By Subhankar Pal, Global Research & Innovation Leader for Future of Networks, Capgemini Engineering
At the end of 2020, 5G networks had 401 million users worldwide, up from about 15.5 million just 12 months earlier according to the research firm Omdia. That growth spurt is impressive, especially when you consider that just three years earlier, 5G standards were still on the drawing board.
The first 5G standard — for non-standalone (NSA) 5G New Radio (NR) — were approved in December 2017, followed by the standalone (SA) 5G NR specs in June 2018. The schedules for both were moved up roughly one year after several major vendors and operators agreed that marketplace demand for 5G’s multi-gigabit speeds, 1 ms latency and other advanced capabilities was already strong enough for commercial success.
They were right, judging by the 385.5 million customers who upgraded to 5G in 2020. It took 4G five years to reach the same adoption level, according to Omdia, which expects 5G’s global total to hit 619 million by the end of 2021.
But it’s important to remember why the industry accelerated 5G standards development: 4G was struggling to keep up with marketplace and technological trends, such as the rise of 4K video and other bandwidth-intensive applications. Mobile operators also recognised that 4G wouldn’t enable them to compete with copper and fibre. “Over [a] three- to five-year time horizon, unequivocally, 5G will serve as a fixed broadband replacement product,” AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson said in January 2019.
The moral of this story is that although the mobile industry has done an impressive job of developing and then rolling out 5G — 163 networks at the end of 2020, and another 114 this year, according to TeleGeography — it can’t afford to rest on its laurels. That’s why it’s not premature to start developing 6G.
The Future is Now
In fact, work on 6G is well under way. For example, the Japanese government is providing ¥50 billion for 6G R&D, China created a national 6G R&D working group in November 2019 and the European Commission launched its Hexa-X 6G initiative in January 2021.
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