“We need to get 5G right to set the table to win on 6G technology.” That’s how Jonathan Adelstein, President and CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) and former Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), summarised his view over the USA’s opportunity to take global leadership in the telecommunications field.
He’s not the only one. Speaking at the 6GSymposium Fall edition, several experts argued against the concept that 6G will be the generation to deliver what 5G promised.
“To understand what 6G may offer, we must first understand where current 5G technology falls short in delivering the requirements needed to enable evolutionary use cases and what technological advances are on the horizon in order to create a vision for 6G,” said Andre Fuetsch, President of AT&T Labs and CTO at AT&T. He’s also the Chair for the Next G Alliance Full Member Group.
“This vision will drive a variety of possible new and extended use cases that are currently being discussed across the industry. Some of these use cases can be realised by means of the continuous ongoing evolution of the current 5G technology,” he explained.
That’s why the experts underlined the importance of remembering that 5G is still in its early days and will grow “a lot in the next five to seven years,” according to Adelstein. On the other hand, the Ericsson Mobility Report, published in June 2021, forecast 5G will account for 40% of global mobile subscriptions by 2026. That means that many people will still be served by 4G and 3G just four years before the expected arrival of 6G, around 2030.
To accelerate 5G adoption and provide a platform for 6G, Fuetsch and Adelstein argued that industry and research should address a number of areas to improve the current technology and realise the opportunity it brings.
“And it’s not that easy. I mean, the business case needs to be there to justify the enormous investments,” Adelstein said. “Most of the [5G] use cases are incredibly valuable […]but so far they’re really not yielding clear revenue streams to the companies that build it.”
Another fundamental need, in Adelstein’s opinion, is getting an internet connection to rural areas. That will support 5G and make a case for investments in the technology. “The idea that, because we’re at some point ten years down the line, you’d need to do 6G and we shouldn’t invest in 5G now is a huge misnomer. If we can get 5G built out to rural America, we’re going to be in a much better position,” the expert explained.
An Issue of Spectrum
While the hardware and the software aspects of 5G are already under scrutiny, there’s a concern over how much spectrum is available to match the demand, according to Michael O’Rielly, former Commissioner of the FCC.
“If we look at the current landscape, there’s cause for concern. Beyond the 3.4GHz options scheduled for next month, there is no more nationwide spectrum that has been identified, certainly in the mid-band spectrum. I’m worried by the slow pace by which it’s being opened for commercial purposes, whether it’ll be for shared or exclusively licensed services,” he noted during the 6GSymposium.
“Everyone recognises that the portfolio of mid-band spectrum for 5G is not sufficient to meet the expected needs. I think this raises a real challenge for this administration and the current commission to redouble their efforts, to wrestle free spectrum from the Department of Defense and other agencies and rebuild the commercial spectrum pipeline,” O’Rielly argued.
5G as an Innovation Driving Force
Even though the challenges down the road might be complex, 5G is already providing opportunities. While it may be underperforming – at least compared to the promises made before the roll-out of the technology – 5G is also about accomplishments.
“Mobile 5G has jump-started the next wave of unforeseen innovation,” AT&T’s Andre Fuetsch pointed out during the 6GSymposium. “5G is delivering immersive experiences that are much more vivid, dynamic and interactive. We’re seeing this transformation unfold in sports, retail, mobile gaming, smart factories, health care. With each generation of wireless technology, the ramp gets more complex and challenging,” he said.
Fuetsch believes this trend will continue, with the next generation supporting even more challenging verticals across areas such as agriculture, automotive, healthcare, smart factories, smart cities, education, media, and entertainment, addressing societal and environmental goals.
That’s also why he argues that now is the best moment to start addressing research and development of 6G – or whatever comes after 5G. “Now is the best time to conduct research in 6G to address technology challenges, including metrics, spectrum sharing, and efficiency intermodulation or interference and energy management and battery life, just to name a few.”
According to the expert, taking 5G and 6G seriously is the best way to ensure the US leadership in a field that has seen other players – especially China – become prominent.
“The US needs to be a leader in the decade creating 6G. 5G will serve as the foundation for our technological journey to 6G, to building on current progress we’ve seen in 5G and adding new technological advancements for 6G will lead to a more connected world and facilitate new capability domains.”