How 3GPP’s 5G NR Release 16 Opens the Door to a New Era of Massive Investment and Innovation in the Industrial IoT Space
Those of you who have been following the speed and scale of global 5G deployments even in the middle of a pandemic are probably aware that 3GPP, the international governing body that establishes wireless standards, finally just completed 5G NR Release 16 earlier this month. Release 16 essentially represents the second wave of 5G standards kicked off by Release 15, and promises to expand the breadth of 5G deployments, use cases, and spectrum well beyond traditional mobile broadband services through performance and efficiency improvements, as well as transformative new technologies. Here are the nine major areas of improvement that caught our eye, and some thoughts on why they matter:
- Integrated access and backhaul (IAB) will help operators accelerate mmWave base station densification:
One of the primary 5G challenges facing operators looking to expand mmWave network coverage is the cost of deploying mmWave base stations. The combination of the limited range of mmWave signals (which means more base stations per square km) and the need for new fiber optics backhaul installations to service these base stations can make mmWave densification less than cost efficient. To help address this specific problem, Release 16 adds integrated access and backhaul (IAB) to the 5G toolkit. IAB allows base stations to provide both wireless access for devices and wireless backhaul connectivity, which eliminates the need for wired backhauls. This helps eliminate one major headache for operators, and should help them achieve their densification strategy faster. While operators may still opt to install fiber to increase backhaul capacity, they can do this on their own time, after having installed their mmWave base stations.
- Massive MIMO enhancements will improve user experiences even at the network’s edge:
One of the many technical areas that Release 16 focused on was multi-user multiple-input and multiple-output (MU-MIMO) to support multiple transmission and reception points (multi-TRP) and improve multi-beam management for enhanced link reliability, especially in mmWave bands. (MIMO multiplies a radio link’s capacity by using multiple transmission and multiple receiving antennas.) Also look for improvements in reference signal performance, which should reduce peak-to-average power ratio, and full-power uplinks, to improve coverage even at the network’s edge.
- Smart new power-saving features help improve device battery autonomy even in high-use applications:
Release 16 introduces several new power-saving features, like optimized low-power settings, more efficient power controls, and overhead reduction. Power efficiency is a critical dimension of standardized 5G performance improvement because most 5G mobile devices tend to be battery powered. Specifically, look for device-driven conditional handover, dual-connectivity master cell group (MCG) failure recovery, and early measurement reporting, which together can reduce handover interruption time and thereby further improve device mobility performance. Other power efficiency enhancements of note include a new wakeup signal (WUS) to shorten control signaling monitoring in low power mode, low-power carrier aggregation control (to power down secondary carriers when they are not in use), and a streamlined random access procedure (RACH) which also brings additional power efficiency to everyday use.
- Tapping into unlicensed spectrum (NR-U) will open the door to a much broader range of 5G applications:
3GPP also worked on expanding 5G’s reach beyond traditional public mobile networks in two ways. The first is through 5G NR-U, which allows 5G to operate in the unlicensed spectrum. This capability can fall under two distinct operational modes: anchored NR-U, which requires an anchor in licensed or shared spectrum, and standalone NR-U, which uses only unlicensed spectrum, and isn’t “anchored” in licensed spectrum. Release 16 supports both the existing global 5 GHz unlicensed band (usually used by Wi-Fi and LTE LAA), and the 6 GHz band, which comes with a full 1200 MHz of unlicensed bandwidth.
Opening the door to unlicensed spectrum and walking through it are two very different things though, so look for a deeper dive into where the US stands with regards to unlicensed spectrum in the coming weeks.
- Improved support for non-public networks (NPN) expands organizations’ ability to leverage low-latency 5G technologies in their IIoT applications:
The second Release 16 enhancement that expands 5G’s reach beyond traditional public mobile networks involves improved support in the system architecture for private networks (sometimes also referred to as “non-public networks” or “NPN”). Private networks generally use dedicated resources like small, individually-managed cell base stations, and provide organizations with secure, low-latency, on-premise transmissions capabilities for optimized custom applications. These types of networks typically enable industrial IoT (IIoT) use cases at scale (think airports, distribution centers, manufacturing plants, etc.).
