5G Standards Group Struggles to Balance Tech With Politics

Mike Dano
6/12/2019

The 3GPP -- the world's leading standards body when it comes to 5G technology -- recently began work on Release 17, the next major update to the global standard for 5G.

However, according to a number of reports, the group is doing so while some members begin implementing procedural changes aimed at addressing the Trump administration's ban against US business with China's Huawei.

"The unfolding saga this time pertained to how Huawei delegates and delegates from US companies can interact with each other," wrote Mike Thelander of Signals Research Group in his summary of the 3GPP's recent RAN#84 meeting in Newport Beach, Calif.

Thelander is a long-time analyst in the wireless industry who carefully tracks the activities of the 3GPP. "As we understand it, these 'rules' were put in place by the companies themselves, likely to protect themselves from outside scrutiny and/or to comply with the US government's actions being taken against Huawei. From the perspective of Huawei, we assume they don't want to further jeopardize their ability to resolve matters. We also wouldn't rule out a bit of spite on their part. Separately, we heard from a western operator that Huawei doesn't want any US citizens working for the operator to have any interaction with Huawei. This restriction also includes non-US citizens from having a conference call with Huawei while located in the US. We know multiple US citizens who currently work for non-US operators so if this Huawei policy is universally applied then the impact isn't trivial."

Thelander's commentary on the meeting dovetails with a recent Reuters report that US companies including Intel, Qualcomm and InterDigital are providing guidelines for their employees working with standards organizations on how to interact with their counterparts from Huawei in light of the Trump administration's moves against the company. The companies have generally restricted their employees from informal conversations with employees from Huawei, Reuters reported, citing unnamed sources.

"As we've observed in the last several years of attending standards meetings, a lot of work gets done outside of the main event, especially on contentious matters or topics that have a very narrow focus," Thelander wrote. "In addition to the formal offline meetings, this work gets done in the hallways during coffee breaks or in the back of the room while the main plenary meeting is taking place. Not anymore if it involves Huawei and a US-based company."

Huawei didn't comment on the situation, according to Reuters, though the company has loudly and repeatedly fought back against allegations that its equipment can act as a conduit for Chinese espionage.

A spokesman for the 3GPP said that the group's work continues unaffected by wider geopolitical concerns. "We have a business-as-usual approach in 3GPP. We hope that cooperation on standards will continue as we are used to," wrote 3GPP spokesman Kevin Flynn in response to recent questions on the topic from Light Reading.

And Reuters noted that Trump's ban, enacted by the US Department of Commerce, specifically carves out allowances for US companies to interact with Huawei "as necessary for the development of 5G standards." But that caveat is active only through the month of August.

Fears over a 5G bifurcation
The situation is raising concerns among the engineers and executives tasked with carrying out the 3GPP's 5G standards work. "If the current situation prevails -- this could have a dramatic impact on future standardization," Adrian Scrase, who heads up the 3GPP's permanent support team, told the Financial Times.

"The risk that 3GPP is going to break down is pretty high," wrote the Wall Street analysts at Jefferies in a note to investors, according to the FT. "If Chinese companies are prohibited from licensing technologies that they have already seen -- and which in many cases they have heavily influenced -- [the risk is] they could just use it."

At issue is whether the Trump administration's moves against Huawei -- which stem in part from the US government's wider trade war with China -- will ultimately create a schism in the 3GPP's 5G standardization work. Already there is some precedent here, considering the US widely embraced the CDMA standard in 2G and 3G while the Chinese government worked to fund the rival TD-SCDMA standard -- both of which represented alternatives to Europe's GSM standard.

Indeed, the 3GPP's 4G LTE technology represented the first time that the global wireless industry coalesced around a single wireless networking standard.

On to Release 17
As global geopolitical issues swirl around 5G, Huawei and the 3GPP, many of the group's members -- most of whom are more familiar with MIMO and beamforming than tariffs and trade -- are simply trying to keep their heads down in pursuit of better, faster and more efficient technologies.

Along those lines, the RAN#83 meeting in Newport Beach, California, produced the first proposals for what the 3GPP might include in Release 17. (The group recently completed most of its work on Release 15, and Release 16 is expected to be approved in early 2020.)

Prakash Sangam, the founder of Tantra Analyst who previously worked for Qualcomm, Ericsson and AT&T, attended the meeting and said that the 3GPP agreed to begin working on a number of technologies that might eventually be included in Release 17, including:

  • How 5G might better be applied to industrial IoT services.
  • How the standard could be used in spectrum above 52.6GHz.
  • How automobiles and other gadgets might use 5G in a V2X scenario, and whether they can use a "side link" relay technology for communications.
  • Whether the 5G standard can be tweaked for low-power, wide-area applications.
  • Ways to make 5G more effective for XR, AR and other such technologies.
  • And how to make the 5G standard agnostic to whether spectrum is licensed or unlicensed. This, Sangam explained, represents a major change to the 3GPP's general approach to wireless technologies, considering it historically has focused on licensed applications while only dabbling in unlicensed applications.

Finally, Sangam said that some 3GPP members clearly came to the Newport Beach meeting with technological agendas, as is normal in most standards body activities. He said operators in China were looking at technologies that could broaden 5G coverage areas, while operators in India were pushing for ways to broadcast video inside of the 5G standard. And Sangam said some Asian operators were keen to develop mid-tier 5G devices, like cheap smartphones or wearables -- that wouldn't necessarily make use of all of the bells and whistles of the 5G standard.

The next step in Release 17, Sangam said, is for the 3GPP to codify some of those items into specific work groups, which it will likely do at its December meeting.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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Kelsey Ziser
Kelsey Ziser
6/12/2019 | 2:34:27 PM
Re: Question on standards
Oooooh OK, that makes sense, thanks for the extra insight :)
Mike Dano
Mike Dano
6/12/2019 | 2:30:49 PM
Re: Question on standards
Great question! I beleive they're saying that there's a chance that companies in China could form their own separate 3GPP. And for technology that they've already worked on but cannot license anymore due to the ban, they might just make their own version that is not licensed.
Kelsey Ziser
Kelsey Ziser
6/12/2019 | 2:23:40 PM
Question on standards
Mike - could you expand on this paragraph? 

"The risk that 3GPP is going to break down is pretty high," wrote the Wall Street analysts at Jefferies in a note to investors, according to the FT. "If Chinese companies are prohibited from licensing technologies that they have already seen -- and which in many cases they have heavily influenced -- [the risk is] they could just use it."

Are you saying that they would just circumvent standards bodies?