During the first half of November, a ‘Have Your Say’ poll conducted by 6GWorld drew around 100 responses from readers across Europe, APAC, and North America. Academics, industry professionals, and regulators answered the question of “Who should take the lead defining use cases beyond 5G?” Although it was a small sample, it illustrates a diversity of attitudes towards the evolution of the industry. 6GWorld caught up with a few experts to share their views on what these results tell us.
The customers are always right?
Strikingly, at best, the results suggest just over half of respondents think end-users have a significant role to play. Teresa Cottam, Chief Analyst at Omnisperience, conducts research into customer communications, experience and new business models.
“We’re still in the ‘build it and they will come’ era. When, in fact, despite all our data about customers we’re not the experts – they are. Experience is something that should be co-created. Customers will increasingly demand democratisation of technology,” she said.
Ed Barker, Independent Analyst and former GSMA Strategy Director, argued that it’s unreasonable to put the onus on end-users: “Technology is always about making choices a few years in advance.” With development of advanced 5G or Beyond-5G networks so far out however, “it might be a bit challenging for potential customers – especially in [Business to Business] – to determine the use cases that will find a market ahead of actually building the capabilities that will support them.”
Cottam disagreed. “The so-called use cases (more industry speak) are already there. They just mean solving pre-existing problems. We cannot keep pretending to be experts on every possible situation because that approach won’t scale and isn’t fast enough. The future is co-creation, personalisation, collaboration, increasing automation, and the practical application of intelligence both human and artificial.”
Andy Tiller, EVP Member Products & Services at TM Forum argued in favour of collaborating with customers, but pointed out that “you sometimes need to experiment with what new technology can do, and even launch it, before you are able to figure out what people might want to do with it.” He added the famous quote from Henry Ford that, if he had asked people what they wanted before making the Model T, they would have asked for a faster horse.
“Tech industries often build the technology first without anticipating what people might use it for – for example, IBM thinking that people might use a personal computer to store recipes – and I think you could argue that our industry has been pretty successful with 3G and 4G by leading with the technology. The jury is still out on whether this will work again,” he said.
Twenty-two percent of respondents suggested that the Telecoms Industry should be the principals determining use cases beyond 5G. However, with a rapidly changing telecoms environment Barker questioned who the “Telecoms Industry” will be in a few years’ time. Taking into account possible new business models arising from trends today in private networking, a separation of infrastructure and services, and more, he said: “I certainly don’t think that operators will be anything like we think of them today.”
Cottam agreed. “I’d argue that the competition has to be at the services level. If you look at customer satisfaction scores, it’s always the MVNOs, VNOs, and resellers that score highest… That’s purely because they don’t compete on technology but on experience.
“I think we’ll also see new digital players coming in with very different attitudes. Already we have the likes of Rakuten in Japan and T-Mobile in the States who are trying to be the ‘anti-carriers’ not at the network level, but at the experience and service levels. I personally think the future is more network- level consolidation for scale and efficiency and more service level competition because the barrier to becoming a service provider is now far lower.”
Indeed, former Vodafone CEO Chris Gent pointed out to the Financial Times last year that during the 3G era it was the platform companies such as Facebook and Google, not the telecoms companies, that developed software and apps with global appeal for consumers. “The customer felt connected to the iPhone but not to a particular network,” he said. “The networks didn’t differentiate themselves.”
While only 14% of respondents argued the government should take the lead in defining use cases beyond 5G, Dr Rahim Tafazolli, head of the University of Surrey’s 5G and 6G Innovation Centres, argued in favour of this at the recent “What’s Next for Wireless Infrastructure Summit”. He suggested that the purpose of Beyond-5G networks should be to solve societal problems. Technical specifications would then only be defined based on how well they answer those challenges.
Cottam sympathised, but pointed out that competition has driven innovation and lowered prices.
“I’m suspicious of too much intervention because governments don’t have a great track record in efficiency and innovation,” she said. “I also don’t think long-term technology policy should be driven by short-term political fashions either. I do agree that we need to take people with us, heal the digital divide, and ensure fair access to digital technologies.”
Cottam pointed out the COVID-19 crisis has had unexpected benefits by accelerating digitalisation and decentralisation.
“Now people can live where they want to, meaning that economic inequalities between the cities and rural areas could be reduced and quality of life improved.”
However, she pointed out current physical networks are designed to provide bandwidth to central business districts and not for a model of decentralised and mobile working.
“That model of living and working requires a change in how networks are provided and 5G, and ultimately 6G, are really interesting from that point of view because of their flexibility,” she said.
What does this mean for developing Beyond-5G and 6G use cases?
Tiller once again advocated for ongoing collaboration and communication across stakeholders, largely because of the uncertainty all parties currently face.
“It’s true that we can sometimes get lost in the technology and not think about applications and business cases until it’s too late, but it would be equally wrong to expect consumers and businesses to set the requirements based on no understanding of what’s possible, or even what their actual needs will be,” he said.
Barker suggested use cases might even be something of a red herring at this stage: “Perhaps better to think of 6G as a platform for a whole variety of services and use cases about which we really have no idea yet. We can probably only conceptualise a fraction of what will come.”
Cottam said: “6G will be human-centric and will diversify access to technology – unleashing the full power of human ingenuity. The innovation valve will be fully opened and a period of unprecedented progress and change will follow. For too long innovation has been controlled by a very small number of people. 6G will crowdsource the future, giving anyone with an imagination the tools to reshape it.”
Alex Lawrence is Managing Editor at 6GWorld. His mission is to bring together stakeholders from across industries, countries and disciplines to make sure that, as technology evolves in the coming decade, it’s meeting the changing demands of society, government and business.
He has been involved as a professional nosy person in the telecoms sphere since 2004, with short detours through industrial O&M and marketing.
If you’d like to talk to Alex about your ideas or projects he’d love to hear from you. @animalawrence or firstname.lastname@example.org.