opinion


2G, 3G, 4G, 5G…6G? What’s awaiting us in 2022 and beyond

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Maria Lema, Co-Founder, Weaver Labs, anticipates the evolution of mobile network technology over the next few years.

Vodafone has recently announced that it will be switching off its 3G network so as to be able to focus on expanding its 4G and 5G networks. This follows the news last summer from BT of similar plans and timeline for EE to retire its 3G legacy network while looking to launch a 5G core network upgrade in 2023.

It seems that, as per a McKinsey report mobile operators are preparing for 5G with a mixture of resignation and anticipation: although they know full well that it can open opportunities, they are also aware they will need to increase their infrastructure investments in this technology. This is a key area where Web3 can boost 5G connectivity, as it can help telecoms networks coordinate in a decentralised way through multiple contributions of infrastructure, and therefore reduce the stress on investment by creating multiple-supplier networks.

So, is 2022 the year that 5G will really fly, and what does this mean for the evolution of Web3? Dare we talk of 6G plans?

Here are some considerations on what we can expect from 2022.

Are we ready for a new generation?

It is important to consider the impact that the retirement of 3G could have on the nation. Firstly, the move will affect hundreds and thousands of older people, who haven’t joined the smartphone revolution.  Despite Vodafone vowing to ‘leave no people behind’, shutting off 3G will have a huge impact for those living in rural areas, with little or no access to 5G.

In order to combat this, Web3 can help integrate networks, an area still very much to be explored within 5G, which makes it more attractive for new network owners to deploy infrastructure in areas that will be left at risk. These benefits as a product of Web3, mean the roll out of 5G could be further accelerated.

When it comes to discussing a new generation after 5G, we think that conversations need to be about how to start shaping an evolution of the current one, since there is a lot 5G promised that hasn’t been delivered. We’re not going to give reasons in favour or against the natural course of research and technology, since it’s only natural that we evolve technology.

The industry is already looking into important research areas within the telecoms sector, from understanding the future network architectures such as service orchestration and automation of services, to starting to dig deeper into security and reliability of networks as well as incorporating Web3 platforms to address supply chain challenges. The acceleration of Web3 provides a strong foundation for the roll out of  5G by helping financialise ownership to the telecoms ecosystem  thereby democratising access to telecoms infrastructure.  Furthermore, some researchers are looking into more technical areas such as anti spoofing, radio wave propagation, and photonic devices.

There is still plenty to be discovered in understanding the role of satellites in 5G let alone 6G, and the relationship between cloud and edge, and how we are able to softwarise and virtualise components of 5G without affecting the performance.

Finally, with the global Carbon Neutrality Net Zero Emissions target, there is more research and collaboration needed to understand how the telecoms industry will innovate in order to meet these sustainable goals.

These are all areas of evolution of mobile networks, which don’t necessarily fall under the label of a new generation, however there are still extremely important research challenges that will mark the evolution of 5G and the whole telecoms sector.

So …are we there yet?

We need to consider three key influencing factors to be able to at least say “almost”:

  1. Diversification, Interoperability, New Architectures & Softwarisation

The entire industry is devoting efforts to make the telecommunications industry more diverse and interoperable. The fact that 5G brings virtualisation to the table makes it possible, however the telecoms industry is no expert in software and there is still a lot of work to be done to reduce the complexity of the mobile network.

Blockchain technology is a key solution for tackling the lack of interoperability within the telecoms ecosystem. The decentralised system will ensure that bad actors remain outside of operating networks, whilst ensuring that networks are open and based on open source platforms; a formula hard to corrupt.

Now networks are mostly made out of pieces of software, and the Telecoms industry is refusing to migrate into stable software architectures that can scale. To create pieces that can work with each other, the software industry has years of experience working in Microservice architectures, Open protocols and Open standards. We still need to embrace that in telecoms. The next few years to come we will see an explosion of software solutions that address interoperability and automation through open platforms.

  1. Resilience and Security

Cybersecurity will be one of the most important topics in telecoms for the next few years. According to the National Cyber Security Centre 2021 annual review, cyber attacks have had real world impact in the UK and globally such as affecting food and fuel supplies and costing businesses and governments hundreds of millions of pounds.

We haven’t paid enough attention to security before, and opening up the supply chain creates more threats and risks. Notably, when it comes to implementing Web3 systems across multiple channels, the role of cyber security is paramount. It’s no doubt that the pending demand of Web3 will usher in the need for tighter network regulation particularly with the prospect of 6G on the horizon. Blockchain’s zero-trust security framework provides highly accessible and transparent security mechanisms via a visible blockchain, meaning all transactions are visible to restricted operators.

Therefore, a Zero Trust seems to be a good approach, particularly in the context of a very complex setup such as OpenRAN, but there is still a lot of research to be done in this area. We’re also interested to see the approach large telecom service providers will take to the new telecoms security requirements, and how equipment vendors will incorporate software development security policies as part of their product development.

  1. New network models for universal coverage

Aside from the technical challenges to make networks interoperable with the use of open interfaces and standards, there’s a new discussion around business models and flexible platforms to accelerate deployments and make connectivity available where it is needed. There are still many barriers to deploy networks in the streets, and indoor coverage is still a topic of much discussion in all telecoms forums. Decentralised commercial model based on Web3 infrastructure that can help innovate business models and create a governance structure to help with the capabilities of the Neutral Host modeland with this comes the “Network of Networks”.

All this is great, but we need to fix technical problems such as security and interoperability before we can convince large service providers to open up their networks. It’s interesting to see the industry working on initiatives to create multi-operator networks, as a technical solution to the adoption of neutral host models.

Although there are still milestones to be met, 5G global connections are already exceeding 438 million, so the evolution towards 6G is closer than we might have thought. With cybersecurity offering an important foundation for interoperability, talk of 6G seems increasingly realistic. The sheer celular flexibility that 5G can already enable means the eventual arrival of  6G will be able to fully support Web3 integration, provided it tackles some of the basic software challenges we outlined above.

There’s still much work to be done to fully realise what 5G was supposed to revolutionise, and we’re glad to see where the emerging technology is taking us.

Before we start talking about increasing capacity by 1000 times, supporting zillions of devices, there are all these still very challenging and important elements to building networks that require our full attention.

 

Maria is a PhD in Telecoms, Co-Founder of Weaver Labs, a Tech Start-up innovating in the telecoms industry, and ambassador of Wagora, a Women in Tech society. She led the 5GUK Testbeds and Trials project at King’s College London, and was responsible for all Technical Operations in the 5G Lab. She led teams working on connectivity solutions to real-life business problems: from transmitting the sense of touch to doctors while teleoperating, to connecting different musicians around the world to give the audience a different concert experience. Currently, she’s a founder at Weaver Labs, where she leads all strategic activities that involve, business model definition, marketing our products, looking for partners and clients, defining areas of the market where Weaver Labs product Cell-Stack can grow and make an impact.

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