The spotlight continues to shine more brightly on 5G on the global geopolitical stage as it becomes increasingly apparent to the US and European nations that 5G technological leadership is of strategic economic importance. While the race to deploy 5G networks is a global competition, mobile wireless technologies of today have been a result of cooperation and collaboration across standard setting bodies, operators and technology companies across the globe. 3GPP, the engineering organization that sets the technical specifications that are the basis of mobile wireless technology standards, recently held their election for its RAN Technical Specification Group (TSG). The election happens at time when 5G technology leadership are hotly contested and the merits of technological unity is increasingly challenged geopolitically.
Let’s face it, technology standards are not topics of interest outside a select group of engineers and scientists who are in the business of researching and developing the inner workings of mobile wireless networks. Most of us don’t know what these technology standards are, how they are set and how the process of standardization is governed. It is a statement of fact that most of us don’t care. But like with so many other things related to the governance of strategic technologies, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.
Why should we care? Mobile wireless technologies have driven the leading edge of technology development for decades. Mobile computing has driven advancements in semiconductor devices and architectures, RF technologies and methods, the mainstream adoption of various forms of AI computing, and has promoted the smartphone as our main personal computing device usurping the PC. 5G is particularly interesting as it is a concerted effort to expand the purview of mobile computing to a broad range of industry use cases with purpose-engineered technologies that will enable industrial-grade wireless communications. 5G will also bring about the next generation of mobile networks that will foster a new breed of edge cloud computing and a deep convergence of IT, CT, and the Internet of Things (IoT).
A charter for global technical harmony
What is the purpose of 3GPP? In essence, 3GPP (The 3rd Generation Partnership Project) “unites telecommunications standard development organizations and provides their members with a stable environment to produce reports and specifications that define 3GPP technologies.” Today, 3GPP has “seven Organizational Partners” (ARIB, ATIS, ETSI, TSDSI, TTA and TTC). These Organizational Partners represent the global community of bodies that set the technology standards for mobile wireless communications in regions and nations around the world.
|ARIB||The Association of Radio Industries and Businesses, Japan|
|ATIS||The Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, USA|
|CCSA||China Communications Standards Association|
|ETSI||The European Telecommunications Standards Institute|
|TSDSI||Telecommunications Standards Development Society, India|
|TTA||Telecommunications Technology Association, Korea|
|TTC||Telecommunication Technology Committee, Japan|
The charter of 3GPP is to evolve and globally advance mobile wireless technologies that consider and promote “global roaming and circulation of terminals”. 3GPP does not set technology standards. It is a common misconception that they do. The technical specifications and technical reports that are generated out of the 3GPP Working Groups (WG) are agreed upon and accepted by the Organizational Partners, which are standards setting organizations (SSOs). The accepted 3GPP work products then serve as the basis for the mobile wireless technology standards set by SSOs for their respective jurisdictions. This commitment is reflected in the agreement signed by Organizational Partners.
The mandate of 3GPP has evolved and has been amended over time in alignment with its support of each generation of ITU-R (international Telecommunications Union-Radio) requirements starting with IMT-2000 to the current IMT-2020 for mobile wireless networks, devices and services. In principle, the goal of 3GPP has remained the same; harmonize the evolution of cellular technology as much as possible on a global basis to foster the interoperability and universality of mobile communications. Unlike previous generations, 5G does not face competing standards bodies and solutions such as 3GPP2 with their Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB) and IEEE with their WiMAX during the “4G era”. This makes 5G an important inflection point in the evolution of mobile wireless technologies and standards; it is globally unifying.
Herding a thousand cats to boil an ocean
Mobile wireless technology is astonishingly complex. One can argue that the global industry ecosystem that invents the technologies, implements the standards and builds the networks is even more complex. How is 3GPP structured to manage these complexities and govern the participation and contributions of a diverse coalition of parties and interests?
Organizationally, 3GPP is structured in three tiers made up of the PCG (Project Co-Ordination Group), TSGs (Technical Specification Groups) and WGs (Working Groups). The high-level organizational structure is presented below:
The PCG is the main steering body of 3GPP. It is comprised of representatives from Organizational Partners, market presentation partners, ITU reps and observers. The PCG’s primary directive is to provide the aforementioned “stable environment” for technical specifications and report to be produced that will define each generation of 3GPP technologies that are in play, currently 4G LTE and 5G.
The PCG is headed by a chairman and up to three vice-chairmen who are appointed from among representatives of Organizational Partners and serve one-year terms. Their responsibilities including determining the general policy and strategy of 3GPP and overseeing the scope and procedure of governance.
Underneath the PCG there are three TSGs aligned with the key aspects of a mobile wireless system: the radio access network (RAN), core network and terminals (CT) and service & system aspects (SA). The TSGs assigns and oversees the agenda and proceedings of Working Groups that they commission. WGs are delegated technical work items and develop specification in their assigned technology domains under the purview of a TSG.