- Enhanced ultra-reliable, low-latency communication (eURLLC) will also help scale 5G for the IIoT:
Key new use cases such as factory automation also drove enhancements to 5G URLLC to improve link reliability by as much as 99.9999%. These types of applications are best served by a coordinated multi-point (CoMP) approach that leverages multiple transmission and reception (multi-TRP) architecture to provide redundant communication paths with some degree of spatial diversity. (As opposed to, for instance, increasing the number of retransmissions, which is neither efficient nor particularly useful, primarily because of latency issues.) With this new eURLLC model, even if one communication path becomes temporarily blocked, communication between a device and the network remains uninterrupted because of the remaining paths.
- Time sensitive networking (TSN) help IIoT applications more efficient and reliable:
Speaking of bringing new capabilities to the IIoT, 5G NR in Release 16 also added support for Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN) integration. This includes the precise synchronization of the delivery of data packets via generalized precision timing protocol (gPTP), mapping of TSN configuration into 5G quality-of-service (QoS) framework for deterministic messaging and traffic shaping, and providing efficient transport of Ethernet frames via header compression.
- New multicast communications and improved distance-based decisions bring new layers of safety to cellular-vehicle-to-everything (CV2X) systems:
Release 16 also brought enhancements to automotive applications. You may recall that several years ago, Release 14 CV2X had introduced sidelink to support basic safety use cases for V2V (vehicle to vehicle), V2P (vehicle to pedestrians), and V2N (vehicle to network). Release 16 builds on this foundation by introducing a new NR-based sidelink aimed to enhance safety as the auto industry works towards developing truly autonomous vehicles. Improvements introduce reliable and efficient multicast communication based on HARQ feedback, and can use distance/proximity as a new dimension within the physical layer, enabling spontaneous multicast groups based on both proximity and relevant applications.
- Single and multi-cell positioning brings precision geolocation in support of IoT and IIoT applications:
Lastly, enhancements in high-precision positioning were also part of 5G NR Release 16, meeting accuracy targets of 3 meters indoors and 10 meters outdoors. Release 16 defines a number of single-cell and multi-cell positioning techniques, including roundtrip time (RTT), time difference of arrival (TDOA), and angle of arrival/departure (AoA/AoD).
All in all, 3GPP’s 5G NR Release brings a broad range of incredibly useful improvements and new tools to the ever-growing 5G sandbox, but we noted a particular emphasis on the IIoT. This is not at all surprising since the high speed, low latency promise of 5G networks, especially in the mmWave band, has been a hot topic of discussion in smart infrastructure and smart automation circles for several years now. Beyond the kinds of improvements in reliability and efficiency delivered by eURLLC and TSN enhancements, Release 16’s focus on non-public networks (NPN) and unlicensed spectrum are particularly telling: Contributors to 5G standards tend to think beyond just core engineering challenges that need to be solved. They also tend to prioritize, whenever possible, engineering challenges that make the most business sense as well. For companies like Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM), Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC), and Nokia (NYSE: NOK) especially, expanding 5G into the industrial space presents a massive revenue opportunity in a market that could reach $314 BILLION in value by 2030.
5G NR Release 15, for instance, tended to focus more on solving engineering problems for commercial cellular networks, because that was the initial priority. What we see with Release 16, in addition to improvements to previous fundamental standards, is a shift towards the next market for 5G technologies: industrial networks and applications. That is why, MIMO and IAB improvements aside, private networks, unlicensed spectrum, multi-TRP architecture, high-precision device positioning, efficient new power-saving protocols, and even multicasting between vehicles (think geofenced autonomous robots and vehicles), constitute the lion’s share of projects in this release. If nothing else, 5G NR Release 16 finally opens the door to a new era of potentially massive investment and innovation in the IIoT, smart manufacturing, smart logistics, and smart infrastructure.
To be continued.
Futurum Research provides industry research and analysis. These columns are for educational purposes only and should not be considered in any way investment advice.