Why NR-Light Is a Big Deal for 5G

When 5G was launched nearly three years ago, its central promise was the creation of a single wireless network capable of supporting many different industries and uses. It was designed from the outset to be flexible and scalable, providing support for enhanced mobile broadband, ultrareliable and low-latency connectivity and massive machine-type communications.

These three famed pillars have been used to describe the different personas of 5G networks, which remain largely segregated by capability, network service and hardware design. Although this segmented explanation served a purpose, it’s becoming somewhat limiting as 5G matures. A more evolved and nuanced version of 5G must be developed to move beyond this rigid framework and realize what’s possible when the lines between these three categories are blurred.

In 2019, with the launch of 3GPP Release 15, 5G unleashed a host of foundational technologies primarily geared toward faster connectivity and enhanced experiences; for example, scalable numerology, massive-MIMO and millimetre wavebands. 3GPP Release 16 then ushered in capabilities such as sidelink and mission-critical networking, addressing new markets from automotive to factories of the future. And as 5G continues to evolve, the recently completed 3GPP Release 17 introduces Reduced Capability (RedCap) NR, also known as NR-Light, a specification that’s being predicted to play a role in expanding new applications for Internet of things (IoT) devices including wearables, establishing more intelligent processing at the network edge and helping realize the full potential of 5G for IoT.

What’s 5G NR-Light?

NR-Light is a set of technologies that brings the benefits of enhanced 5G technologies to the realm of low-cost, less complex and battery-operated IoT devices and applications. Until now, IoT in 5G has been limited to existing technologies such as NB-IoT or LTE-M. These dated technologies rely on limited cellular bandwidth, which restricts the connectivity performance to the benefit of battery life.

However, as the industry moves into 5G with 3GPP Release 16 and 17, more usable frequencies are added to the technology standard. Coupled with improvements in silicon design, NR-Light sets out to eliminate this compromise between connectivity performance and power efficiency. It’s expected to pave the way for new types of device for emerging applications, like surveillance cameras powered by artificial intelligence and connected sensors for smart cities. Beyond automation applications, NR-Light has the potential of vastly improving capabilities of wearables, allowing for highly connected smartwatches and extended reality glasses with more features and capabilities than are possible now.

Right-Sizing Capability

Crucial to 5G NR-Light is its ability to adapt its capabilities for a specific use. Because machine-type communications rarely need top-end connectivity speeds or batteries, designers can appropriately size the computing and radio frequency (RF) capabilities of a device, and still make it more powerful than existing solutions for NB-IoT or LTE-M. Complexity and cost can be optimized to fit a specific business model, allowing for more attractive service offerings and leading to a new breed of enhanced machine-type communications.

This “right sizing” of NR-Light begins at the fundamental level of RF support. A cornerstone of the technology is its use of a subset of available spectral bandwidth, which requires only a fraction of typically available 5G frequencies — 20 MHz compared with 100 MHz for sub-6 GHz and 100 MHz for millimetre wave — for simpler, cheaper and less power-hungry RF designs. This means requirements for antenna diversity can be relaxed, with design options down to a single receive and transmit RF chain for low-cost, low-power applications.

Conversely, upper-end performance of dual-receive and dual-transmit chains with up to 256 QAM can also be achieved, suitable for a range of advanced applications. It’s also expected that NR-Light will offer benefits from the wider set of frequencies made possible with 5G, including millimetre-wave spectrum. These inherent flexibilities in the technology allow network and device engineers to create exciting new designs and uses for enhanced machine-type communications.

Impact of 5G NR-Light

With the standardization of 5G NR-Light, the industry could see new business opportunities open up in IoT devices and new markets — potentially equivalent with how 4G connectivity helped propel massive adoption of smartphones. The scalable capabilities of the technology could unlock value in industries including agriculture, healthcare, education, retail and smart cities. New innovations and applications are also likely to surface, catering to solutions enabled by cost-optimized NR-Light devices and services.

But there are still problems for NR-Light to overcome before arriving on the market. Mobile operators and device-makers will first need to adopt the 3GPP Release 17 standards in their 5G networks and hardware.

This means that early applications with NR-Light devices may only come to market by 2024 at the earliest. Until then, existing machine-type communications solutions will continue to widen their network presence in various sectors, which may create disincentives to upgrade to the new connectivity standard when it’s ready. For NR-Light to gain traction, truly attractive uses and business models must be established.

With that said, 5G remains a decades-long journey in network evolution. NR-Light intersecting with 3GPP Release 17 still affords the technology enough time to develop and build scale for wider adoption as 5G matures through the remainder of this decade and beyond.

Although similarly upbeat predictions were once used to describe IoT opportunities in 3G and 4G, the situation with 5G and NR-Light is strikingly different. The flexible nature of 5G networks appears to address the limitations of their predecessors. And with NR-Light, the ability to scale device complexity and cost should remove the old operating limitations of 3G and 4G.

The current state of 5G reflects only a fraction of its potential capability, value and market reach. To fully grasp the opportunities it presents, network technology must evolve to fit the needs of connected things, as well as connected users. The net effect of connecting billions of devices is an order of magnitude greater than that of connecting millions of people; therefore, NR-Light could well be the technology platform that helps the industry realize the full potential of 5G.

A version of this article was first published by FierceWireless on 15 September 2022.