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

Iain Morris
News Analysis
Iain Morris, International Editor

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

6G scenario planning
Two very broad scenarios seem possible. In the first, 5G fails to live up to its promise, much as 3G did in the first decade of the millennium. This is clearly a risk, acknowledged one senior telco executive at Huawei's event last week. "The question with 5G is whether it will be like 2G and 4G, or whether it will be like 3G, and we just don't know," said Johan Wibergh, the chief technology officer of UK-based Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD). (See Vodafone CTO: 5G Is Overhyped & It's Mainly About Cost.)

Should 5G disappoint, McRae is unlikely to get his wish. Just as 4G made up for 3G's shortcomings, a 6G standard would probably emerge as a 5G corrective. Judging by the chatter at industry events, telecom players are broadly satisfied with progress on the 5G new radio specifications, which are due to be frozen at the end of this year. But there is some anxiety about a lack of momentum in the 5G core network area. Moreover, there are regular complaints that vendors are not moving quickly enough to address interoperability challenges related to software and virtualization, or to develop the products that telcos really need. Unless this changes soon, 6G could become a blueprint for a more "cloudified" telco, using technologies such as containers and microservices to bolster efficiency.

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on
Light Reading.

If, on the other hand, 5G turns out to be a roaring success, then 6G may never happen, as McRae suggests. But that is by no means a certainty. And even if there is no 6G, networks will continue to change -- possibly beyond recognition. A true "zero touch" network that can operate with minimal human intervention is the endgame for operators such as Germany's Deutsche Telekom. Few would expect to see that kind of system in a production setting before 5G is well into its stride. (See DT: Brutal Automation Is Only Way to Succeed.)

Making any prediction about the future is a risky business. Even on the radio side, where technology improvements are now almost taken for granted, currently unimaginable services could eventually force operators to overhaul their 5G air interface systems. Ongoing research, such as the work taking place at the University of Bristol, might deliver the 6G radio connections those services need. (See If Anyone Mentions 6G to Me at MWC.)

In the meantime, AI is still in its infancy and now developing at a faster pace than anyone had previously thought possible. Its ultimate impact on networks, and on the people that build and operate them, will be more profound than anything in the current 5G standardization process.

Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading

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