MWC24: While 5G Lags, 6G and Quantum Wait in the Wings

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Even while telco operators are scarred by their experience rolling out and paying for 5G, attention is turning to its successor 6G, which will begin to be adopted from 2030.

Some operators are skeptical. Sessions at Mobile World Congress were devoted to whether 5G has done enough to ensure investment in future generations of cellular tech. “It’s a bit too early to talk 6G since we are still struggling with 5G,” said Paolo Murri, VP Business Development at Italian telco TIM. “But we have learned from 5G and we keep learning.”

Despite the slow adoption of 5G and associated ROI, some of the world’s largest telecommunications executives say 6G will likely launch in 2030.

“We believe there will be gradual introduction of 6G from 2030 onwards but mass market will be some time beyond that,” said Marie Hogan, Head of 6G Business Area Networks, Ericsson. “We must try to eliminate some complexity. At the start of 5G we introduced many architecture options but perhaps we should start 6G with a clean architecture. Maybe we launch with a 6G Standalone, for example.”

That would imply not using any 5G infrastructure, but operators will want to maximize their hefty investment in 5G equipment so some form of transition or operation in parallel seems inevitable.

From a network perspective, Ericsson view the move to 6G as an evolution rather than a big bang. “5G is only half way through its cycle, with still another 6-7 years to go,” Hogan said. “We need to take advantage of that and focus on monetizing 5G first. In 5G we went for some very extreme use cases, but with 6G we could be more focused.”

The chastening experience of 5G has made experts more reticent to shout about potential use cases for 6G.

“The speed of innovation in computing is so fast we have to be humble enough to admit we can’t predict what will come,” said Henry Tirri, CTO, Nokia Technologies, though he suggested autonomous driving would be possible with the ultra, ultra low roundtrip in signals from car to cloud and back.

Murri stressed that whatever happens, 6G needs to be customer-centric. “We need to be sure that any use case we have in mind is not doable on 5G. Many times we told the world that there are applications you can only do on 5G but it turns out 4G is good enough.”

Hogan said the ability of 6G to scale applications will be its biggest impact. “AR and VR is today quite localized and indoor. If we can scale up with more data, more efficient use of network offload, then we will have mass market immersive communication. Digital twins use a lot of data quite localized today with 5G but 6G will enable you to scale to a digital twin of a city or a massive digital twin of an entire network in realtime," she continued. "With 6G we will have the opportunity to make our current mobile broadband much more efficient in terms of energy performance, and if you can do that in remote regions where a terrestrial network doesn’t reach you could make a basic level of affordable broadband accessible to anyone anywhere, anytime. That is the core direction we are hoping to head in.”

The technology itself will need new spectrum frequencies and will incorporate AI and Quantum computing both of which will power the scaling of applications running over 6G networks.

“We envisage a highly distributed computer structure hosting a whole network end to end and running in the cloud,” said Juan Carlos Garcia Lopez, SVP Technology, Telefonica. “Moving to entirely cloud native software defined solutions means extending cloud to the edge. This needs to be solved for 6G.”

IBM is at MWC showcasing its claim to have established the largest ecosystem of more than 550,000 “quantum explorers, adopters, and users to bring quantum computing to the world.” It was also touting its breakthrough in 2023 with a 127-qubit processor that is a step to allowing quantum computers to reach “utility scale” as a scientific tool to explore new classes of problems in physics and materials.

Garcia Lopez also pointed to security as a critical issue. “With 6G a new threat is possible when Quantum compute becomes available. We need to be ready to change cryptography." He added that services running over the network will increase 100,000 times “so network traffic will be less deterministic.”

Sustainability is being written into the design of 6G but it’s been a struggle to get stakeholders to agree, reported Marja Matinmikko-Blue, Director of Sustainability and Regulation of 6G Flagship at Finland’s University of Oulu. “There is consensus that sustainability is important and the Global 6G framework published by the ITU in December had sustainability as one of its criteria but there has been a lot of resistance.”

She noted that energy efficiency was also part of the 5G standard “but there was no agreement for targets. We need to include targets with 6G. It is everybody’s responsibility and requires a whole mindset change that considers sustainability in the context of spectrum management, social goals, and economics.”

Murri placed the onus on better educating consumers about the impact of data-draining applications like streaming video. “There’s been a lot of work on the supply side in terms of making data centres and radio access more to efficient but little effort on the demand side--on the behaviours of customers,” he said. “Whether enterprise or consumers, they are all-you-can-eat models. In Italy, consumers can buy infinite gigabytes for less than ten Euros. This leads to the perception that everything they do is for free. But there is a cost and mainly it is in energy consumption.”

He added, “Given that a key for 6G is sustainability we need to think about awareness. My kids leave the TV on streaming 4K and don’t perceive they are consuming energy.”

Telefonica’s Garcia Lopez charged app developers with doing more to make their app network-friendly. “We have all got to reduce total power consumption. The 6G architecture needs to build sustainability into its core and not waste resources.”

For example, said Hogan, “We could be better at energy efficiency by switching off parts of the network when not in use.”

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