March 15, 2023
One of the gripes frequently aired about 5G is that it's merely a souped-up version of 4G, as if the mobile networks industry was supposed to invent time travel or at least find a cure for cancer. The unimaginative marketers are largely to blame for this with their overpromotion of the Gs as something that should excite consumers. You can trace that back to 3G when the possibility of using a wireless gadget for proper Internet services and not just voice and text did actually sound exciting. Telcos blew their opportunity on the services side, surrendering it to the Internet companies, and that's where the real excitement has subsequently been.
It's all rather unfair on the network developers, who do a pretty amazing job of sating Generation Z's appetite for TikTok videos on the bus and then hear a lot of complaints that 5G is nothing new. But networks are a type of infrastructure, just like roads, railways and gas pipelines, and people sadly take infrastructure for granted, regardless of how good it is. They gush about the car, not the recently opened highway you can drive it on. The difference with the networks industry is that no builder of roads hired Kevin Bacon for a huge marketing push.
All this more or less guarantees that 6G will be a major disappointment, whatever it turns out to be, if the industry continues on the same path. After years of 5G gloom, execs do seem warier of talking up 6G, but the reticence is often because they're first hoping for a reversal of fortune with later-stage 5G, worryingly billed as 5.5G ahead of the inevitable Kevin Bacon commercials for the UK's BT. It doesn't exactly herald a strategic rethink.
Figure 1: 6G won't be a telco metaverse or brain-computer interface.
(Source: Kirill Ivanov / Alamy Stock Photo)
What's safe to assume is that 6G will be a network technology for transporting packets of data over the air, not a teleportation machine, telco metaverse or brain-computer interface of the kind used by Clint Eastwood to fly a Russian fighter plane in Firefox. It might be needed for some of the wackier stuff, including the bizarre "Internet of Senses" idea about transmitting smells and tastes over a network connection, but its boundaries are already well defined.
Rajesh Pankaj, the chief technology officer of InterDigital (which does 6G research, among other things), put it well on a recent Telecoms.com podcast. "How you transmit a sequence of bits from point a to point b is something that the wireless technology is going to worry about," he said. "What those bits mean will be defined by somebody else. You were talking about smell. Well, then, somebody has to convert the chemical signal into bits one way or the other. It's not a telecom task."
The telecom task is making sure networks can handle those bits. But it's unlikely anyone in 2032 will champion the network technology after a day of sniffing around the metaverse, just as people now don't praise 4G when they order an Uber or watch Netflix on the train. A different industry structure (fewer networks after consolidation, say, or the daft idea of Internet companies paying operators) might boost returns in the 6G era. But most ordinary people haven't significantly upped their spending with the rollout of 5G, and they won't be doing it for 6G, either.
It raises the possibility that operators will invest less in 6G than they did in 5G. When it comes to network performance, the natural assumption is that the next G will bring fatter and faster pipes and be less prone to lag. But Howard Watson, BT's chief security and networks officer, does not even expect 6G to be a new air interface, and coverage is so appalling over the high frequency ranges typically associated with 6G that customers need to be having an intimate relationship with the basestation mast for a signal.
Instead, Watson thinks 6G will be mainly about sensing – or, as he puts it, "the ability to detect passive IoT [Internet of Things] devices" – as well as artificial intelligence (AI) for network management. Neither would necessarily entail a multi-billion-dollar equipment upgrade, which Watson sounds eager to avoid several years after a multi-billion-dollar splurge on 5G.
Of course, networks eventually depreciate and need replacing, but they are more software-based than ever. Nokia's latest 5G software runs on cards that can be slotted into common-off-the-shelf servers, allowing customers to upgrade networks without swapping hardware as often as they previously did.
Operators might, however, change equipment so they can benefit from the latest energy-efficient technologies. Telefónica proudly notes that its annual energy consumption fell 7.2% between 2015 and 2022, despite a sevenfold increase in traffic. But this does not prove that newer technologies are far more efficient. It might simply mean a rise in traffic has minimal impact on energy use. Even if it doesn't, any hardware gains are probably subject to the law of diminishing returns. The use of AI to power down networks during quiet periods seems to hold greater promise.
Well hidden value
This situation is a real worry for an equipment vendor like Ericsson, which makes most of its money today by selling 5G network boxes. It needs customers to keep spending, and they will be less inclined to do that if their own sales are flat. Hence the latest efforts to generate value from hidden network features. The hope is that a company will pay for access to these features if the application it then develops can be used on numerous telco networks.
In other words, it's the old idea of a gaming company paying operators for lower latency, dusted off and given more of a software spin. But no standardized application programming interface (API) is going to compensate for a broken basestation or capacity crunch. And if basestations are pristine and capacity is abundant, why is an API needed at all? Watson is among telco executives unconvinced developers will pay.
Ahead of 6G, this would leave the mobile industry in the same position across both consumer- and business-facing markets – struggling to "monetize" 5G beyond the sale of basic connectivity. Telco sales growth is not contingent on customer demand for network features and Gs. But after countless telco failures at diversifying into entertainment, media, banking and other activities, those features and Gs must seem like the only things left. It is not a healthy place to be.
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading
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