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The Top Five Areas For 5G Improvements

Decisions about 6G will need to be made sooner than one might think.

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A recent article by TECHnalysis’s Bob O’Donnell sparked some thoughts about the critical aspects in which 5G faces improvement needs. They include coverage, cost, power, killer applications, and global ecosystems. It will be a fascinating race over the next eight to ten years, and many decisions between the evolution of 5G versus a transition to 6G are much closer than one might think.

I’ve been following Bob for quite some time, ever since I shared a panel with him back in 2017. As always, his insights in “Moving 5G Forward Requires Big Picture Thinking” are on point and well-argued: One can perceive 5G as not living up to what we have all expected from the technology. Faster phones and gadgets combined with updated and extended networks are excellent. Significant work is going on in the background, not visible to the consumer, focused on network re-design and technologies like Open RAN. Still, the industry is facing a lack new cool applications that are associated with 5G as a clear enabler. Last April, I touched on some of the application trends in “Hyperconnectivity And The Path To 6G.”

So, what aspects do we need to improve? The 6G Symposium back in June addressed some of them as areas of a push towards 6G or incremental improvements of 5G.

Coverage is first. As the industry goes to a higher spectrum with each new generation, coverage is tough to resolve. It’s the core competence of the cellular industry and one of the primary sources of its value and income. Driven by the chosen spectrum and technologies like beamforming, building penetration significantly hinders 5G coverage and indoor usage. I am still trying to find the best position for the box sent to me by my wireless provider to compete with my cable-based internet access using their fixed wireless access (FWA) program.

Then there is cost. For each new generation, the equipment powering cellular networks is more and more expensive. It is challenging for network providers to recover the investment. As a result, we are seeing new and innovative partnerships. For instance, at the recent 6G Symposium, China Telecom illustrated their joint work with China Unicom, two competitors deploying 300,000 5G sites jointly.

The third aspect is power. With each new generation, the power consumption of base stations is going up despite all our efforts at the design level. Higher throughput and capabilities outpace the power savings gained using new technologies and more innovative design methodologies. The resulting impact is significant enough to cut into the already thin profit margin of the service providers. At the 6G Symposium, there were discussions about the ongoing efforts to reduce power consumption by using artificial intelligence to shut off parts of the system when not in use. Power is a technical aspect that needs the industry’s relentless attention.

The fourth area of improvement discussed at the 6G Symposium centered around applications drivers. One point made was that for each new cellular generation, applications lag the technology. It’s the age-old chicken-and-egg scenario, some applications will emerge when the enabling technology is available. Rethinking 5G’s future as the merger of new cellular networks, edge computing resources, and AI/ML-based analytics is a valid path, as Bob suggests in his article. It augments well the evolution charted by Professor Gerhard Fettweiss that I referenced earlier this year. The transitions from 1G to 5G suggest a duality of business and consumer drivers for the different generations of cellular communications. 5G will implement business-driven aspects like private 5G networks for IIoT-enabled manufacturing, airports, and sports facilities. Combining new cellular networks, edge computing, and AI/ML provides a fast-tracked path to consumer-driven applications on top of 5G as a critical building block.

The fifth area for improvement, or at least an area of concern, is the global ecosystem. We have been used to simply taking our phone, traveling to a foreign location, and the phone is “just working.” A healthy global ecosystem is fundamentally essential for the progress of any cellular technology. Inside the telecom industry, the fear is growing that future 6G technologies and even late-stage 5G technologies will cleave through standardization. Proper assignment of the available spectrum and standardization of millimeter wave (mmWave) technologies will be critical early indicators of how global the cellular ecosystem will evolve in reality.

It is a tad early for me to buy equipment for a private 5G network providing the bandwidth and latency for a ballet performance of cleaning robots dancing while at the same time I sing in tune with them in an undisclosed virtual reality location somewhere in a cloud. But we have a fantastic future ahead of us, whether it us 5G+ or 6G!



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