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Brace for Impact: Big Changes Ahead on Road to 6G

This article is sponsored by 6G World

The coming decade is going to see a great deal of change. The telecoms industry will be no different. The companies that survive and thrive must start to steer their course today.

We are still in the early phases of 5G rollout, but what lies beyond today’s 5G captures a great deal of attention. To an extent this has always been the telecoms way, with fresh hype cycles starting as products come to market. However, there is much more involved in the development of Beyond-5G and 6G than in previous iterations of telecoms technology, and arguably even more at stake for participants throughout an ever-growing value chain. We cannot simply repeat the processes and the thinking that created 5G.

This article is a rapid jaunt through only some of the reasons why this is and why companies that want to be relevant by the end of the decade need to be preparing their responses now.

Beyond 5G for Enterprises

For many people, 5G offers some lessons of what not to do. As the first ‘enterprise-oriented’ generation of mobile technology, there is an argument that other industries weren’t involved early enough in the development of the technology and standards. The ambition of 5G to address enhanced mobile broadband, ultra-reliable low latency services and massive IoT in one go is praiseworthy, but its complexity has created a number of problems. Firstly, the complexity means that industries have a learning curve to implement 5G services. It is not the straightforward process of, for example, Wi-Fi. Because of this implementation challenge, small enterprises which make up the vast majority of all businesses are not in a position to take advantage of the properties of 5G.

Secondly, 5G itself is purely a technology. While this has been delivered, the wrapping around it to enable a platform for enterprise services has not arrived at the same time. The result of this is that a 5G implementation that is reflective of enterprise needs will involve other participants in the value chain, such as service developers, OSS vendors and systems integrators, who split the available revenues.

By contrast, if 6G is to at least fulfil the promises of 5G it will need to both be usable by enterprises of all sizes, which means making it easy to deploy, manage, and maintain. The complexity has to be hidden from end users.

Meanwhile the telecoms industry is sharply aware of the requirement for added security and trustworthiness if companies are to trust increasing quantities of mission critical data, activities, and services to not just 5G/6G itself but the edge computing, network slicing and other new capabilities that are coming online.

More than that, if cellular IoT is to thrive in enterprise environments it needs to consider new aspects, such as functional safety – keeping people free from harm even in the event of an attack – and resilience and recovery. There may be trade-offs to be made between security, privacy, safety and more which will differ depending on the context. Finally, having confidence in the data that is being collected, analysed and used by intelligent systems to deliver real-world outcomes enables people to be taken out of the loop. Data security thus becomes a fundamental element to a connected society and should become a competitive advantage in the coming decade, not a cost of doing business.

All of which will bring about a sea-change in how companies and government agencies think about these issues in the coming decade.

Beyond 5G for Governments

Meanwhile, in previous generations of mobile technology there was a push factor from the telco industry to governments, emphasising the role of mobility in supporting economic development and growth within countries. For example, during the growth phase of 3G there were much-touted statistics that related a 10% growth in adoption of 3G with roughly a 1% growth in GDP in emerging markets. By now, governments are well aware of the direct and indirect value of connectivity to their nations’ competitiveness. As a result, using the development of post-5G technologies to derive an economic benefit is much plainer to governments.

At the same time, it has become clear that access to information is a double-edged sword. Access to disinformation or rumour can be disruptive for governments and can help reduce trust in traditional voices of authority. The creation of echo chambers and information bubbles is seen by some as creating a more disunited and disengaged society at exactly the time when a need for collaboration and cooperation in the face of global challenges such as climate change has never been stronger. We have already seen several very public statements from Japan, France and elsewhere that underline the societal importance of 6G. If we focus on the radio interface we risk ignoring these factors entirely.

The corollary of this is that, for the first time, a new generation of mobile communications is being seen as more than a commercial development. The role of governments in specifications, funding and enabling the roll-out of 6G is likely to look very different from previous generations. For example, we may have seen a bellwether in the case of China’s grant of spectrum for 5G, freeing up capital for the operators to invest in infrastructure.

