5G is not a fixed standard, nor is 5G service something that will simply replace 4G and then continue to exist in a consistent way for the next decade. In fact, 5G is much like an organic entity that will evolve and change over time. This is important to understand when thinking about 5G. It explains why certain developments are happening now, while others will happen later. More importantly, it should also give you the perspective to recognize that even though there are some challenges in the initial deployments of 5G, a lot more promise is still to come.
4G followed a similar evolutionary path. As with 5G, it started with a core baseline of technical standards that were defined by the telecom industry, and then improvements were added to that baseline over time. You can think of it visually as a plateau that may start out flat, but then features a number of uphill climbs and, every now and then, a steep cliff that must be scaled to get to the next level.
In the case of wireless network generation standards, the baselines are defined by an industry organization called the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project), which, as its name suggests, was first put together to help define worldwide standards for 3G cellular networks 20 years ago. The 3GPP creates what are called Release Documents every few years that define some of the core capabilities of next generation wireless networks. The current release document is called Release 15, and it came out in June 2019 with many important new advances, including the full definition of the 5G NR (New Radio) standard, which forms the foundation of 5G service. 5G NR is the protocol used to send and receive wireless signals from devices like smartphones to the cellular network infrastructure (i.e., cell towers).
The next 3GPP document, Release 16, is already near completion and is expected to be formally released in June of 2020. Chief among its additions is, essentially, the completion of 5G specifications, as well as enhancements to many early capabilities for 5G standalone mode, including URLLC (Ultra-Reliable and Low Latency Communication), V2X Phase 3 for automotive applications and more. Note that there can be as much as a year, or even longer, lag between when a Release document comes out and when the technology is available to the public because of the time it takes for companies to build products and services that fully support the new standards. The telecom industry is always looking ahead, however, and there’s already been a great deal of work done for Release 17, which will likely incorporate enhancements for IoT and many of the other more advanced, non-smartphone applications that have been discussed for 5G. It’s tentatively scheduled for formal release sometime in 2021. (If you really want to learn more about where 5G is headed, you can find out more about 3GPP Release documents here.)
While it’s not critical to know the details of the Release documents and what each one includes—though you may occasionally see references to them if you follow the industry at all—what is really important to know is that from Release 15 on, they are all 5G. Now arguably, they could use nomenclature like 5G version 1. 0 and then 5G version 1.1 (or 2.0) to clarify this, but they don’t. Instead, they chose to make things very simple, so it’s all just called 5G. Behind the scenes, however, you’re going to see new capabilities come to the 5G standard and to the devices and infrastructure that support these new “versions” of the standard.
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