The body responsible for developing the standards governing 5G technology has signaled that its inability to meet in person is causing a slowdown in developing new technical standards.

The Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) announced on 21 September that it is expecting a delay in 5G standards of a minimum six months – and potentially longer. That in turn is likely to delay the deployment of many of the innovative use cases envisioned for the platform.

The 3GPP defines new standards for 5G radios, core network infrastructure, supporting systems and services, and 5G handsets and other end-user devices. The 3GPP’s three Technical Specification Groups are tasked with developing and agreeing on hundreds of work items required to enable new 5G capabilities.

In recent years, the 3GPP has made steady progress developing the standards governing 5G. 3GPP Release 15, completed in 2018, set the initial foundation for building 5G radios and core networks; Release 16, finalized in July 2020, marked a significant move forward in building in a host of new capabilities that can make 5G a compelling option for a number of enterprise applications. The completion of Release 16 was impacted by Covid-19 but not severely so: with much of the work having taken place in 2019, the final standards were hardened three months behind schedule.

5G standards will be developed through 3GPP virtual meetings

However, early signs are that the next updates to 5G coming with the introduction of Release 17 standards are likely to be impacted much more severely by pandemic-induced travel restrictions.  The chairs of the three 3GPP specification groups have already concluded that all of their meetings through the first half of 2021 will be conducted virtually.

The chair of the radio specification group, Balazs Bertenyi, warned that in a best-case scenario, the timeframe for completion of Release 17 would likely be pushed back by six months; however, the delay could be significantly greater if in-person meetings are still not feasible by mid-year 2021.

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That’s a significant delay because, even though the 5G era is now underway with Release 15 and now 16, Release 17 contains a lengthy list of technical work items that are crucial for the platform to come close to matching the hype that has been attributed to it over the past few years.

The 3GPP plans to commit to a definitive schedule on when the Release 17 specifications will be completed when it meets again (virtually) in December 2020.