There has been much talk about 5G and the 5G global standard these last few years as geopolitics has heated up across the world and challenged what we know about the global economy. With 5G becoming an increasingly important component of what drives the global economy, there has been a renewed focus on the 5G standards and who contributes to them and how. At the center of the world’s global 5G standards is the 3GPP, one of the world’s leading cellular communications standards bodies since the 2G days. In this piece, I explore how the 3GPP just works and why it should continue to be the standards-setting body for the industry.
What is the 3GPP?
The 3GPP was established in 1998 with most of the world’s largest telecommunications companies as members. As 3G and 4G grew the 3GPP’s scope, 5G has broadened the 3GPP’s scope even more and made it even more influential. 3GPP operates on a release schedule and has a particular structure that enables subject matter experts to discover problems, find solutions, and agree upon the best solution for the industry. I detailed the structure of how the 3GPP runs itself in a previous blog about how Qualcomm’s appointment to the 3GPP RAN Plenary demonstrates its ability to work with competitors. In that article, I covered the organizational structure and meeting system that enables the 3GPP to function as a large organization with many competing interests. Still, I will go into more detail about how and why it works here.
The 3GPP is different
The 3GPP is different from many different standards bodies, many of these standards bodies have boards that have chairs, and some of these positions are career positions for those members. The 3GPP, like those standards bodies, is very technical. One would argue that it is even more technical than many of these other standards bodies simply because of the breadth and depth it needs to explore due to the nature of technologies like 5G. However, even though 3GPP is technically like other standards bodies, it does not have any board. This is because the industry structurally designed the 3GPP to ensure that most members and delegates are equal. Each level of the organization has its role in ensuring the best solution to a problem wins at the end of the day. It also means that no country or region should drive 3GPP for its ulterior motives. Ultimately, if the technology is inferior, it will simply die on the vine and have been a waste of time for everyone.
While geopolitics have historically had a way of expressing themselves, it is hard for all the companies in a particular country or region to agree to cooperate on something because so many of them have different motives. Calls that China is taking over the 3GPP are unwarranted because very few issues come to a vote, and its very hard to get so many Chinese companies to align so infrequently. And while China may have the most members of any country, all EMEA countries still make up 44% of 3GPP delegates. After all, a consensus is still required for most issues. In addition to not having a board, there is no central body that makes decisions for the whole organization; this is thanks to the compartmentalization of the organization and putting the best people in charge of solving problems that the whole industry agrees need addressing picking solutions that benefit everyone. This collaborative work environment also drives compromise within the organization because there is technically no voting in the 3GPP. This collaborative environment also sets the 3GPP apart from other organizations; delegates of members must agree upon nearly everything with consensus, no majorities, or minorities, or much voting at all. Until a certain member’s concerns are addressed, a solution cannot be achieved, which is a natural recipe for deadlocks in many other types of organizations. Still, in the 3GPP, it works and has worked since the beginning. One of the reasons for doing this is that when you hold votes, you create factions and polarization, which creates divides and breeds a political climate rather than a technical one. Yes, in some cases, this does lead to deadlocks. Still, the 3GPP is different because most of its members are engineers with extremely deep technical abilities and knowledge and are far more interested in moving the technology and industry forward than getting ‘wins’ for their ‘side.’ By creating a consensus-based organization, it forces the culture to be very working level and issue-focused. This also forces people to talk through the issues to understand one another’s disagreements.
This means that even though 3GPP is a global body, there will be different organizations and members with different needs. The whole body must acknowledge the different needs and agree that these differences are still beneficial for the greater good, and you can have your cake and eat it too. This also may result in scenarios where people may disagree with one another but still agree to vote for each other’s solutions. While not everything will make it into every release of the 3GPP standard, there are new releases with new features and updates to old features nearly every year. While COVID has affected this nearly annual cadence, we see 3GPP Release 16 features making it into hardware which effectively phases 2 of the global 5G standard and brings many enhancements. The next 3GPP release, Release 17, is expected early next year. While not all releases are equal in impact or new features, the yearly releases help keep things moving and a certain pace to the working groups setting these different standards within each release.
One of the unique things about the 3GPP is that while the organization is semi-private in how it conducts itself and isn’t necessarily open to the public, it conducts most internal meetings openly. This means no backroom deals, not discussing any kinds of compromises or negotiations without involving other members of the working group. It also means that all members have access to each other’s minutes and can understand how and why someone has made an argument for a problem that needs solving or a solution to a problem that can become a feature. This also serves as a valuable record for possibly helping to reach a consensus on future issues if a disagreement were to occur.
The 3GPP is not perfect, no standards body is, but it has achieved some really great things over the years, starting with 2G, and has successfully gotten us to 5G. 5G is arguably one of the most daunting standards in terms of depth and breadth that I think I have ever seen. The 3GPP has over 700 member companies and thousands of delegates globally representing those members. Even though so many people are involved in the 3GPP, it has found a way to ensure that the best technologies succeed. The 3GPP has successfully achieved the status of being the only 5G standard, which is a net benefit for the industry and the global economy. There are some fears that China may push its own 6G standard further down the road, but that would be a fool’s errand because the 3GPP works exceptionally well and has made the industry far more efficient and interoperable and helped people focus on the technology rather than trying to adhere to multiple standards.
Note: This article contains contributions from Moor Insights & Strategy principal analyst Anshel Sag.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.