Amid lengthy discussions about spectrum, circuit designs and cloud-network architectures, several speakers at an online event this week suggested that 6G could bring a return to metered pricing. Nokia and NYU Wireless hosted the event, which focused on 6G and environmental sustainability.
It's still very early days in the development of the next G. 5G deployment is still getting underway, and the 6G standard isn't even on the drawing board yet. That means commercial 6G networks aren't expected until 2028 at the earliest.
Nonetheless, this week's event gathered academic and technological experts to try to figure out what the next decade of technological evolution might look like. As they looked at trend lines for data consumption, networking designs and telecom climate impacts, some floated the idea that 6G network operators might want to consider returning to a pricing structure last seen in the 3G era: usage-based pricing.
"We need to start charging for usage again," said Kimberley Trommler, head of Thinknet 6G, during her keynote address. She explained that a return to usage-based pricing could help address skyrocketing data traffic and the ever-growing energy demands from cellular networks, devices and services.
Trommler wasn't alone. Although AT&T's Ralf Bendlin didn't directly support usage-based pricing, he did say that it might be helpful to inform users about how much data they are consuming. Bendlin, from the operator's labs in Austin, Texas, pointed to research showing that some people take shorter showers if they know how much water they're consuming. "Just knowing how much you consume can change your behavior," he said.
At issue are concerns over whether wireless networks will be able to keep pace with dramatic increases in demand for data, a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. 5G technology has certainly helped address this in the cellular world by opening up networks to a wide range of new spectrum bands. Such bands have allowed network operators to radically increase their available network capacity. However, speakers at this week's 6G event suggested that it's possible that usage will only continue to rise, forcing the industry to consider new measures that go beyond technological solutions for things like network topology and spectrum management.
Addressing climate change
Sustainability is another reason to consider a return to usage-based pricing. Gas, water and electricity are all sold by the unit, which is an important way to prevent excessive engagement in climate-damaging activities like driving and lawn watering, according to speakers at the event.
If network operators were to implement usage-based billing in 6G, that would undoubtedly slow data consumption, therefore reducing the overall energy demands from the telecommunications sector. This, speakers agreed, could help ease concerns that the climate will be profoundly impacted by technology.
To be fair, the telecommunications industry is showing more interest in addressing climate change. For example, companies like AT&T and Verizon are working to move their operations onto sustainable sources of energy. At the same time, they're also planning their network designs to account for the effects of climate change.
But a return to usage-based pricing would certainly be a surprise to most everyday users. The data in early 3G networks was carefully doled out based on how much customers used their phones. It wasn't until 4G technology matured that operators around the world started moving to flat-rate pricing.
Further, those initial plans were often curtailed by billing caveats and other limits. Only in the past few years have 5G operators like T-Mobile and AT&T introduced billing plans that truly have no limits (at least in terms of how much data is consumed on a user's smartphone).
There's no way of knowing what will really happen six years from now, when the first 6G networks come online. But the idea that usage-based billing might be back on the table is a compelling one – and it's an idea that could remain a talking point in the industry in the years between now and the next decade.
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