Beyond 5G for Telcos

Within the telecoms sector itself, there are challenges aplenty. The competitive dynamics that established themselves in earlier generations – economies of scale, consolidation, and integrated supply chains – are breaking down. We are already seeing a growth in private networking, new start-ups in both the operator and vendor environments, and more complicated value webs comprising of disaggregated infrastructure, services, applications, and routes to market. If these trends continue, it is likely that we will see the growth of new forms of telco, both operating in parallel to traditional B2C mobile services and developing fresh, targeted offers to consumers based upon greenfield core networks that are unlimited by legacy constraints. Companies like Exium, for example, are trendsetters in the enterprise 5G space. Whether any of these companies will survive is moot today. However, they show the way for other companies to bring new sets of skills and new ways of relating to enterprise customers into an industry that has struggled to compete with enterprise specialists in the past.

Within the consumer domain, the evolution of 6G cannot be taken on its own. The properties of the high frequencies touted for 6G, such as the opportunity to include machine sensing as well as communications, offer fresh service creation opportunities wherein the providers of radio equipment or the owners of spectrum could find fresh revenues. At the same time, these are emerging alongside compute-intensive technologies such as 3D holograms visible in natural light, haptics, and new forms of artificial intelligence. Combining different sets of technologies into services opens up fresh opportunities for communications service providers to become new kinds of service provider. Not least, opportunities in edge compute and storage to handle the requirements of new services and devices will create a market that may be invisible to the end-user, but which would create an entirely new fabric underlying society.

Arguably, telcos may find value in creating separate sub-brands and spin-offs who can monetise new B2C and B2B2C capabilities by coordinating in an agile fashion with other players in emerging technologies. 

So What?

What are the implications of this on the way that Beyond-5G and 6G services and technologies are developed? Clearly the variety of stakeholders already involved in the concept stages of 6G demonstrates a potential sea-change. Involving industry and civil society in the development of 6G reflects a wider awareness of the significance of what is coming. It also requires a different way to handle the creative process. While telecoms engineers are familiar with requirements for speed, jitter, latency, and other very specific engineering requirements, other questions are new and we are not yet braced to handle them. For example, the requirements on the industry to be more sustainable from the design stage adds more complexity and potentially trade-offs between, for example, the widespread use of AI in networks and the energy demands that this might impose.

As a result, traditional processes to generate a technology will need to adapt to include not just new requirements but to support the practical implementation of that technology by users who are not telecoms majors with thousands of engineers. The addition of new stakeholders will add complexity, rendering a linear process of technology specification, standardisation, testing, and commercialization optimistic at best.

At the same time the potential involvement of new competitors as well as cloud providers, infrastructure owners, a new vendor environment, and IT players such as systems integrators will mean that the traditional engines of investment in 6G are weakened.

The majors in consumer telecoms may not be the main beneficiaries of Beyond-5G services in terms of revenue growth. This reduces incentives to invest in infrastructure. Unless investment in the deployment of 6G diversifies or operators can find new sources of revenue and new business models, it is hard to imagine a willingness to invest yet again in new generations of infrastructure and spectrum on a national basis.

We could talk further about other elements on the horizon, such as moving past IP-based networking; the use of photonics; the emergence of quantum cryptography; the implications of shifts in workplace and working styles, demographics and economic powerhouses; anti-globalisation pressures and more. Suffice it to say that the future is a complicated place.

What will that mean for what 6G ends up being? While we can – and must – discuss performance indicators and technical specifications, in practice the experience of 6G is likely to be highly context-specific. It will simply be the enablement of whatever service is needed at the time, marshalling resources from the networks and devices available, as required and in the most efficient way possible. This implies a network of networks with new processes for managing ad-hoc interconnections and business relationships.

In short, the world 6G will be born into is a strikingly different environment from today. Stakeholders who want to survive and thrive at the end of the decade have a host of challenges to face, not least in changing their mindsets, business models and approaches. As with any period of turbulence the opportunities are staggering for those who can seize upon them… but established players and institutions need to start the groundwork now or they risk becoming irrelevant.

6GWorld hosts news, webinars, research and the 6GSymposium events to help explore these issues.

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