Much has been made of the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the telecoms industry, though it now appears the critically important Release 16 timeline could be under threat.
Now the initial shock of the Mobile World Congress cancellation has settled, business is seemingly back to normal, though the coronavirus outbreak has not been contained. The Barcelona trip was cancelled, but so were a horde of other ventures into foreign lands. The 3GPP 5G standards meetings also fell onto the chopping block.
Interestingly enough, Release 16 from the 3GPP, industry specifications to deal with 5G standalone RAN, virtualisation, the 5G core, network slicing and various other topics, could also feel the impact of the virus. The consequence could be further delay on the release of the industry specifications.
“When experiments with e-meetings have happened in the past it is very easy for discussion to spiral and go quite tangential,” one insider told Telecoms.com. “90% of the negotiation to reach agreements on contentious topics happen over coffee, lunch and dinner… you don’t get that opportunity in an e-meeting.”
As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, all Technical Specification Group (TSG) and Working Group (WG) meetings have now been replaced with electronic meetings for the first quarter. 3GPP has said this is only applicable where practical, and when not, presumably the meeting is cancelled.
For Q2, where the meetings were set to take place in China, activities have been cancelled for the moment. Replacement venues are being sought, but it is by no-means a guarantee the outbreak would be contained by this point.
In December 2018, 3GPP already announced a delay to the release of the standards. It might be stubbornly sticking to the existing timelines right now, but if it was not able to stay on schedule in 2018, what chance will it have while the coronavirus outbreak is still at large?
“We are obliged to suspend belief, but I suspect it won’t take much to blow past March plenaries without agreement on some key topics,” our source continued.
“The problem is it will only take one little thing to hold up the whole lot. The release has to be an independently implantable document set. If anything that is mandatory to support is not included, they have to make it optional, remove it completely to the next release or delay. First two options would require a lot of work in themselves.
“e-meetings do not make agreement easy, and it would only take one topic to get political to have someone attempt to throw everything into question as a tactic.”
As it stands, the group is attempting to negotiate the specifications for the RAN aspect of Release 16. The virtualisation components are all largely finalised, while the core aspect is not due until June, when Release 16 would be theoretically frozen. That said, any delay would push these timelines back once again.
According to Dario Talmesio, Principal Analyst & Practice Leader for Omdia, further delay to Release 16 could cascade and possibly have an echo effect throughout the industry. Time to ROI would be increased, which would not be considered welcome news for the financially strained telcos or vendors which have been promised shareholders 5G fortunes.
With RAN being the topic of debate currently, the standards hang in a precarious position. RAN is the aspect of network infrastructure which attracts the most attention because of the scale of deployment. While other standards missions can run in parallel, RAN is critical to product development timelines. Delays here would be heart-breaking for telcos and vendors, but there could also be a knock-on effect for the International Mobile Telecommunications-2020 requirements issued by the ITU.
Although our source was not necessarily the most confident, there are some who are a bit more optimistic.
“The next set of 3GPP meetings have been turned ‘virtual’ and in 3GPP SA2 at least all Release 17 proposals are postponed until the April meeting,” said Alan Carlton, VP of Wireless and Internet Technologies at InterDigital.
“In the upcoming meeting companies will only be allowed to submit corrections to Release 16. This will obviously cause some delays. New ad hoc meetings to catch up will have to be approved and it is not certain all companies will agree to that. Hopefully this is just a blip and thing will get caught-up post this somewhat unusual ‘flu’ season.”
The 3GPP is maintaining an optimistic position on the meetings for the next six weeks and will not make a call on the timelines until TSG Chairs have a chance to discuss progress.