaverse. On the factory floor, in a hospital or a warehouse, a good case can be made for using AR/VR/XR on a private cellular network – i.e., digital twins, examining 3D medical images, interactive support/training, etc. But at home for pure gaming, Wi-Fi works just fine for the current generation of devices. If anything, the devices themselves (weight, size, storage, display, etc.) are the limiting factor. 

Release 17 will probably be “finalized” by year-end 2022, so 2023 may see some test implementations of the technologies contained therein. Enterprises that implement private cellular networks can (eventually) benefit from all the 3GPP enhancements contained within the various releases even if some of those features never get adopted in “mainstream” commercial cellular networks.

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