Are you starting to get comfortable with the idea of 5G? Well, don’t get too comfy, because some big changes are afoot, and they all have to do with a document called Release 16.
If you are, understandably, confused by how the set of standards that define the latest advancements in the next generation wireless network has that name, then read on.
It turns out that the major worldwide telco industry standards body, called 3GPP, has been developing new iterations of cellular wireless network standards since, well, 3G, and there have been quite a few iterations since the first one. Rather than restarting the standards document numbering process (or, for that matter, changing the organization’s name) with each major wireless network generation, they’ve chosen to just keep going from where they originally started.
The standards used in today’s 5G networks came with 3GPP’s Release Document 15, which was unveiled in June of 2019. Just last week, the organization formally announced the completion of Release 16, which some have referred to as 5G, Phase 2. It’s all part of the planned evolutionary process for wireless network standards that the 3GPP has been driving for decades (see “The Evolution of 5G” for more).
More important than the naming, of course, is what’s included in this second phase of 5G’s evolution. It’s a lot, it turns out. Release 16 adds refinements that will improve the performance and battery life of future 5G devices and networks, incorporates support for new types of applications, including positioning and location, adds enhancements to how 5G network infrastructure operates, and fills out critical features in areas like connected cars that had basic support in Release 15. Unfortunately, you’re going to need new devices with Release 16-enabled components, as well as upgrades to today’s 5G networks to take advantage of all these new capabilities. However, it gives us something to look forward to about 12-18 months from now.
At a basic service level, one of the enhancements coming to 5G via Release 16 is enhanced support for a technology called MU-MIMO (Multi-User, Multiple Input Multiple Output), which is basically a clever antenna design that allows multiple wireless signals to be sent and received simultaneously both at the cell tower and from within the device. Typically referred to as Massive MIMO when it comes to 5G networks, this technology has been around for years in simpler forms, both with WiFi and 4G/5G networks. The enhancements in Release 16 allow it to work with multiple transmission and reception points at the same time, increase the power levels and power efficiency when using massive MIMO, and more. In real-world terms, all of this should translate into faster, more reliable performance, even at the edge of a cell tower’s range.
To improve battery life, Release 16 incorporates several new mechanisms that come from critical intellectual property (IP) created by 5G modem leader Qualcomm. In particular, these new signal types can be used to notify devices that they can temporarily put their modems, RF front ends, and other components in low power mode to preserve energy. The Wake Up Signal (WUS) notifies a device that it needs to put its control signal monitoring systems back up to full power to receive data, and then can shut down when the packet reception is complete. As with many power-saving mechanisms on digital devices, the initial power savings might first appear to be modest, but given how frequently these events occur, it can translate into meaningfully longer battery life.
On the positioning side, the Release 16 version of 5G is bringing the ability to find the position of a 5G-equipped device within a 3-meter range indoors and a 10-meter range outdoors, all without the need for GPS support. Instead, compatible 5G devices will use new positioning reference signals and other clever techniques based on a device’s position in relation to several different cell towers. Critically, this will allow the development of indoor positioning applications, such as maps inside large buildings, shopping malls, etc. with a higher degree of accuracy than we’ve had in the past. In Release 17, this Qualcomm-inspired technology is expected to improve to sub-meter accuracy, which can be useful for applications such as robotics-based manufacturing or other industrial IoT use cases.
Another intriguing new capability that comes from Qualcomm IP is support for using 5G NR (New Radio) signals in what’s called unlicensed spectrum. Basically, NR-U (New Radio, Unlicensed) in conjunction with another Release 16 capability referred to as Non-Public Networks, or NPN gives companies the ability to create their own 5G private networks. In the past, this would require organizations to go through enormous hassles and costs associated with getting access to their own RF spectrum. With NR-U and NPN support, it should theoretically be like setting up a WiFi network, but with the speed, latency, security, and privacy benefits offered by leveraging 5G cellular technology. Two variations of NR-U—Anchored and Standalone—allow these signals either to be used in conjunction with and “anchored” to licensed spectrum, or completely on their own. For business industrial applications, these developments could prove to be extremely important.
Another critical enhancement for industrial use cases is the addition of support for a technology called time-sensitive networking (TSN) via 5G wireless networks. In certain types of environments, it’s critical to make sure that certain information is received at a very precise time in relation to other packets, so that the whole system stays in sync. In musical terms, think of it like a conductor who ensures that all the members of an orchestra are playing at the same tempo. If individual musicians don’t follow the metronome-like precision of the conductor’s movements, then the music just doesn’t sound right. In advanced IoT environments—or even those that require things like extraordinarily precise audio and video synchronization—TSN ensures that everything in a mechanical system or along a factory production line remains in sync. In the past, the only way to achieve that level of precision was with wired Ethernet connections, but with Release 16, 5G will be able to meet the same timing and latency requirements over a wireless connection.
In the case of 5G infrastructure, Release 16 is providing support for something called Integrated Access and Backhaul (IAB), another technology for which Qualcomm provided critical IP. Typical cellular networks use a variety of different technologies to connect their cell towers to each other and to a telco’s core network. These backhaul connections, as they are referred to, have used technologies such as microwave transmission, fiber cabling, and other more traditional types of connections in the past. In certain environments and across certain kinds of spectrum, particularly urban areas where telcos want to use millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G signals, however, it can be impractical or inordinately expensive to connect a large number of small cells using traditional methods. With IAB, telco operators can use the same mmWave transmission equipment to send and receive signals to wireless devices, as well as other reception points, thereby integrating cellular access and backhaul into a single device (hence the name). For network operators, this can translate into significant savings and speed up the process of deploying 5G networks.
Finally, one of the interesting expanded applications that Release 16 will enable is geared to the automotive market and is referred to as SideLink. Both Release 15 (and even the last 4G document, Release 14) incorporated some vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) cellular connection capabilities. Release 16, however, takes these a step further. Specifically, Release 16 adds support for coordinated driving and sensor sharing, where the sensor data from one car can be communicated to another nearby car to help in its assisted driving capabilities. In addition, as with many other aspects of the standards, there are a number of refinements that increase the efficiency and reduce the power consumption of sending cellular signals—in this case from connected vehicles to other vehicles. True car-to-car connection standards have yet to be fully certified by many governments around the world (primarily because of potential competition with a nearly 20-year old technology called DSRC), but hopefully these Qualcomm IP-based enhancements will help push them towards adopting 5G as the V2X standard.
There’s even more to the capabilities integrated into Release 16, including a new type of cellular broadcasting technology that could essentially enable traditional media style broadcasting straight to smartphones, as well as new capabilities to allow the transmission of IoT data utilizing the eMTC and NB-IoT standards over 5G. However, it should be abundantly clear now that the 5G standard is very dynamic and with the unveiling of Release 16, there are some important new capabilities coming to this second phase of 5G deployment.
Disclosure: TECHnalysis Research is a tech industry market research and consulting firm and, like all companies in that field, works with many technology vendors as clients, some of whom may be listed in this article.