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Global partnership 3GPP is responsible for approving updates to the 3G, 4G, and 5G cellular standards that enable wireless phones and related devices to become faster and more power-efficient with each passing sub-generation. This process has yielded evolving 4G standards, such as LTE and LTE Advanced, as well as the earliest global 5G standards. Today, 3GPP member companies are trumpeting the ratification of 5G Release 16, a major step on the path to improved 5G performance, though the partnership has quietly warned that the next 5G update is at “high risk” of being delayed, notably pushing back the release of 5G wearables.

5G Release 16 is set to bolster “standalone” 5G networks — towers that don’t depend on older 4G hardware and standards — by increasing upload and download speeds, as well as enabling 5G vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications and industrial IoT deployments, two innovations changing the transportation and manufacturing industries. Embattled Chinese mobile company Huawei today praised 3GPP for completing Release 16 despite the global COVID-19 pandemic. Huawei noted it was “the first time ever that 3GPP has ratified a technological standardization outside of physical meetings,” though the milestone was pushed back by months as meetings were virtualized.

Cellular hardware and device makers typically wait on the completion of 3GPP standards before deploying their most important performance updates, as launching earlier could mean having to tear out and replace prestandards hardware — something Verizon encountered with its prestandards 5G network. Consequently, network hardware provider Ericsson waited until Release 16 was complete to today publicize its release of standalone 5G software, which it says has already been tested by T-Mobile and Telstra on their commercial networks. Virtually every cellular carrier across the globe will soon be adopting Release 16-based 5G, in some cases as a software update to tower hardware already deployed.

Release 17 is expected to bring a number of new features to 5G, including support for even higher-frequency (over 53GHz) millimeter wave spectrum, plus enhanced 5G IoT performance and location accuracy. One standout addition is NR-Light, a 5G variant that will work in energy-efficient wearables and industrial sensors. Using only a small sliver of radio spectrum, NR-Light will support 100Mbps downloads and 50Mbps uploads, giving 5G smartwatches enough bandwidth to record and share videos over cellular networks, among other advances.

Release 17 was scheduled to be complete in 2021, but in March the pandemic pushed key approval dates to September and December 2021, and additional delays are now being discussed. 3GPP planning documents suggest Release 17 dates “will have to be shifted,” and at least one working group is discussing a four-month delay that would push Release 17’s finalization into 2022. Device makers hoping to release 5G-compatible smartwatches, potentially including Samsung, Apple, and Google, will therefore not be able to offer the updated wearables during the 2021 holiday season. 3GPP expects a September 2020 meeting will confirm the new timelines, so stay tuned for the latest developments.

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