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Operators seek stronger role in 5G development through new NGMN initiatives

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Bruno Jacobfeuerborn © TelecomTV

  • NGMN Alliance launches three new focus groups:
  • New global 5G trial and testing initiative
  • Focus on 5G end-to-end architecture, as 3GPP feels the heat
  • Automotive use case gets its own “task force”

The Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance has announced its latest activities to aid with the development of 5G-type architectures and services. The global operator-led group has been a strong driver of 5G and published a white paper a couple of years ago that first detailed the various use cases that 5G could address. Since then, it has worked on requirements around 5G radio access, architecture, vertical services, security and spectrum.

Yesterday it published details of three major areas of focus, and they are rather revealing. They were agreed by the NGMN’s Board, which comprises CTOs from several leading international operators, so are rather indicative of the current thinking of telcos. They three areas are: 5G Trial and Testing; End-to-end Architecture; and Vehicle-to-X.

Trials

The “5G Trial and Testing Initiative” hopes to define proof points and testing methodologies for 5G enabling technologies. The group also want to establish a globally aligned trial and testing platform for all its member partners, along with comparison and benchmarking of technologies, identification of gaps and support of standardisation.

This is most likely a reaction to the increase in operators who are becoming ever more vocal with their pre-5G trials and tests (especially in the US), as well as the SK Telecom backed “5G Open Trial Specification Alliance” that was launched in February with KT, Docomo and Verizon (and which has been rather quiet ever since). It’s worth noting that the objective of the Open Trial Specification Alliance is to “provide a common trial platform where different technology components can be trialled and evaluated in order to provide a better understanding of the value and performance of different 5G technologies.” Sounds familiar.

No one is going to prevent operators breaking away from the fold and trying to be first to market with their so-called 5G services (whatever 5G means pre-2020). We’ve seen it before and it’s a dead cert bet to happen again. But at least the Telco Presidium Guard can try and encourage common cooperation, although you can’t help but feel they are fighting a losing battle. It’s also a sign that no one wants to wait for the detailed standards to be agreed and loaded into the 3GPP’s ongoing release programme, let alone waiting for the ITU to wade through the IMT-2020 process. This is the Instant Gratification culture, after all. 

Architecture

The “End-to-end Architecture” initiative seeks to develop a 5G end-to-end architectural framework and (in the NGMN’s own words) “big picture, derivation of architecture design guidelines and requirements, enablement of synergies between standards development organisations (SDOs) and regional alignment”.

This is rather interesting, as it would appear to be a gentle nudge in the ribs of the 3GPP. True, the 3GPP is not the only SDO in the 5G game, but it’s the leading one. And it’s hardly a closed shop – the RAN plenaries alone have bigger attendances than most trade conferences get and have already outgrown all but the largest of specialist conference venues. Yet, reading between the lines, there does appear to be a desire from the telco CTOs to get involved in the process themselves, and not leave it all to the vendors. This is still very much a “recommendation” initiative, but the NGMN is looking to increase the impact of its members’ views and desires.

What impact the group will have on RAN and core network development is unclear, especially as 3GPP has already narrowed down the architecture choices for 5G operation – and specifically how the NexGen core and New Radio air interface will coexist with today’s LTE networks. The 3GPP has until March to firm up this work and there are already signs that not everyone in the industry is convinced that it will achieve its deadline. That’s a little unfair on the 3GPP, which is undertaking a gargantuan task aided by the industry’s best and brightest minds, but the conflict lines are now becoming a little clearer.

Automotive

Finally, we have the “Vehicle-to-X” initiative, which intends to evaluate and progress the development of V2X technologies and business opportunities and establish co-operation with automotive industry stakeholders.

This is interesting as automotive has become the clear leader in future 5G use cases, with some amazingly bold and optimistic predictions about the rate of adoption and capability of autonomous driving (see our recent story on BMW and Intel, for instance). It’s also an area that’s causing one or two problems in the US, where the automotive industry has its own licensed spectrum allocation specifically for V2X technologies – and which the telcos and potential new entrants all desperately want to use themselves for 5G-type services.

It is also rather revealing that NGMN has only selected one vertical use case to focus on at this stage. Okay, so we can’t do everything at once, but when are we – as an industry – going to take vertical markets seriously? At last week’s 5G World event, I posed that question to all our interviewees and received a similar “we don’t really know” answer from all. So maybe an early focus on one is a good idea? Luckily, it’s one that has tremendous financial opportunities – but also an industry that historically has been somewhat ambivalent towards telcos (and at times down-right hostile). We all eagerly await developments.

“In the last 12 months we provided essential 5G input and substantial contributions to standardisation and the broader ecosystem,” said Bruno Jacobfeuerborn, Chairman of the NGMN Alliance and CTO of Deutsche Telekom. “With our 5G Trial & Testing initiative and the other new work-items, we will ensure global alignment of 5G development and will jointly work towards availability of commercial, standards-based solutions by 2020.”

The NGMN will hold its next Industry Conference and Exhibition in October.

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