GCF certification simplifies technology evolution for mobile network operators and service providers

  • 30 Nov 2023
  • Lars Nielsen

By Lars Nielsen, CEO & General Manager, Global Certification Forum (GCF)


When you look at the fundamentals, mobile communications are all about interoperability. There’s no point in having the latest technology unless you can be confident that you can call or text with your smartphone to everyone else, that your data connection will allow you to request a shared ride when you arrive in a new city or country, or that your connected car will be able to show you the route and traffic information when driving to your destination. Equally important, B2B customers need to be sure their systems always have reliable connectivity, for processing orders in retail, keeping an industrial production line running, or tracking shipments and goods.

For mobile network operators and communication service providers, this means they need an almost obsessive focus on ensuring that every device will connect in a reliable way, not just on their network, but also on visited ones. For consumers and businesses, this is hugely important – if their devices have problems connecting, nothing else really matters.

In a world with open standards, there is no way that any one operator could handle the immense task of testing every single combination of hardware and software in use, for every device they connect and every network element that allows these connections. The complexity and cost of this testing increase quickly as the number of technologies and functions grows, and operators would also need to consider interoperability with the networks of all their roaming and network sharing partners. Instead, the telecoms industry has developed international standards that everyone can agree to follow. And to verify compliance with these standards, the Global Certification Forum (GCF) has developed a global device certification programme, that helps to ensure that devices are interoperable with networks.

GCF certification has been helping operators deploy new mobile technologies since 1999. From GSM to 5G, all generations of mobile wireless communication have been supported by GCF. And from the most simple IoT communication module to the most complex Fixed Wireless Access equipment supporting mmWave bands, and from basic voice phones to the most advanced smartphones supporting tens of different bands and radio access technologies, all types of devices have been certified to the latest versions of the GCF certification programme.

In this article, we’ll look at how GCF handles the evolution of mobile technologies, and how it can help operators and service providers keep up with the latest changes.

Certification demonstrates interoperability

GCF started out with the participation of six operators. Since then, the number has grown to reach more than 120 operators in five continents. GCF has a total of more than 350 member organisations, which also includes more than 170 device manufacturers, as well as test industry companies and other partners.

Each year, GCF certifies more than 600 new devices. By achieving GCF certification, device manufacturers can demonstrate to network operators that their new products are fully compliant with the relevant specifications. This gives the operators confidence to roll these devices out to their customers, and to build new services and use cases on the latest products.

GCF’s certification program means that testing costs are reduced, as unnecessary duplication is avoided – once a device has been tested once, it doesn’t need re-testing by each mobile operator. This reduces internal testing costs for operators by up to 80%, and also accelerates time to market. GCF’s online certification database lists thousands of GCF-certified products from more than one hundred manufacturers. Detailed information on all specific tests undertaken on a particular device is accessible to operator members via the members’ area of the site, with API-based integration available – this is one of the key benefits enjoyed by GCF operator members, enabling them to efficiently evaluate new devices on the market. Information on all certifications published in the last year is also posted to the public area of the GCF website. The public listing includes only basic information on the device certified, such as the frequency bands it supports.

Technology evolution

GCF works closely with its members and partners, including standards bodies, network operators, industry associations, device manufacturers and test industries to evolve its certification programs to the latest, constantly evolving, wireless communication standards and technologies. This removes the burden from operators of identifying and researching applicable standards, relevant test cases and validated test equipment, working out how to execute the test plans, and keeping the test specifications up to date with the latest releases.

As you might imagine, things get complicated as the number of technologies and frequency bands grows. All the relevant information is stored in GCF’s Device Certification Criteria (DCC) database, which has successfully managed increasing complexity from GSM through to 5G. The DCC database is subject to updates on a daily basis, with major changes to the GCF certification criteria managed via quarterly meetings. Today, there are over 1000 frequency band configurations considered in GCF Certification, mostly 4G and 5G, and more are expected in the future.

The DCC database contains more than 8,400 validated test cases packaged into more than 1,900 work items. A work item consists of a set of specific test cases that could be band independent or applied to a specific frequency band configuration, and each test case must be validated to be accepted as a GCF certification criterion.

The database has been developed and evolved over the years by experts from GCF member companies. In the last 12 months, GCF has processed more than 50.000 validation reports of test cases to cover different test equipment and bands with device reference implementations provided by manufacturers.

