6GWorld is lucky to have an Advisory Board that represents a diverse range of viewpoints and opinions from around the globe.
We didn’t anticipate the breadth and range of discussion among the participants, but here are some of the important thoughts and themes that emerged, many of which you won’t hear in public venues, and which all add up to an existential crisis for many key telecoms companies.
Individuals have not been quoted below since the conversations were conducted under Chatham House Rules.
6G vs. Legacy Networks: What’s the Difference?
When it came to discussing what 6G can or should be, there was no shortage of aspiration.
While the capabilities and functions of 4G and 5G are similar, the objectives for 6G will (or should) be very different. New levels of coverage have been included in government plans for 6G in the European Union, the United States, and elsewhere, indicating that the issue is not “a radio problem,” but rather one of business models and delivery systems.
When the COVID-19 epidemic has showed us the disparity in results between digital haves and have-nots, it is, however, a very legitimate social demand. As a result, 6G should be viewed as “a super-smart environment rather than just another G.”
Possibly, we might start thinking of 6G as a smart platform for delivering the services required, where and when they are asked, rather than a radio technology. Whether those services are offered over WiFi, 5G, ultra-fast THz, 4G, satellite, NB-IoT, or wired broadband – or a combination of those – should be determined solely by the nature of the service required.
Today, services are being given through many channels and from multiple access types to increase speeds and respond to the needs of a range of services, so there is a precedence to build on.
To manage efficient service delivery and effective management, however, a “6G sort of coordination” necessitates dramatically different degrees of orchestration, intelligence, and autonomy not just in individual networks, but between networks.
“6G will be less vendor-driven and more industry-driven,” says one key prediction. We’re already seeing a larger ecosystem of vendors emerge, ranging from traditional telco NEPs to cloud players, AI experts, data brokers, and new entrants, all fueled by the change to software and open systems. As a result, any single vendor’s role and impact in the whole ecosystem should be reduced.
Similarly, industrial organizations that have begun to have a voice in the development of 5G, such as the 5G-ACIA, 5GAA, Industrie 4.0, and others, are becoming more familiar with how to influence the telecoms space and will begin to have a stronger voice – in tandem with the growth of 5G in enterprises. In SNS-PPP, they are being actively courted. “Enterprises will come up with use cases and learning that will leak into 6G in 5G.”
In relation to the preceding two aspects, 6G would be the first generation to be built from the ground up with security and privacy in mind. Political leaders have also placed strict energy-reduction criteria on it, both per bit and overall. These features alone will put it distinct from previous work, implying that a larger architecture will need to include thinkers with very different talents than radio engineers.
When you consider that some services will require quality enhancements beyond just speed and latency – such as transitioning to deterministic and reliable data transport – it’s clear that 6G will require a totally different set of stakeholders than prior generations.
We should think about the mechanisms for constructing 6G alongside the societal and corporate constraints that are defining what 6G might be. People shaping 6G “really need to engage with the question ‘what do we do with the technology?’ as well as the technology itself,” according to one expert. As previously said, industry and political leaders have already established certain clear guidelines in terms of diversity, bridging the digital divide, security, and sustainability.
These are far more essential “missions” for 6G than 5G, and they produce “ready-to-take-off” markets. Despite the fact that “there’s so much out there that we need to accomplish as societies and as corporations,” 5G is encountering a revenue gap between deployment and usage. We have the opportunity to create new markets based on public-sector goals, but we must think about and structure them early so that propositions and ecosystems are market-ready when the technology is.
According to several participants, 6G needs involve significant changes in existing measurements such as speed, latency, and reliability, as well as whole new metrics. When you add them all together, you’ll find that these needs are driving requests from all elements of the tech stack.
For example, new materials, baseband processors, and antennas are required to combine higher speeds and higher frequencies with lower power and better coverage; a pervasive “network of networks” and connected devices of all kinds necessitate new privacy and security approaches as well as rethinking service assurance; and automation and orchestration necessitate new network handling.
6G is likely to be developed on a cloud-native, open architecture with distributed computing and storage nodes (maybe must be?). This could result in dramatically simplified networks, with 5G, 6G, and other services being treated as distributed applications alongside others.
“Well, it sounds like a 6G call would very much be Zoom,” others could say. Certainly, there would be parallels.
Zoom uses IP addresses to distribute packets for a service, regardless of infrastructure, and this level of simplicity saves the system a lot of money while allowing for a lot more flexibility. There would be more behind the scenes to meet the reliability and legal standards of a telephonic service, but the simplification makes sense because it also enables edge capabilities right to the cell tower, effectively turning the telecoms network into part of the internet itself.
Of course, if telecoms services – and everything that comes with them – can be supplied on a distributed internet-like infrastructure, it demonstrates that telecoms networks’ distinctive capabilities may be extended to other digital services running as distributed apps.
The evolution path for this scenario would require moving from open 5G to cloud-native 5G, then cloud-native 6G. This is a very different approach from most established NEPs, so it may be an opportunity for new entrants to take a significant role in a new generation… but also means that we could anticipate resistance to change from the major NEPs.
