Do We Already Need 6G?
Or if 5G is the answer to life, the universe and everything, do we need 6G to answer the questions it raises?
5G is being positioned as a universal services platform, offering a complete range of telecom services to a complete range of individuals, businesses, enterprises, and critical industries. The 5G enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) services are relatively well understood by consumers, mobile network operators (MNOs) and vendors. They require the addition of 5G NR resources, but when deployed as 5G non standalone (NSA) they need little or no major changes to the transport or core infrastructure, apart from maybe a capacity uplift. So it is no surprise that amongst all the hype about 5G, it is these services that are being launched first.
Less well understood are the ultra-reliable low latency services, like the often discussed autonomous cars, factory automation and remote surgery. These services are mission critical and require deterministic, highly secure, low latency, always-on connectivity. The best effort approach used for enhanced mobile broadband is just not appropriate for mission critical services.
This mission critical nature of these services totally changes the game……
The Customers Change
This is a completely different customer set for the MNO. The language, expectations, needs and timescales of the strategic and critical industry businesses are totally different from residential and enterprise customers. The MNO must clearly demonstrate that always-on means always-on, guaranteed latency means guaranteed latency and this means all the time and not just most of the time. Deserved or not, mobile networks have a reputation of being best effort.
Digitization, regulation and customer expectations along with 5G connectivity mean that the strategic and critical industries themselves are evolving. In this rapidly evolving customer environment, the MNO must decide when and how they can operate in the critical infrastructure ecosystem ……. do they provide a 360 service model, just connectivity or something in between?
The Network Changes
To support mission critical services, the transport and core infrastructure must be completely overhauled. Network slicing is required to deliver URLLC services on the same network as enhanced mobile broadband. Slice isolation must guarantee that network overload on a superfast mobile broadband slice has no impact on a URLLC slice. Software defined networking (SDN) is required to assign connectivity to VNFs and PNFs. Multi-Access Edge Computing (MEC) and virtualization is mandatory to reduce latency. And latency, reliability, jitter must all be deterministic.
Today’s operations systems must be evolved or replaced by autonomous orchestrators that can support this highly dynamic network.
Why 5G might not be good enough
A number of factors mean that 5G might not be good enough, at least for now:
- We are still identifying what services are best suited for 5G connectivity and where we have identified specific services we are still in the early days of defining what is required from the mobile network to support these services
- Digitization, new technology, changes in business models and regulation are forcing a rapid change in the mission critical business themselves. Meaning that 5G technology is being moved into a rapidly changing playing field
- These services are truly mission critical, if they fail there could be a devastating impact on a countries infrastructure (e.g. the transportation and power sectors) and in some specific cases like autonomous cars and remote surgery if something goes wrong with the network connectivity people could die.
Given these factors, the strategic industries and utilities using these services must be 100% certain of the integrity of the network. This confidence can only be gained by running real operational networks using 5G over an extended period of time (years).
So it is my belief that 5G will initially be used by industries in constrained, “safe” environments. In these environments, operators and the industries involved will learn what is possible and what the limitations are. Then, if necessary, new requirements can be generated that allow the mobile technology to meet all the needs of the mission critical businesses. If these new requirements are extensive, then it will herald the start of 6G.
So much like 3G was the proving ground for the fully functional mobile data services enabled by 4G, 5G could become an essential proving ground for a fully functional universal services platform.
Whilst 5G is positioned as universal service platform “for life, the universe and everything” (automotive industry, enterprises, strategic industries, critical industries, utilities, etc.), it maybe that it doesn’t provide the complete answer and we will need 6G for a complete universal services platform. To paraphrase ‘Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’ and ‘Deep Thought’ explaining why the earth needed to be built.
6G is a technology whose merest operational parameters 5G is not worthy to deliver – and yet 5G will be used to define it. 6G will be a technology of such infinite and subtle complexity that artificial intelligence itself shall form part of its operational matrix. And people will be take on virtualized forms and enter the 6G virtualized environment to help navigate its evolution.
This might be stretching the point a little, but the mobile network operators will need to spend a lot of time proving that the network is ultra-reliable before I let it drive my car at 200km/h surrounded by other cars travelling at the same speed !!