Processes for introducing new technology and work items

GCF has a mature process for the introduction of new standard technologies for wireless communications following the standardisation work from SDOs (Standard Definition Organisations).

New frequency bands or frequency band combinations need to be requested as new work items. This means that they must be proposed by a GCF member, either a manufacturer, mobile network operator or mission critical operator. Work items must be based on the bands being approved at 3GPP, must be supported by at least four GCF members and must also be approved at a GCF Steering Group meeting.

Figure 1 shows this process in more detail, and how an approved work item is created and validated in response to an industry need. The process is rigorous and transparent and provides opportunities for operators and service providers to include their current or future requirements and participate in the evolution of the industry by helping to shape the adoption of new technologies.

Work Item introduction process (A).png

Figure 1: Work item introduction process

GCF’s band coverage reaches most bands that are included in 3GPP specifications and are ready to support regional or operator-specific requirements for specific bands or band combinations.

As of November 2023, GCF certification is active for:

  • 27 LTE bands (FDD and TDD), including one band for C-V2X
  • 16 5G bands in sub-6 GHz (FR1), of which 9 are also active for 5G NR Light (RedCap)
  • 4 5G bands in mmWave (FR2)
  • 12 eMTC (LTE-Cat M) bands (FDD and TDD)
  • 12 NB-IoT bands
  • All legacy WCDMA (3G) and GERAN (2G/GSM) bands.

GCF is actively working on the activation of additional 12 bands (4 in LTE, 3 in LTE-M, 3 in NB-IoT and 2 in NTN NB-IoT) 

In addition to standalone bands, GCF certification covers more than 250 frequency band combinations, including LTE and 5G bands in carrier aggregation and DC scenarios, and is working on the activation of additional combinations.       

As LTE and 5G network deployments evolve, operators can introduce new 3GPP frequency band and carrier aggregation combination requirements to GCF Certification.

Beyond traditional mobile network operators

As well as traditional mobile network operators (MNOs), GCF supports other types of service providers that may or may not own the networks used to deploy their services. This includes private network operators, mission-critical operators such as government agencies, and utility-oriented networks. Specifically, MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) were added to GCF in 2017 and can benefit from GCF membership in the same way as conventional operators.

There are strong collaborations being set up between traditional terrestrial network operators and satellite oriented, non-terrestrial network (NTN) operators. For NTN operators, GCF is developing a certification program for devices supporting NTN NB-IoT and 5G NR communication over satellite networks. Satellite operators focused on 3GPP-standards based wireless communications started to join GCF in 2023. Initially, this was with operators of LEO (low earth orbit) satellite constellations offering NTN NB-IoT connectivity from space, and it is expected to evolve to support operators based on geostationary satellites (GEO).

The collaboration between GCF and satellite operators will speed up the market availability of certified 3GPP NTN NB-IoT and NTN 5G NR chipsets and modules, targeting applications in sectors such as agriculture, transport, logistics and many more. For specialised verticals, GCF’s preferred approach has been to partner with industry organisations that are leaders in each space to introduce new certification programmes. In the case of mission critical services (MCS), GCF is partnering with TCCA to provide value to governments and institutions by ensuring 3GPP MCS products meet the requirements of the GCF MCS Certification Criteria.

GCF also manages certification programs for other technologies, including remote SIM provisioning for GSMA Consumer eSIM-capable devices (expected to evolve to the new GSMA IoT eSIM as well), and also for connected vehicles based on C-V2X technology, leveraging its partnership with the 5GAA association.


As we have discussed in this article, GCF’s operator members enjoy several key benefits:

- They have access to GCF’s online database of certified devices, giving them the information they need to verify interoperability, and helping to reduce their own testing costs.

- They get the opportunity to shape the mobile industry’s future, by taking part in workgroups and meetings that determine GCF’s certification criteria.

- They are able to keep up with the evolution of mobile technologies and frequency bands as new innovations, spectrum allocations and evolved standards are introduced in the industry.

Today, that original group of six operators has grown to more than 120 operators who are members of GCF, spread across five continents. And we expect this number to increase, with new members joining the organisation including satellite, mission critical and private network operators, as well as conventional MNOs and MVNOs – all working together to ensure interoperability and reliable service for users whatever their choice of technology.


Lars Nielsen

CEO and General Manager, GCF