Network Democratization and Decentralization
Assuming for a moment that Terahertz becomes a key part of future networks, signal attenuation issues would necessitate an antenna on every tree or pole outside.
Even if it doesn’t, we’ve been witnessing significant annual growth in data needs, which will put a strain on infrastructure – 5G, for example, has already accelerated fiber deployment. “At the moment, operators aren’t spending nearly enough in new sites to support that; even with current 5G, they’re just upgrading existing sites.”
Is there a solution? “The internet’s creation and adoption were fueled by its ease of construction and use. If 6G is to be truly scaled, it must be easy to deploy and operate.” In this case, we can look to Wi-Fi as an example, which allows businesses or individuals to set up their own end points.
Those who remember the early days of 3G will recall telcos’ genuine anxiety that Wi-Fi-based data would rob them of data revenues. Finally, the decentralized strategy for creating Wi-Fi coexisted with telecoms companies’ centralized network developments; perhaps it’s time to aggressively embrace that paradigm.
Along with decentralization of access points, “DIY networks,” in which communities or organizations create their own infrastructure, may assist to democratize network rollouts and, if early instances are any indication, drastically cut costs.
In the United States, Helium is crowdsourcing IoT LoRaWAN base station deployments, while in the United Kingdom, ‘B4RN’ has established a fibre network in rural Yorkshire, due in part to the active support and cable-laying of local landowners and volunteers. For years, India’s “barefoot network engineers” have been constructing and maintaining rural networks. Mini- or micro-datacenters are already springing up in cities and towns all over the world, even in telecoms exchanges.
Many parts of access networks could potentially be “amateur” affairs put in place by local councils, community groups, and even in-home 6G access points installed like Wi-Fi nodes. Global backbone networks and subsea cables would still need to be professionally installed, but many parts of access networks could be “amateur” affairs put in place by local councils, community groups, and even in-home 6G access points installed like Wi-Fi nodes. However,
This would necessitate a significant amount of network harmonization, spectrum management, and optimization, which might define the telco’s role in this new environment.
Access points of various sizes would require gear that was simple to install and maintain. There is precedence, primarily from underdeveloped countries, where businesses such as Vanu Inc have designed and built technology for off-grid communities; and, once again, from the Wi-Fi community.
This strategy would necessitate regulatory alignment. Anyone developing network infrastructure in South Africa, for example, must make it available to competitor carriers. This lessens the incentive for individual operators to build infrastructure while simultaneously reducing network duplication. Many countries have already begun to move toward increasing passive network sharing and neutral hosting, so taking additional efforts to simplify and accelerate the implementation process would not be unreasonable.
The Open Grid Alliance is working to provide a distributed method to compute and storage resource management that would complement this decentralized, software-based approach nicely. It would also help to maximize the use of the access network, which in many countries is now at around 40%-50% utilization to accommodate peak demand.
What Does This Mean for the Telecommunications Industry?
In the past, competition was mostly network-based – who could provide the best coverage, speeds, and service quality – and price-based. However, in the future, when much of the network infrastructure is shared among providers, “carriers” will have quite different roles to play.
Perhaps telcos will serve as the “public face” of 6G, offering customer assistance in the same way that Wi-Fi does today, or they may serve as orchestrators/coordinators/guarantors of services delivered via a network of networks.
In these circumstances, providers will compete on their service management and assurance skills, which will be backed up by visibility into a network of networks that they do not entirely control. Differentiating service providers will be determined by the software and algorithms they use to manage their clients’ services, as well as their capacity to respond to concerns and issues.
Meanwhile, firms like KPN and Deutsche Telekom are exploring the possibility of serving as data hubs, sharing, selling, and managing data from many sources in a secure and compliant manner. This is anticipated to be a significant new type of market in an environment where, for example, developing AI need training data.
However, existing “telcos” are not required to fill either post.
Telcos’ capital – the capacity to construct networks across huge areas and user bases – is one of their strongest assets, and it might help them succeed in consumer markets where they have high brand recognition. However, there are a rising number of niche sectors, such as IoT, where newcomers can quickly establish themselves.
Furthermore, while telecoms companies have traditionally excelled in areas where other businesses lack — such as network management – the essential skill set is rapidly evolving. Skills in and understanding of cloud-native systems, for example, are extremely rare in telco; and, while security is not a new problem in telecoms, the types of security approaches will need to be substantially different, and this is terra incognita for most telecoms providers. Identifying where individual telcos want to play in a new environment and then assembling the talents needed to deliver on that will be a whole new level of competition in and of itself.
“What will service providers look like in 2030?” said one of the Advisory Board members. Is Netflix a provider of services? Is it true that Google owns subsea cables? “To whom will Nokia sell?”
As previously stated in this article, 6G has big ambitions, and many of the concepts and predictions presented here, while speculative, are based on actual trends and capabilities. 6GWorld is grateful to have such a broad group of educated and interesting people to chat to, but what do you think of these ideas and what do you think we’re missing? Join in the discussion.