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."
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