While TSGs invite broad participation and contribution, governance is a different story. Each of the TSGs is steered by a chairman and up to three vice-chairs elected from among the Individual Members (IMs) who are members of participating Organizational Partners and are typically technology companies such as Qualcomm, Huawei, Ericsson, and Interdigital as well as operators such as AT&T, China Mobile and BT. A TSG chairman is responsible for the managing the technical work within the TSG, administering procedural matters and work items, as well as coordinating resources and schedules to progress work.
There are fifteen Working Groups that have been commissioned under the three TSGs. The WGs develop the technical specifications and the technical reports. Participants of the Working Groups comprised of representatives from the over 700 companies that are members of 3GPP, in particular Individual Members, contribute requirements, technologies and solutions that constitute 5G specifications across the fifteen WGs. Market Representative Partners, who are invited by Organizational Partners to provide consensus views on market requirements, are permitted to participate and provide advice to a WG or even a TSG plenary.
The governance roles of WGs are similar to a TSG with the exception that instead of a maximum of three vice-chairs allowed for TSGs, WGs are limited to two vice-chairs. As with the TSG, Individual Members are permitted to nominate candidates for chair and vice-chair positions.
So, what does all of this mean? 3GPP is organizationally designed and structured to channel invention and innovation through the common purpose of establishing a global standard for mobile wireless network technologies.
Impartial governance through consensus
How has 3GPP managed to develop and maintain a global coalition to converge mobile wireless technology to a common global standard? It starts with the aforementioned charter and is instituted by its governance model. However, the thing that sticks out the most about its governing ethos is consensus. It is an important if not essential principle that defines 3GPP’s governing style.
Consensus also characterizes the collective mission of the 3GPP and its members to get the unavoidable competitive dynamics and divergent interests among members moderated through collaborative processes. The ongoing aspiration of 3GPP’s governance philosophy is to elevate technical merit in shaping globally accepted technical specifications that consequently standardize the mobile wireless technologies implemented across regions and countries.
The goal of arriving at consensus is prevalent across the slate of decision-making that occurs across 3GPP governance processes such as the acceptance review of a technical specification or report submitted by a Working Group. If consensus cannot be met, voting procedures are defined in Article 25 of the 3GPP Working Procedures that allow items to be moved forward with a 71 percent affirmative vote of a quorum of members of a governing body, typically 30 percent of the Individual Member electorate.
In many ways, the consensus-oriented approach serves as the glue that keeps a diverse and global membership of standards organizations, advisory groups and private enterprises engaged and committed to the 3GPP objectives and purpose. It forces members participating in groups to arrive at common ground through negotiation and compromise. Through joint development and debate, the hope is that technical merit consistently prevails through the process.
Another aspect of the 3GPP governing documents that garners impartiality is the mandate of the steering body of a 3GPP group whether it is the PCG, a TSG or a WG. Every chair and vice-chair is required to comply with antitrust and competition laws and regulations. Individuals taking on these leadership roles are committed to putting the common interests of 3GPP first in all matters and conducting all agendas and proceedings under their charge with impartiality.
In reality, maintaining impartiality and focus on common good can be a challenge given the diverse regional, country and corporate interests that are represented by the 3GPP membership. 3GPP has an extensive governance process for dealing with officers and members who fail to perform their duties. Chairs and vice-chairs can be dismissed upon the request of only 30% of the TSG or WG membership list with a 71% vote to dismiss. This measure dissuades aberrant and unconstructive behaviors and agendas.
Keeping it together during tumultuous times
3GPP’s governance model has had a tremendous influence on bringing about the global standardization of mobile wireless technologies. However, it is important to understand that 3GPP persists as a global truce across the mobile wireless industry, ecosystem, regions and nations and represents a commitment to the common good that can be undone. Its relevance and persistence are not givens. 3GPP can technically be dissolved.
The heightened geopolitical tensions between the US and China and growing contention regarding 5G leadership as it relates to economic competitiveness and national security have put a spotlight on TSG RAN matters. Furthermore, the fast-accelerating open RAN movement, which seeks to diversify the vendor landscape and alleviate US concerns regarding 5G technology leadership and supply chain has intensified interest in the evolution of the radio access network technologies and standards.
The newly elected chairman of the RAN TSG plenary, Dr. Wanshi Chen who hails from Qualcomm/ATIS, and the three newly elected vice-chairmen will be leading and managing important work over the next two years during which we can expect to see significant progress in the evolution of the 5G RAN. This steering group will be overseeing the development of Release 17 and Release 18 specifications for RAN which will introduce a litany of advanced capabilities that will expand the scope of 5G across a broader range of industry use case.
As the gravity of 5G increases and interest diverge due to a challenging global geopolitical climate, those elected to lead the PCG, TSGs and WG will need to appreciate the art of consensus that has been the lynchpin of 3GPP’s success. Impartial governance and the embracing of technical merit will be more important than ever in keeping the global technology standards that wirelessly connect the world intact and universal.