Over the past three to four decades, telecommunications and internet have impacted our lives in unprecedented ways. Major societal and economic trends are defining the needs of the future. Now the discussion is focused on the interaction between the communication networks and the human world, the digital world, and the physical world.
In such a scenario, we have just embarked on a fifth generation (5G) journey. We are starting to discuss what should define 6G. My focus is not on delving into details in any particular area, but to hopefully, point out that perhaps it is time to re-think how we embark on the 6G journey so that we are in the right place eight to 10 years from now.
Connectivity Is Important
A combination of innovation, evolution, application, and devices will drive the next generation connectivity. March of technology cannot be stopped. However, when we talk about generations, we refer to mobile connectivity.
We have crossed that threshold to move towards universality of bandwidth delivery across to humanity machines and robots.
I hope you would agree with me that mobile connectivity has had its limitations, it has often been too difficult or too expensive to reach users.
There has been a lack of ubiquitous coverage. There has been inconsistent user experience.
Having said that, the benefits of technology evolution are there for all to see. Nonetheless, experience tells us that by the time we reach perfection, you embark upon the next ‘G’.
In all this, it is hard to define a perfect service or even the definition for a service. I do wonder if this is the right approach.
Is Fastest 5G Available to All?
Let us look at 5G, which is very topical right now. Whilst I appreciate that 5G is in a nascent stage of deployment around the world and many countries like India have not yet started a mass rollout, do we think that the fastest ‘go-faster stripes’ version of 5G will be available to all?
There is a dependency – fastest 5G is available only when the operators provide the ultra-wide band (UWB) service.
What does that ultra-wide band service use?
It uses the millimetre wave (mmWave) technology, which is unlikely to be rolled out in a ubiquitous way. At present 0.5% have the benefit of that service as quoted by Verizon.
So, we start to see a trade-off between coverage and (bandwidth/spectrum) capacity emerging.
If I look at my crystal ball, I see that the legacy that 5G will leave us with is a mishmash of low-band, sub-6G or mmWave probably leading to an inconsistent user experience. I would call this an apartheid.
There is apathy to this approach.
We are once again creating differences. There are implications, which must be considered.
Not a Question of 6G
So, what do we do with 6G? What bandwidth can you provide, what service are you providing, what user experience are you guaranteeing?
Whatever it is, it will be limited by where the weakest link in the chain lies.
Serving up gigabit (Gb) speeds, greater capacity, and ultra-low latency are the needs of today.
Operators have densified radio networks with more antennas, so it is easier to get a signal, while cloud technologies and edge computing mean data can be processed closer to users – even at a mast level, so latency is much lower.
How do you connect to the cloud technologies, how do you take advantage of the edge computing?
You need more than just wireless connectivity. Perhaps you need more fibre connectivity!
Probably this means completely re-architecting the network.
Can we do it in a cost-effective way? If we do not, then what happens to ultra-low latency applications?
As an example, is fibre connectivity needed everywhere regardless of the spectrum (low, sub-6G, mmWave, future is sub-Terahertz (THz) and THz) to ensure that user experience is consistent everywhere?
We have to identify the weakest link or links in the chain. What is it—fibre or wireless or even real estate—where or how will you house mobile edge computing sites?
Does the current infrastructure support that? Something to think about.
So, we must have a balancing act and this could well be both applications and scalability dependent. But some applications with low latency requirements will need a more ubiquitous network such as driverless cars or robotics or haptics (the use of technology that stimulates the senses of touch and motion, especially to reproduce in remote operation or computer simulation the sensations that would be felt by a user interacting directly with physical objects.) or telemedicine, and artificial intelligence (AI).
The balancing act has to be around speed, capacity, the coverage, distance and the latency needs of emerging applications and above all might be real time scalability.
No one size fits all but a reasonable fit around parameters is needed. We could do that in generation 2 and 3, because we only had size zero to cater to ‘voice’, but no longer.
Do We Have a Goal Post?
So, what are we aiming for—6G for all or 6G for some?
6G sizing all the way or fixing the first mile problem once again?
Pablo Picasso once said, "Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.”
It is fun to get creative and call fancy plays, but at the end of the day, it comes down to executing and delivering on well-defined objectives, cost effectively with financial prudence.
I ask myself, what will this 6G journey be?
Will it be a long pass or a short pass to the goal post using a football analogy if I may? The centre forward manipulates the goalkeeper. The focus should be on the fundamentals.
Therefore, to conclude, who will be the centre forwards in the 6G debate?
Will we continue with the cycle of technology research followed by a study phase and developing specifications in an iterative manner as we identify flaws and try and reach perfection again before 7G comes along!
Is it time to break the cycle?
To do it right, and I say this with all due respect to everyone, let it not be left to just the academics and researchers, industry out to make a quick buck at the expense of a few by my making slick presentations for the gullible.
We need to be mindful of the steps in the journey and user expectations.
Let the telecom industry not take the financial and technological burden to deliver on the promises of the new world needs.
Let us do it right.
Let us make it a more inclusive process right from the outset.
Remember what Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to the US Congress, had said? She said, "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."
(Brijendra (BK) Syngal is a pioneer in the Indian telecommunication sector and is credited with bringing the internet to India. He is fondly referred to as the 'Father of Internet & Data Services'. He has been the chairman of VSNL. His illustrious career is depicted in his biography, “The Telecom Man”.)