Many questions abound when we discuss the potential impact of the latest ‘G’. What might widespread adoption of 6G look like, and how might it impact other technologies we currently use? Will it benefit society? Why is it better than 5G? And most importantly, who will be brave enough to lead the way and develop 6G use cases?
Really, it feels too early to talk about 6G outside of technical standards bodies. In many markets, 5G network rollout began four or five years ago. But telcos are still struggling to adapt their consumer centric business models in a way that will deliver the return-on-investment operators need to justify their multi-billion-dollar infrastructure spend. Research from South Korea shows average revenue per user (ARPU) for 5G in consumer markets was lower than for 4G, only 12 months after 5G’s launch.
The reality is, ROI won’t come from mass consumer markets. 5G is for B2B. Both because of demand for new advanced technologies to drive digital transformation but also a preference among corporate CIO’s to work with well-established and well-capitalized organizations. However, this potential is yet to be unleashed, and why would you move on to another ‘G’ when the fundamentals for the previous generation are still unsolved?
Paving the way for 6G
We know with 5G that there must be a paradigm shift in focus, not just from mass consumer markets to business, but also in how innovation works within telecoms. With the previous ‘G’, innovation was very much driven from the technology side of the house. To some extent with 4G but definitely with 5G, technology innovation must be matched by business innovation. Having the most novel new technology won’t work until telcos can decipher how to sell the new ‘G’ and the new business models required. The current transition from Telco to Techco is an important part of this business model innovation, but if 5G is an economic write off, then there is no path to 6G. Build it and they will come never looked like a sensible strategy for 5G given the $trillions invested.
The real problem goes back to the business model of network equipment providers like Nokia and Ericsson. Rather than making each ‘G’ a service-based SaaS they have historically sold equipment. This means the equipment vendors are incredibly reliant on selling each new ‘G’ of equipment otherwise they have no revenue with a long drought between each generation. Vendors are driving much of the current 6G hype, with many predicting it’ll be launched by the end of the decade. In general, and especially in Europe, telcos are not as enthusiastic, so it could go into the early-mid 2030s. With 5G, the industry learned that simply launching a ‘G’ isn’t enough and that business innovation will be the secret to 5G monetization, and it will need to extend to every area of the business model.
Will 6G live up to the hype?
Past generations of wireless profoundly changed how we interact and communicate as consumers, but 6G is predicted to transform how devices and networks themselves communicate with each other – creating seamless connectivity between the internet and everyday life. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have even recently suggested that using humans as antennas to power 6G may be the most viable way to harvest additional energy that would otherwise get wasted, making this the most sustainable ‘G’ yet!
6G is estimated to be 100 times faster than 5G. We can’t necessarily picture what widespread 6G will look like until 5G has been rolled out nation-wide but can expect it to mean faster, more advanced networks which improve the characteristics and use cases of its predecessor.
6G will be characterized by its ability to support truly immersive extended reality and AI capabilities, to potentially blend the virtual and physical worlds together. Think holograms and digital replica’s – users will be able to attend meetings in virtual forms, interacting with each other in a new space in real-time. AI and holograms are major consumers of compute with hyper-speed networks being critical to relaying data and results.
With a keen eye on AI, 6G has the ability to redefine how a business operates. Verticals such as manufacturing, automotive and healthcare will surely be early adopters, benefiting from its improved sophistication and the ability to use augmented virtual worlds as test beds for growing technologies.
What is the need for 6G?
In all the development of 3G through to 5G, wireless was mostly seen as completely disconnected from fixed networks. With 6G, for the first time in 3 generations, we see a growing realization that the need is there for a technology as well as business architecture that works on optical as well as fiber networks – especially by the founding members of IOWN Global Forum, such as NTT, Intel, Sony and Orange.
6G will also bring more flexibility. It’ll be able to create networks that can be adapted and changed to meet new emerging applications. It will also thrive as the topology of the network changes, with its enhanced speeds and lower latencies working together with distributed cloud architectures to bring data processing and analytics closer to where the information is collected, to deliver actionable insight in real-time. Those real-time capabilities will see 6G enhance use cases like AI and immersive reality technology, even further.
In Asia, many operators are partnering to define and develop key technologies and Proof of Concepts to facilitate the emergence of 6G. For example, Japan’s NTT DoCoMo has recently expanded its 6G experimental trials and has established two new partnerships with Ericsson and Keysight. But for the majority of the industry, the question should not be whether 6G is technically possible, but more when the business side of the operator is able to commensurately innovate with the technology to find new ways to monetize based on real customer needs.
Are CSPs brave enough to claim the 6G throne?
CSPs are still very focused on 5G ROI as they accelerate plans to address B2B growth through solutions marketplaces and partner ecosystems. In 2023, CSPs will define 5G use cases in multiple industries but will have to move away from experimentations with limited customers in niche markets to achieve the scale needed to monetize 5G.
In 2023, CSPs will finally take a real stand on how they work with partners and develop solutions around the business needs of enterprises and SMBs. But with every passing year comes a new technological horizon to chase. And CSPs will be on their marks as the 6G race heats up. There is major potential here as the high bandwidth and low latency of 6G can help speed up system responses, enabling faster transactions and improved experiences that could be vital in near real-time applications.
There is also a school of thought that disaggregation and openness are the building blocks for future networks, including 6G. While operators used traditional RAN to roll out 5G, the next natural move may find 6G becoming the enabler for Open-RAN capabilities. Meaning that 6G will offer a complete disaggregated approach to deploying mobile networks built on cloud native principles.
Breaking vendor lock-in and the demand for more openness amongst CSPs also naturally paves the way for 6G. European telcos are trying to position themselves at the forefront of 6G, but will they see success? This will depend upon whether Europe is ready for the rapid innovation that the US and Asia are famous for. The Japanese and UK governments recently agreed to share information and facilitate joint efforts between industry and academia in both countries to develop future communications technologies such as 6G. It will be fascinating to see how that pans out and who in 2023 will be claiming the 6G throne.