Analyst Angle: Confused about which version of 3GPP Rel. 15 will be used for 5G commercialization? Don’t be!

Prakash Sangam
4 min readDec 11, 2018

The side effect of all the attention and hype of 5G is the close scrutiny of its standards development, and undue confusion and unfounded fear because of even benign and simple procedural updates. While the glorification of 5G is ongoing with this almost deafening drum beat of “world’s first” claims and announcements on a daily basis, people get equally quickly concerned when they hear anything that they don’t understand or know about. One such recent confusion is the question about whether all the first commercial 5G-NR networks and devices will be interoperable or not, more specifically, which version of the 3GPP Rel.15 specifications will these deployments comply with. To understand this better, we need a short 3GPP primer. But before that, let me break it to you, it’s the September 2018 version.

Any 3GPP specification is considered as “Frozen” when the ASN.1 interface is finalized. For the curious minds, ASN stands for Abstract Syntax Notation. Nominally, the ASN.1 Freeze represents a major milestone, at which point vendors will have enough minimum specifications to start building commercial interoperable products. For 5G, i.e. Rel. 15, the freeze for NSA (Non Stand Alone option) happened in March 2018. As a matter of practice, even after the freeze 3GPP continues to refine the specifications. You could consider these refinements as bug fixes, to make the specifications more robust and clearer to the implementers. The tracking of these fixes in the 3GPP lingo are called as Change Requests (CR). 3GPP release a “Version” on a quarterly cadence, in which these CRs are included. These version are sometimes referred to as “Drops.” For 5G, there were a two versions so far–one was in June 2018, another one was in September 2018, and there will be more. So, then the question arises, which one of these versions should be used for the first commercial deployments? Obviously, for perfect interoperability between different vendors, all should use the same version. For 5G, the general agreement within the industry was that the September version should be used for the first commercial systems. Just to be sure, all of this is standard operating procedure for 3GPP and has been religious followed for years, for 2G, 3G and 4G. Only that till now, nobody other than the geeks who closely follow 3GPP has even noticed these versions procedure, but not so for 5G.

Thanks to all the attention, even these small steps make the 5G industry participants jittery, and their anxiety is understandable. It’s not often that you accelerate the standardization of a major technology transition by more than a year! I am sure many are still skeptics and dumbfounded looking at the breakneck pace at which 5G commercialization is progressing, and getting concerned even for smallest of reasons. The version confusion has gotten so much so that the 3GPP chair had to come out with a public blog to affirm that the September 2018 will be the basis for global commercial 5G-NR deployments.

It gives me great comfort that the representatives of all the major 5G players who are part of 3GPP have signed on to the blog. This includes, Nokia, Qualcomm, Intel, Ericsson, Samsung, and Motorola. Their concurrence makes me believe that their commercial products will fully comply with September 2018 version of Rel. 15. Separately, I have reached out on my own and gotten confirmation from Qualcomm, Samsung and Nokia. I didn’t hear back from Ericsson till this article went to publishing.

So, be assured that the OEMs are all aligned and are working from a common set of specifications, i.e. September 2018 version of Rel.15, and will ensure full interoperability when the first 5G networks are launched. Don’t heed to any suggestions otherwise, and be ready for the exciting 5G ride. I can’t wait for it myself!

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Prakash Sangam

Tech Industry Analyst, Forbes Contributor, EETimes & RCR Wireless writer, covering 5G, AI, IoT, Wi-Fi and everything wireless. Founder