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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Sterling Perrin 11/21/2017 | 2:26:04 PM
Re: You Have Reached Your Destination Joe, true - when we on the wireline side pick a new G" we are all in. Though the 40G fiasco was a bit ".5G-like" in many ways.
mendyk 11/21/2017 | 2:11:11 PM
Re: You Have Reached Your Destination Doesn't it seem that at least some of the early promise of 5G has been put aside in the rush to get something out? I'm thinking about true next-gen things like tactile Internet. 5G seems to have reverted mainly to a bandwidth upgrade role. Besides, we'll probably have to get to at least 8G before teleporting becomes a reality.
Joe Stanganelli 11/21/2017 | 2:09:32 PM
Re: Let the 6G Games Begin @jhodgesk1s: The hyperloop coverage is probably more critical considering the state of LA's transportation infrastructure.

And, considering what I've witnessed myself in Boston and the Big Dig, probably less likely.
Joe Stanganelli 11/21/2017 | 2:07:37 PM
Re: You Have Reached Your Destination @Sterling: Moreover, you don't have to read a lot of marketing and PR blather about "400.5G". ;)
jhodgesk1s 11/21/2017 | 1:34:02 PM
Let the 6G Games Begin I expect there will be 6G test coverage at the 2028 Olympics in LA.

Let's hope they have hyperloop coverage.
iainmorris 11/21/2017 | 1:10:49 PM
Re: You Have Reached Your Destination As a Brit I feel I appreciate sarcasm as much as anyone and he seemed as serious as it gets to me. But there is always the possibility he was taking deadpan Scottish humor to an entirely new level.

He is not the first to have suggested there might be no 6G (http://www.silicon.co.uk/networks/broadband/5gic-director-5g-revolutionary-will-no-6g-176895?inf_by=5970ca68671db81c7d8b476a) - but it's the first time I've heard it said recently, and by a major telco.
mendyk 11/21/2017 | 12:46:55 PM
Re: You Have Reached Your Destination I'm guessing Mr. McRae was having a little fun and was taken a bit too seriously. It's hard to imagine anyone believing that we'll have reached the end goal by 2025. Unless we never get to 2026.
Sterling Perrin 11/21/2017 | 12:37:35 PM
Re: You Have Reached Your Destination As I used to explain to our erstwhile Chief Analyst Patrick Donegan, wireline will always be way ahead of wireless technologically - in optics we are already working on 400G!

mendyk 11/21/2017 | 12:23:28 PM
You Have Reached Your Destination By the time 2050 rolls around, 9G will be just around the corner.
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