opinion


What’s next for 5G? (and what is 6G?)

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It may still be the early days of 5G, with commercial services switched on only in a limited number of markets, but the industry is already looking further ahead. Through discussions with industry experts and academics as well as through our own research, the Telecoms.com Intelligence team has put together a briefing to explore the possible next steps for 5G, the shape the next generation mobile communication technologies might take, and what they would mean for industry stakeholders.

Here we are sharing the opening section of the briefing, the full version of which is available for free to download here.

Why it matters

5G finally went live in 2018 and the rollout of commercial networks has been accelerating since. By the beginning of July, commercial 5G services were being offered by nearly 20 operators in a dozen countries in North America, Asia Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East. Here is the (now likely incomplete) list:

  • North America: US (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint)
  • Asia Pacific: South Korea (SK Telecom, KT, LG Uplus)
  • Europe: Finland (Elisa), Estonia (Elisa Estonia), Switzerland (Sunrise, Swisscom), UK (EE, Vodafone), Italy (Vodafone Italia, TIM), Spain (Vodafone Spain), Germany (Deutsche Telekom), Romania (RCS&RDS, Vodafone Romania), Monaco (Monaco Telecom)
  • Middle East: UAE (Etisalat), Saudi Arabia (STC), Qatar (Ooredoo), Kuwait (Zain)

Running alongside the commercial rollout, 5G trials continue to be conducted in different markets, and spectrum is being auctioned by multiple authorities. Viewed as one of the strongest contributors to the 5G market worldwide, China, the country with the largest mobile subscriber base, has awarded four 5G licences, well ahead of what the market has expected.

At the same time, however, some in the industry cannot help but feeling underwhelmed by the 5G services on offer. Despite the promises of advanced use cases such as industrial IoT and driverless cars, all the commercial services currently have to offer is enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), meaning service providers have relied on fast internet access and high data speed as the key selling points. This has led purists to claim what we have now is not real 5G.

There are reasons for this discrepancy. All the commercial networks so far have been deployed in non-standalone (NSA) mode, for which the specifications have already been agreed and locked down by the 3GPP. This has helped accelerate the commercial rollout, but also limits what the networks can do. This is not all bad, as high-speed internet access is the easiest feature to communicate and the most accessible business case to consumers.

But launching 5G services in NSA mode, where the 5G radio access network connects with the 4G core platform, also limits the value proposition to industrial verticals: For example, NSA mode enables network slicing (a long-heralded feature of 5G) only in the core. However, an end-to-end standalone (SA) mode 5G network, comprising the RAN and next-generation 5G packet core capabilities, enables slicing in the RAN as well as the core, opening up more options and business cases for mobile operators.

Timing is the key factor, because work on the SA mode specifications is still ongoing.  Some operators, not wanting to go through the potential pain of migrating from NSA to SA mode 5G and wanting to launch with a broader range of new services beyond just enhanced mobile broadband, may choose to wait for technologies that are based on the SA mode specifications, which are due to be available from 2020. That set of specifications will include better support for Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC) and massive IoT services, though the specifications for Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC) for new radio (NR) will not be frozen until Release 17. The 3GPP schedule is still open though it is likely that R17 will be completed in the first half of 2021.

All this means that, in mid-2019, we are only seeing the very beginning of 5G, and there is still much to look forward to in the years to come, not only to unleash the full potential of the “real” 5G, but also for the communications industry to have a better grasp of what new value propositions it can create for the enterprise users in many verticals, even beyond what 5G can deliver. This leads some sections of the industry to already start thinking about “beyond 5G”, or more specifically, 6G.

The rest of the briefing includes sections on:

  • The current state of play
  • What is 6G, and who is doing what?
  • Next steps
  • An interview with Professor Ari Pouttu, University of Oulu, Finland

To access the full briefing please click here

To find out more about Telecoms.com Intelligence monthly briefings, including how to get involved and future topics, please click here.

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