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Although mobile industry association 3GPP pushed up the initial 5G standard’s release to kickstart millimeter wave and sub-6GHz hardware deployments across the world, it left many important details unresolved pending future standardization meetings and votes. Now the group says it’s delaying work on two critical updates to the 5G standard due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though it’s unclear how the changes will actually impact 5G rollouts.

As of today, 5G network deployments are based on Release 15, a preliminary 5G standard that largely relies upon older 4G networks as the backbone for “non-standalone” 5G services. Release 16 will enhance “standalone” 5G networks with faster upload and download speeds, as well as defining 5G standards for vehicle-to-everything and industrial IoT deployments, while Release 17 will add specifications for 5G wearables and even faster network performance, amongst other improvements. Consumers have been able to enjoy early tastes of 5G download speeds on smartphones, but network hardware providers and carriers alike have been waiting on Release 16 to kick off their “true 5G” deployments.

3GPP’s standardization work uses teams of specialized engineers to suss out the details of how various 5G features will work, leading to “freezes” of technical specifications when working groups reach agreements, then organization-wide votes to ratify and publicly release full standard updates. Based on its inability to conduct face-to-face meetings during the COVID-19 outbreak, the group has delayed the freezing of stage three of Release 16 until June 2020, as well as the freezing of stage three of Release 17 until September 2021. Final ratification of each standard update will take place via later votes.

These specification freezes will likely impact rollouts of the updated standards, potentially delaying “true 5G” deployments by some months — an unfortunate development, given that the mobile industry had recently pushed to move Release 17’s date up rather than back. While 3GPP’s face-to-face meetings have been canceled through May, the organization has scheduled online meetings to continue its work despite the pandemic and will hopefully be able to keep standards rollouts on track going forward.

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