Over the last five decades, there have been three essential truths – death, taxes, and the 10-year G cycle of the wireless industry. Like clockwork, as we approach the half-way mark of the 5G cycle, industry has launched itself on the journey of the 6G cycle. The 10-year cadence has served the industry well. Apart from some minor anomalies, often caused by external events, the standards and consensus based 3GPP approach has been central to the single biggest scale consumer technology humanity has ever seen. With over 5.6 billion unique subscribers, wireless has transformed the global economy in multiple ways. Wireless influences trillions of dollars in annual GDP. It has been an essential ingredient to provide Internet connectivity, government services, employment and business opportunities, connection with information and fellow citizens.
Yet, as we arrive at what seems like a routine industry cycle, it is anything but. The core wireless industry is generating over $1 trillion for the mobile operators, and when you add chips, devices, infrastructure, mobile applications, and services, we are getting over $5 trillion in GDP contribution on an annual basis. The industry has had a tremendous run. But can this continue forever or at least one more cycle? Can the ecosystem afford to expect that the cycle of spectrum procurement, infrastructure upgrades, and new services as a result will continue or are we at a crossroad that necessitates new thinking and approach to how the industry does its “G” cycles?
While there are mixed and contradictory opinions about the success of 5G, there is a clear consensus that 5G hasn’t been a great cycle for a number of operators around the world. In fact, for some, this will be the last cycle they will see, primarily driven by market conditions, an inability to shift their strategy, and failure to reign in the Opex.
In Dec 2023, ITU officially kicked off the process for “IMT-2030 Framework.” 3GPP has also set its plan in motion to start working on study items for the 6G roadmap.
The features and usage scenarios being discussed are immersive video communications, low-latency, and reliability for industrial applications, massive IoT, rural connectivity, AI, and high-precision location. If they sound familiar, it is because these are the same feature set for 5G and 5GA.
With changing times, the industry must also change, or it will leave a weaker ecosystem, players struggling to navigate, and the arena will become survival of the mightiest which leads to market failure. We must decouple hardware upgrades with that of software. New features shouldn’t always require new spectrum or new base stations. The advances in AI, computing, automation, software development, edge computing and private networks, etc. all provide more than enough tools to rethink our traditional 10-year cycle. At the end of the day, we are trying to launch new capabilities that will enable new experiences for the customers and allow enterprises to automate their workflow.
Industry should be focused on “use-case” driven development cycle that is centered around the economics of the solutions and not the glitziest tech that can be invented. Challenges to scale mmWave in the first half of the 5G cycle should provide operators, ecosystem players, and the regulators a pause in how they go about defining and implementing 6G. One shouldn’t get carried away by forecasts or the loudest pronouncements but rather focus on the strategic policy making, and roadmap should be grounded in facts on the ground.
There is a real danger of inventing something that no one could afford to deploy or use, and we will miss precious years on unfocused research that can go into building solutions that the market really needs and will pay for. It is time to put the economics and ground truths at the center of our thinking. It is in times like this that policy making, and strategic planning becomes extremely important else mobile operators will need to be turned into state-owned entities to keep them afloat. The ripple effects of incongruent policies can have a profound impact on competitiveness and the health of the technology ecosystem.
This paper delves into the analysis of solutions that matter to the end customer and what we must do as an industry to get 6G right.