Qualcomm’s Appointment To 3GPP RAN Plenary Demonstrates Ability To Work With Competitors

Most people, consumers, and professionals alike are generally completely unaware of what goes on in the background when it comes to technology standards. This is especially true of wireless standards, where most people consider the things that their smartphones can do as magic or magical. To be quite honest, some of the things that happen within the wireless space today are magical, even when you do have the technical depth and understanding. That aside, for our devices to work like they do today and into the future, standards bodies like the 3GPP have been working tirelessly for decades to make these things possible.

The 3GPP was established in 1998 and is short for the 3rd Generation Partnership Project. It has helped develop 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G specifications and standards that would eventually be adopted by operators, chip vendors, and smartphone manufacturers alike. Given this is a highly competitive industry, it is no small feat for the leaders within 3GPP to rally hundreds of member companies to agree on a single standard. While in the past there have been competing standards to 3GPP’s GSM standard, the world has finally coalesced around a single standard from the very beginning with the 3GPP’s 4G LTE and now 5G NR. This is partly what has enabled the much more rapid deployment of 4G compared to 3G. With 5G NR enabling diverse services, deployment scenarios and spectrum utilization, 5G has promulgated on a global basis in record time. Another component of that rapid rollout has been 3GPP’s agreement to split the rollout of 5G between NSA and SA, allowing operators to build NSA networks primarily using 4G infrastructure.

The companies that make up the 3GPP are most the world’s biggest tech companies, including but not limited to Alibaba, Amazon Web Services, Apple, AT&T, Cisco, Comcast, Corning, Ericsson, Facebook, Google, Huawei, IBM, Intel, Lenovo, LG, Lockheed Martin, MediaTek, Microsoft, Mitsubishi, Motorola, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony, Tencent, Volkswagen and many more. All these companies have representatives who are employees of the respective member companies. 3GPP splits out the responsibilities of these members across three Task Specification Groups (TSG), they are TSG Radio Access Network (RAN), TSG Service & System Aspects (SA), and TSG Core Network & Terminals (CT). Each of these three TSGs has a plenary that oversees the different workgroups that each TSG has to solve different problems within its domains. The Plenary groups for each TSG determine what study items are explored, which eventually turn into work items once the study items are agreed upon unanimously. Likewise, every time a study item becomes a work item, it must be unanimously approved to become a work item, and the solution is decided.

Qualcomm’s 3GPP QUALCOMM

For example, TSG RAN has five workgroups, and each of them handles many of the different layers and aspects of the radio access network, which connects the devices to the cell network. This is seen as the most crucial of the three TSGs even though all three are extremely important to establishing the 3GPP specification and each release. The 3GPP is creating Release 17 of the 3GPP spec, and Release 15 was the first phase of the 3GPP’s standard that addressed 5G.

Each Release of the 3GPP Spec. is a culmination of many quarters of studying items and work items, and then working on them, including the meetings of the plenary groups, the working groups, and even the Project Coordination Group (PCG) who coordinates all of the rules and schedules for the TSGs. When companies propose solutions to the problems (work items) they may have already researched, the working groups’ members work together to decide whether these solutions are objectively the best solutions to the problem. There is very rarely much political wrangling within the 3GPP as it is generally about reaching the best solution to the problem. 3GPP is built on consensus and compromise; if one company objects to a proposal, they will not agree to that solution. The Chair of that working group is supposed to be impartial to any topic.

Qualcomm 3GPP’s Meeting Cycle QUALCOMM

One of Qualcomm’s most prolific inventors, Dr. Wanshi Chen, was recently elected by the 3GPP’s members as the next chairman of the 3GPP RAN Plenary. Previously, Dr. Chen served as Chair for the RAN1 Working Group, responsible for Radio Layer 1 (physical layer). This role will ensure that the different working groups deliver things on time and communicate their progress to the RAN Plenary group from the various RAN Working Groups. Dr. Chen’s position as Chair will be a two-year term and replaces Nokia’s Balazs Mertenyi, who held the position since 2017 and before held by Qualcomm’s Dino Flore between 2013 and 2017.

Being the RAN1 Chair was already a full-time job, with six meetings per year, usually lasting about a week, with each unit of time measured in 2-hour blocks. Even though each meeting takes a week, there is usually a week of prep organizing and setting up the meetings and a week of follow-up discussion for further progress. For members of the 3GPP, a lot of their time is dedicated to these meetings, taking many weeks of the year between planning and execution. That said, most of these members, including Dr. Chen, are prolific lifetime engineers who take the progress of cellular technology seriously and still want to be involved in their companies outside of standards work.

Dr. Wanshi Chen’s Appointment as Chair of the RAN TSG will no doubt influence the direction of 3GPP. However, it also illustrates that Qualcomm and its representatives are able to gain recognition from within the industry as good stewards of the industry. While there are times when the 3GPP can get political, it is reassuring to know that the organization and its members are generally most interested in delivering the best solution for the industry and does so in an efficient and reliable manner. 

Note: Moor Insights & Strategy senior analyst Anshel Sag contributed heavily to this article.