The telecommunications industry has for quite some time relied on interoperable industry-wide standards and specifications and the bodies that create them. There are many different standards bodies and organizations that set technical specifications for wireless. However, among these, one has been the most instrumental in establishing the truly global cross-industry interoperable wireless broadband standards, and that is the 3GPP or 3rdGeneration Partnership Project. The 3GPP is crucial to today’s cellular standards, and the specifications they create are not only relevant today, but also crucial considering the complex 5G future. The different members of the 3GPP and their quality contributions that result from years of research and development help to lead the wireless industry forward. I thought it was worth some time explaining what 3GPP is and how it works given all the talk about 5G.
Without wireless standards, devices may not connect reliably
While the 3GPP does have 3G in its name, it has developed cellular industry standards since UMTS. The 3GPP is responsible for managing GSM, GPRS, EDGE, HSPA, LTE and LTE-Advanced and Pro. The 3GPP is also currently developing the 5G NR specification for 5G communications which has yet to receive a marketing name like 4G LTE has today. With 5G, the importance of having a central standards body that ensures interoperability across different markets will be more important than ever. Previously, the 3GPP managed voice services and data services, but with the introduction of 5G, that is starting to expand into areas previously not part of the 3GPP’s scope. This will require the 3GPP to incorporate more members and understanding of those industries. However, for things like public safety, TV, automotive and IoT services to work correctly on a global and scalable manner they need to be managed by a centralized organization like the 3GPP which has experience with wireless. Currently, the 3GPP has over 500 members across over 40 countries from every part of the mobile ecosystem and is expected to have many more with the growth of 5G.
3GPP comprehends a wireless “system”
Part of 3GPP’s success in delivering successful wireless technology specifications and helping their members to execute them into standards is through the broad scope of their specifications. The 3GPP standard defines the complete wireless ecosystem from the Radio Access Network (RAN) to the User Equipment (UE) and the Core Network (CN) as well as the services that run on those devices and Core Network. Each of these needs to be tightly defined and rigorously vetted to ensure interoperability of features and user experience. This is accomplished through roughly 16 different working groups that work together to collaborate on a common standard at a system-level.
3GPP standards process
3GPP standards are established using early R&D developed by 3GPP members that can then build concepts that allow them to propose contributions to the standard. To keep the standard constantly evolving and improving, as it has with LTE, 3GPP releases incremental releases within the standard to include new features or update old ones. The 3GPP process starts with a concept phase which then evolves into a project proposal which needs to have the support of at least four members and needs to be approved to become a study item. Once a new feature or technology becomes a study item, it can be worked on and adjusted until approved into a work item. Once a work item, a feature can be improved upon further and more technical specifications are created and tested and change requests added to eventually reach commercial deployment.
Contribution quality matters
This is a continuously evolving process, and releases are constantly being worked on, with certain releases having more new capabilities than others. Currently, the 3GPP is on Release 15 which includes some of the first 5G NR specifications as well as continued 4G LTE Advancements known as LTE Advanced Pro. Many different players contribute to these releases, and some of them contribute more than others. The quality of these contributions is important because some companies pride themselves on the number of contributions. These contributions could be nothing more than typographical corrections or the same spec split into different parts to increase the number of submissions. The real measure of the value of a company’s contributions lies in how many of its contributions eventually become part of the technical specifications within a release. The importance of these contributions is ultimately weighed by how much they can drive the mobile ecosystem forward with new features and areas that help to expand the ecosystem.
Some of the biggest 3GPP innovations that we use today are being contributed by some of the 3GPP’s leading members like Qualcomm, Intel and Ericsson. Qualcomm’s R&D and technology inventions have been essential in numerous 3GPP specifications like the OFDM waveform, Carrier Aggregation, LTE Broadcast and Small Cells. For example, Carrier Aggregation is one of the cornerstones of today’s wireless networks allowing for significantly higher download data rates. This capability was originally used in the 1xEV-DO Rev B specification and was introduced in 3GPP from Release 8 onwards for use in HSPA, DC-HSPA (dual carrier HSPA) and now in LTE. However, Qualcomm also contributes heavily to making emerging technologies like Small Cell and LAA possible within the 3GPP spec and continues to lead the 3GPP forward on the path to 5G. The company is also driving many of the LTE IoT standards in 3GPP Release 13 which included the eMTC and NB-IoT parts of the spec.
The 3GPP process is a long and collaborative effort between many different players in the wireless space including organizational and market representative partners. Without the R&D of the leading players and the cooperation between them to create the 3GPP specifications, there simply wouldn’t be a globally interoperable cellular networks and devices. The 3GPP specification is the foundation upon which the entire industry builds upon and is crucial for the entire mobile ecosystem. Without the hard work of the numerous 3GPP members and their innovation, collaboration, and testing, we simply wouldn’t have ubiquitous connectivity like we have today. This will become even more important as the industry starts to move towards 5G technologies and the different markets that 5G will address. The added complexity of 5G will lend well to the 3GPP’s flexible but reliable iteration of technology specifications for cellular communication.