No 6G, please, we're British Telecom
Seven or eight years from now, Europe's telecom operators can look forward to another expensive upgrade of their mobile networks, including the usual splurge on new spectrum – for 2030 is when Ericsson, the region's largest 5G vendor, reckons it will expose 6G commercially for the first time. Parts of the telco sector are reacting to this scenario with the same horror displayed by the young couple in No Sex Please, We're British, a 1970s play, when a batch of Scandinavian porn turns up instead of the glassware they ordered. For many operators still spending billions on 5G rollout without seeing any meaningful improvement in sales, a 6G overhaul would be a similar shocker.
The latest pushback comes from UK telecom incumbent BT, which has never sounded very enthusiastic about 6G. As far back as 2017, Neil McRae, its soon-to-depart chief architect, expressed hope at a Huawei conference that 5G's brilliance might obviate the need for 6G. Some of his views have not changed radically since then, while Howard Watson, BT's chief technology officer, was this year rejoicing that 6G could feature the same radio standard as 5G – implying there will be less effort involved.
Of course, no one really knows what 6G will be at this stage. But Maria Cuevas, BT's networks research director, does not want a big batch of new hardware turning up with the order. "Hopefully not, and that is the message we are sending out to the industry," she told Light Reading at BT's Adastral Park research facility last week when asked if 6G would mean installing lots of new radios. Earlier that day, she had questioned the need for 6G in front of executives gathered for a robotics event. "We don't know when or if or what," she said.
Ideally, Cuevas would like future upgrades to be more "software-driven" than previous ones have been, taking advantage of concepts like virtualization – the separation of hardware and software into distinct but compatible realms. If an operator could slap anyone's 6G software on any general-purpose hardware, it might be able to avoid installing new equipment as often and manage resources more efficiently. "It is one of the things that should help us to roll out features in a much more seamless and cost-effective way, rather than having to go and buy a new box or deploy a new piece of equipment," said Cuevas.
One radio system to rule them all
Virtualization, however, has not gone very far in today's radio access networks (RANs), 5G ones included. Technical barriers remain and the economic case for it is not straightforward. Regardless of virtualization, equipment may need to be replaced every few years because of ordinary wear and tear. And more sophisticated software might demand cutting-edge componentry. What's crucial for Cuevas is that any spending on 6G equipment – if it happens – does not leave BT with additional boxes.
"If you look at what we have done up to now, it is deploying a new generation and keeping all the other ones and that is not that cost-effective, and I think a lot of the radio towers are going to bend over at some point," she said, only half-jokingly. "From an energy-efficiency perspective, it is really a terrible story to have to maintain all your old equipment, and we are looking very seriously at getting rid of legacy in many different aspects of our network."
The potential answer, from Cuevas' perspective, would be 6G support for older radio systems still being used in the 2030s. Single RAN products already exist that allow multiple generations to be handled by one platform, but the various remarks by Cuevas hint at a more comprehensive solution with virtualization in the mix.
"If I have to go and deploy a 6G radio system, I would like it to be backwards-compatible so that all the people out there with 5G and 4G phones can actually use a new system and I can get rid of my old systems," she said. "Whatever mechanisms we use to make that happen, we really need to be thinking about all angles and not just getting new equipment from vendors."
Determined to phase out older fixed-line and mobile technologies as part of its cost-cutting drive, BT has already managed to reduce energy consumption in recent years, despite an explosion of data traffic on its networks. Its annual reports show that gigawatt hours, a measure of energy use, fell from 2,880 in 2016 to 2,529 last year. As energy costs rise, energy efficiency has become more important than ever.
Before 6G, there was 5G Advanced
Before 6G, BT can anticipate investment in more advanced versions of 5G. Next up is standalone, the variant that brings a 5G core, which BT expects to launch next year. The subsequent industry milestone is probably Release 18. "We are not going to flip a switch and have Release 18 in the network," said Cuevas. "What we are going to have is one feature or another depending on when we need it."
Right now, the one that excites her the most is high accuracy positioning, which would allow operators to pinpoint the location of specific connected objects, even indoors. "I think indoor positioning – specifically for things like robotics or manufacturing in places where you have a warehouse but not the luxury of GPS indoors – can actually make a big difference to what we can offer," said Cuevas.
She evidently regards 6G through this same prism of software-upgradeability rather than as an entirely new technology. "We are pushing very strongly for 6G or 5G Advanced to be a seamless evolution of the technology," she told attendees at the robotics event. "We continue to enhance what we have, but they are not massive step changes so that I don't have to do a full replacement cycle."
It is probably not what Ericsson has in mind.
- 6G poses existential threat to Ericsson
- 6G spectrum: A game of centimeters
- 6G advocates mash up a metaverse-centric sales pitch
- World regulators look for consensus around 6G
- 6G has every chance of screwing the carriers
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading