When Will 6G Arrive? Hopefully Never, Says BT's McRae

If there is one thing the telecom industry has been able to count on, it's that every few years a new generation of mobile technology is unleashed on the market. But what if this all comes to an abrupt end with 5G, the standard that some operators expect to begin rolling out commercially in 2019?

Neil McRae, the chief network architect of UK telecom incumbent BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA), has suggested it might. "I want 5G to be the best G ever," he said during the Global Mobile Broadband Forum hosted by Chinese equipment giant Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. in London last week. "Hopefully we won't need 6G."

Don't Even Get Me Started on 6G
BT's Neil McRae talking with Light Reading's Liz Coyne in Austin earlier this year.
BT's Neil McRae talking with Light Reading's Liz Coyne in Austin earlier this year.

There are good reasons to think 6G will never happen. From an end-user perspective, a network that pipes either voice calls or data traffic to a device can get better only in so many ways. In an important respect, 3G was the most revolutionary G, because it brought mobile Internet connectivity to many customers for the first time (just not very well). All 4G did, essentially, was to improve that experience. On the radio side, 5G is simply going a step further, boosting megabits per second and cutting latency. Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) has even called it an "evolutionary" technology. (See DT Is Not Going Radio Gaga About 5G and Let's Talk About 5G Efficiency, Not Wacky Services.)

No doubt, networks will continue to need strengthening as new and more bandwidth-hungry services take shape. But vendors can make the necessary improvements without defining an entirely new generation. Indeed, they already are. Today's LTE-Advanced-Pro (4.5G) networks can support gigabit-speed connectivity, their operators claim, making them way zippier than standard 4G was just a few years ago. That growing capability has even prompted criticism of 5G as a solution in search of a problem.

Ah, but 5G is about so much more than just a new radio, its supporters would say. It can, in fact, be seen as an umbrella term for a collection of technologies that will radically change the entire network, making today's telcos look a lot more like cloud companies, such as Facebook and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), if all goes to plan.

"SDN, telemetry, analytics, AI [artificial intelligence] and white box hardware are key in future networks," said McRae at last week's Huawei event, in summing up what 5G transformation entails for BT. "5G will have to be the most automated platform we have ever had, or managing billions of devices is not going to work."

If 5G really does prove to be this revolutionary, telcos are even unlikelier to be thinking about a 6G standard ten years from now. But the prospect of "no 6G" may be an unsettling one for the equipment community, which has come to rely on successive waves of telco investment in next-generation technologies. That worry is only exacerbated by the shift in value from hardware to software, and the growing adoption of open source technologies in telco networks. Even now, there is concern that operators will spend less on 5G than they did on 4G, as their networks become more software-based. And skepticism that 5G will boost service revenues means few telcos may be in a hurry to roll it out.

Next page: 6G scenario planning

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KBode 11/27/2017 | 7:25:50 PM
Re: You Have Reached Your Destination And then I remember when the ITU buckled to marketing departments and let them basically declare everything short of cans and string "3G." So yeah, these terms become even more meaningless as  they age.
danielcawrey 11/24/2017 | 5:06:52 PM
Re: You Have Reached Your Destination These things are just buzzwords anyway. Yes, 5G may become the penultmate, but marketers need to give consumers and businesses a reason to upgrade. That's why they come up with these terms. That's why there probably be a 6G even if no one in telcom even wants it. 
Phil_Britt 11/24/2017 | 11:04:30 AM
Re: You Have Reached Your Destination The rush is constant...I wrote about the coming of 3G for many years (we were in 2.5 G for a looong time) before it became a reality.
NeilMcRae 11/23/2017 | 1:27:09 PM
Re: BT SDN and White box hardware.... We have both live in the network today! So not sure why you say that!
NeilMcRae 11/23/2017 | 1:17:31 PM
Evolution Wow this is exciting! To clarify my point about 6G - I think we put the industry under unnecessary pressure when it comes to a new “G” . Why can’t we evolve and enhance technology constantly (which actually we do (see 4GPro for example! Or NB-IoT)). Of course the customer will drive what we do but right now I feel we haven’t helped our customers understand what 5G could mean for them so well and that means it may take a lot longer to reap the benefits.
KBode 11/22/2017 | 7:47:46 PM
Gack... Too fast! I've barely had time to digest the entirely unsunstantiated hype surrounding 4G and 5G yet. 
Registerreporter 11/22/2017 | 3:32:36 AM
BT SDN and White box hardware.... All very insightful but BT need to GET SDN and move to using White box hardware. Mentioning it in press and having it are not the same....
mendyk 11/21/2017 | 5:15:37 PM
Re: BT doesn't determine when 6G arrives In BT's case, maybe delusions of empire die hard. But don't forget that Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom also seem to be bearish on 5G.
TV Monitor 11/21/2017 | 4:36:11 PM
BT doesn't determine when 6G arrives The power to decide the 6G launch date doesn't rest with BT; it rests with the government officials of China or Korea. When they decide that it is time to launch 6G, then the rest of world follows, or be left behind.

5G is commerically launching in 2019 because that's what the Korean government officials have decided as the launch date of 5G, and the same will be true of 6G.
DanJones 11/21/2017 | 4:06:25 PM
4G was all-IP That was a pretty crucial difference in how networks were designed and voice services delivered compared to 3G. Many carriers have taken advantage of that (VoLTE, RTC etc), a few have not.
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