Here are nine new things that 5G can do now

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The 3GPP – the standards group developing 5G – is expected to officially release its next big batch of technologies to the global wireless industry Friday. The action will essentially dump a bunch of new functionality into the 5G specification.

However, don’t expect anything to change immediately. Although the 3GPP’s “Release 16” should now be available, it’s up to each operator to decide which technologies they want to implement in their networks. Further, operators will need to work with their vendors to commercialize the technologies. In some cases that could happen as soon as this year, but in other cases it could take more time.

Regardless, here are nine noteworthy technologies, in no particular order, contained in Release 16 for 5G.

  • 5G in unlicensed spectrum. This will allow operators to deploy a 5G network in unlicensed spectrum, like they would a Wi-Fi network. Fixed wireless Internet providers might use this. Or operators could add capacity to their existing network in licensed spectrum by “extending” 5G into unlicensed spectrum. They’re already doing this in 4G with License Assisted Access (LAA).
  • Network slicing. This allows operators to set specific network parameters for specific customers. For example, a car company could purchase a “slice” of a network that would provide high-speed downloads to their cars – and they wouldn’t have to share that “slice” with any other users. Lots of operators have expressed interest in this.
  • Improved positioning information. A lot of fancy technology goes into this, but basically Release 16 will allow operators to find the position of 5G devices better and more quickly. Qualcomm noted that these new techniques are designed to locate 5G devices within 3 meters indoors and 10 meters outdoors.
  • Better power usage. 5G phones notoriously chew through batteries, and the technologies in Release 16 could improve that situation.
  • Better communications for vehicles. While previous 3GPP technology releases introduced the idea of “vehicle-to-everything” (V2X) communications, Release 16 offers a number of improvements, including “sidelink,” which will allow cars to talk directly to each other. That could help prevent auto accidents by allowing cars to warn each other about an accident up the road. It could also support “vehicle platooning,” which is when a group of driverless vehicles travel very closely together at high speed. Isn’t that cool?
  • Enhanced ultra-reliable, low-latency communication (eURLLC). This one is important for Internet of Things (IoT) and factory applications, because it can support super-fast, low-latency connections with reliability up to 99.9999%. Meaning, if you want to make sure your manufacturing robot can hit a bullseye exactly, every single time, this is for you.
  • Better private networks. As Qualcomm’s Danny Tseng told me, Release 16 offers expanded support for non-public networks (NPN). These are basically private wireless networks that operators could sell to the likes of UPS, for their exclusive use. There’s a lot of noise around this topic right now.
  • Integrated Access Backhaul (IAB). This technology will allow 5G cell sites to connect to the Internet wirelessly, without any additional equipment. This could significantly reduce operators’ backhaul and deployment costs. Verizon has said it will use IAB.
  • Built-in IoT services. Release 16 will allow operators to deploy low-power, wide-area IoT connection technologies like eMTC and NB-IoT directly into their 5G spectrum and managed by their 5G core. Whether anyone wants to use such services is a whole other question.

Release 16 is the 3GPP’s second big batch of 5G technologies. The group issued Release 15, its first batch of 5G specifications, in three sections, with the final section coming out in the middle of last year. Release 16 was delayed a few months due to COVID-19.

The 3GPP is currently working on Release 17, which includes a bunch of other interesting technologies. Release 17 could be available sometime next year.

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