The finalization of the 3GPP release 15 in June this year was a major milestone in many respects. The first 5G New Radio (NR) specifications are complete and commercial deployments will be available by the end of this year. It is also the basis for the continuous evolution of 5G NR technology, spanning across multiple releases, to further improve performance and address new use cases. The first step of this evolution was recently taken when several 3GPP working groups met in Gothenburg, Sweden, to start the work on release 16.
Release 16 will contain a wide range of new features. A rough grouping of the areas being part of release 16 is shown in the figure below. Let’s take a closer look at some of these areas!
Multi-antenna transmission, including MIMO and beamforming, is a key part of NR and will evolve further in release 16. Joint transmission from multiple, geographically separated antenna panels can bring additional capacity and improve data rates. Enhanced feedback from the terminals about the radio conditions can allow more extensive usage of advanced multi-antenna schemes and bring gains. Dual connectivity enhancements, for example support of asynchronous dual connectivity, is another example of an enhancement relevant for geographically separated cells.
In TDD networks, weather conditions may sporadically result in an atmospheric duct where radio waves can propagate a fairly long distance with modest attenuation. Downlink transmissions far away can therefor cause significant interference in uplink reception at the base station. The remote interference management work in release 16 aims at finding improved tools for detecting and handling these infrequent events, for example by measuring on reference signals and, when necessary, increasing the guard period between downlink and uplink.
With the need for higher data rates and higher capacity, the networks are likely to become more and more dense, stressing the need for efficient backhaul from all these base stations. Integrated access and backhaul (IAB) refers to the work in 3GPP on using NR not only for the access link but also for the backhaul link connecting the base stations to the core network. For example, smaller base stations may be deployed and connect wirelessly using NR to macro base stations with fixed backhaul.
Spectrum is fundamental for wireless communication and there is a never-ending quest for more spectrum to meet the demands of increased capacity and higher data rates. This is one of the major reasons why NR needs to exploit also frequencies in the mm-wave range, as well as aggregation of multiple wideband carriers. However, the amount of licensed spectrum an operator has access to may not be sufficient and there is typically a cost associated with obtaining a spectrum license. Despite the less controlled interference situation, unlicensed spectrum is of interest, primarily as a complement to licensed spectrum but also on its own in local deployments. In release 16, NR will therefore be extended to operate in unlicensed spectrum in addition to licensed spectrum. A similar evolution took place for LTE and many of the tools and principles developed in that context can be transferred to NR. Even faster connection setup, faster reconfiguration, and faster recovery radio link will also help improving the usage of the spectrum available, licensed as well as unlicensed.
Many of the enhancements discussed so far are intended primarily for enhanced mobile broadband although they are relevant for other use cases as well. Examples of enhancements primarily targeting industrial and machine-type scenarios are Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC) enhancements and Industrial IoT. Many industrial applications, for example factory automation and electrical power distribution, require reliable and timely communication. Duplicate transmission, data multiplexing/prioritization enhancements, accurate positioning, and provisioning of an accurate time reference are examples of technical work that will be studied within 3GPP. Massive machine-type communication is catered for by the eMTC and NB-IoT standards, technologies that 3GPP has declared both fulfill the IMT-2020 requirements. NR provides mechanisms to support coexistence between eMTC/NB-IoT and NR on the same carrier; mechanism that will continue to evolve.
Needless to say, it is not possible to cover the entire NR evolution in a short blog post, but I hope I have given some insights by these teasers. Release 16 contains a lot of enhancements and improvements and the above are just a few examples of what will keep 3GPP busy until the completion of release 16 at the end of 2019.
Later releases of NR will continue the evolution, for example by exploiting frequencies beyond 52.6 GHz and by introducing artificial intelligence in the radio-access network. Let’s get back to the longer-term NR evolution in a future blog post!
You can read more about Ericsson’s 5G standardization work on our web.