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Thursday, October 12, 2023

6G won't wait. Will traditional MNOs still be the main customers when it arrives?

This post originally appeared in September 2023 on my LinkedIn feed, which is now my main platform for both short posts and longer-form articles. It can be found here, along with the comment stream. Please follow / connect to me on LinkedIn, to receive regular updates (about 1-3 / week)

 One line I heard yesterday at #ConnectedBritain that really struck me came from BT Group Network/Security head Howard Watson during his keynote.

He was hoping #6G arrived later rather than earlier, "For the Brisbane Olympics, not LA", ie 2032.

This is not the first time I've heard an MNO exec expressing a desire to let #5G run longer, before 6G prompts more Capex and infrastructure changes. They want to get payback on existing investments before thinking about the next round.

This is unsurprising. The industry itself now recognises that it overhyped 5G before launch, and completely forgot to mention that it would arrive in phases, with all the "cool stuff" really only arriving in later versions, with the features in 3GPP Releases 16, 17 & 18.

Instead, we started with 4G++ (ie non-standalone 5G, with sometimes higher speeds but not much else) and then the first versions of "proper 5G" with the Release 15 standalone cloud-native core.

5G SA gives somewhat lower latency, and some rudimentary QoS and other features, but it's far from the ubiquitous millisecond / gigabit / slicing nirvana that everyone promised in 2018.

I was skeptical from the beginning - and I'm still a "slice denier". (I think #networkslicing remains a critical strategic error and distraction for the industry). But my view is that the really useful stuff in 5G, such as time-synchronous networking, RedCap and vertical-specific elements such as FRMCS for railways, are still a long way from mainstream.

So I can understand that MNOs look at the proposed 6G timeline of 2030, and think "we're still making heavy work of moving to cloud-native 5G standardalone. How are we going to do successive iterations of R15 SA, R16, R17, R18, R19... and make money, all within 6 years?"

[Note: technically 6G should start with Release 21, but based on past experience we'll see R20, or maybe even R19, marketed as 6G by some MNOs]

There is a possible uncomfortable answer that's starting to get discussed quietly. What if 6G isn't primarily about MNOs, at least at first?

6G will happen in 2030, one way or another. The world's universities and R&D labs aren't going to down tools for two years, while MNOs are still trying to "monetise" 5G. There will be a bunch of technologies and standards that get called IMT2030 / 6G.

There might even be multiple standards, either because of geopolitics leading to regional versions, or because my niggling of IEEE and Wi-Fi Alliance eventually prompts them to submit a candidate 6G technology (#WiFi 9 or 10, I guess).

So the question then becomes - will traditional MNOs be the main buyers of 6G in the 2028-2030 timeframe? Or will it be enterprises, new-entrant and niche MNOs, infracos, neutral-hosts, satcos, governments and others building greenfield wireless networks?

Is the failure of 5G to live up to inflated expectations actually going to be the pivot point for the (slow) demise of the legacy MNO model? Are we watching #pathdependency effects in play?


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