Tech Policy Trends 2024: The 6G hope – will it cost operators less than 5G?

Tech Policy Trends 2024: The 6G hope – will it cost operators less than 5G?

Predicting the emergence of 6G once seemed a simple task based on previous generations of cellular technology. However, with efficiency increasing and demand beginning to plateau, how will 2024 shape the landscape for the next decade?

State of play

2024 may seem too soon to be talking about 6G given that its predecessor still feels like a relatively new offering. But with the first 5G deployments beginning service in 2018, it is now five years old in leading countries. That qualifies it as more of a mature technology than a new concept. While 5G continues to evolve, much attention is now focused on what will succeed it.

Back in 2022, predicting the emergence of 6G would have seemed fairly easy. Each generation of cellular technology has been broadly 10 times faster than the previous generation, had 10 times more capacity, and arrived 10 years later. On this basis, 6G would become widely deployed around 2030 and deliver average data rates of about 2 Gbps.

However, in the last year or so there has been an increasing realisation that the 5G vision was flawed. Its higher data rates are yet to yield any new applications or revenue streams for mobile operators, while its complexity and use of higher frequency bands have required significant capital investment. Mobile operators are now reducing their network investment and key suppliers, such as Ericsson and
Nokia, are suffering as a result, with significant cost savings announced.

Over the last year, it has also become increasingly apparent that mobile data growth rates are slowing. Instead of expanding by 50-60% a year, data rates are now growing by around 20-30% a year. Logically, this fall will continue absent any new drivers because the biggest driver of data usage by far is video, and there are only so many hours in the day that consumers will want to watch video on a handset. As more and more users get close to this limit, the overall growth in mobile data usage will slow. This could imply that data usage will reach a plateau before 2030, which would make delivering increased capacity an unimportant element of 6G.

These trends have led to increasing doubt regarding whether 6G will be 10x faster and whether it will be delivered in 2030. Mobile operators have been much more vocal than during the equivalent formative period in 5G, broadly stating that they want 6G to only be a software update and not require new network equipment – and this has been especially true for base stations.

With the rising costs of deploying dense networks requiring increasing numbers of base stations, mobile operators are also more interested in features that reduce their costs than those that deliver wider capabilities to consumers. Consequently, operators are in no hurry for 6G’s arrival, suggesting they may prefer to wait until well into the 2030s.

That said, mobile operators generally do not play a leading role in the development of mobile standards; equipment manufacturers normally drive this process. Manufacturers would prefer a solution that
required hardware replacement and delivered 6G sooner, as that boosts their revenues. Equally, manufacturers recognise that if they develop a solution beyond the requirements of their customers, that may undermine sales.

Although 6G remains some way off, the next few years will determine the direction of standards, which will ultimately set in stone the form that 6G takes.

Big questions

The key question for 6G is whether the “10x vision” or the “software only” vision comes to pass. In practice, standards are full of compromises and options, meaning there can be elements of both. The question therefore hinges on which direction the standard leans towards.

This decision will be strongly influenced by three factors:

  •  Whether mobile data growth rates continue to slow.
  • Whether any new applications emerge that require 5G.
  • Geopolitics and national incentives.

Behind this is an even bigger uncertainty: the future of mobile operators and industry suppliers. For example, a software-only future would indicate that there is limited growth potential and that the industry was tending towards becoming more of a utility.

As 6G is still six or more years from realisation, predictions for 2024 need to cover leading indicators rather than hard data, such as 6G base stations sold.

On these leading indicators, we predict that:

1. Mobile data growth rates will be lower in 2024 than in 2023 by around 3-5% per year (so a growth rate of 25% might fall to 20-22%).

2. No significant new 5G applications will emerge.

3. There will be more coverage of cost savings by mobile operators than of network enhancement and 5G expansion.

Our 6G prediction is that, during 2024, the “software-only” vision will gain the upper hand. Measuring this directly will be very difficult, but one indication may be that there is less press interest in 6G because the vision itself is less interesting for journalists. This would be contrary to a normal trend that would see ever-growing mentions as the concept developed and a launch date drew progressively closer.

Other indicators include the level of interest in “10x features” compared to that in “software-only” features. For example, one of the key areas in 10x 6G has been the use of THz frequencies – bands above 100 GHz that have huge capacity but very limited range. To make these more usable, there has been much research into intelligent reflective surfaces that can bounce signals around obstacles.

Conversely, an area of greater interest to software-only 6G has been the possible use of AI to optimise networks, delivering more capacity from existing resources. We would expect to see interest in THz and associated technologies fade during 2024, while the excitement around using AI and similar will grow (although to some degree this may be more of a reflection of the general growth in interest in AI).

2024 will not be definitive for 6G, but the next 12 months will go a long way towards establishing both what form it will take and when we can expect it to arrive.

Related Articles

Driving Brazil’s app ecosystem: The economic impact of Google Play and Android

Driving Brazil’s app ecosystem: The economic impact of Google Play and Android

With the largest Internet population in Latin America and the fourth-largest market for app adoption globally, Brazil is an established...

15 Apr 2024 Opinion
Access Alert: Brazilian authorities ask for contributions on AI and connectivity

Access Alert: Brazilian authorities ask for contributions on AI and connectivity

On 9 April, Brazil’s National Telecommunications Authority (Anatel) released a public consultation to gather contributions and insights about the role...

11 Apr 2024 Latest AI Thought Leadership
Access Alert: Orbiting innovation – key satellite industry trends unveiled at SATELLITE 2024

Access Alert: Orbiting innovation – key satellite industry trends unveiled at SATELLITE 2024

The SATELLITE 2024 conference in Washington, DC, took place between 18-21 March 2024. The event brought together close to 15,000...

28 Mar 2024 Opinion
Access Alert: Saudi Arabia launches consultation on spectrum management

Access Alert: Saudi Arabia launches consultation on spectrum management

Continuing the efforts carried out by the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CST) to improve Saudi Arabia’s regulatory framework and...

26 Mar 2024 Opinion