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5G is doing just fine--but if you judge it by the wrong benchmark, it looks like it’s failed. So, we need to avoid making the same mistakes for 6G

Wow! What a disappointment that 5G was, huh?

The vendors all over-promised (‘Networks spent years telling us that 5G would change everything’) and (to quote the same sneery analysis) ‘the flashiest use cases are nowhere to be found’ and the industry will now have to find ways to somehow recoup all that investment (‘The race to 5G is over — now it’s time to pay the bill’).

5G is doing just fine--but if you judge it by the wrong benchmark, it looks like it’s failed. So, we need to avoid making the same mistakes for 6G
Written by
Guy Redmill
Published on
2 May 2024

Lest you now be prepared to shrug with irritation and stop reading, we don’t agree with this view at all. Yes, 5G seems to have disappointed many, and a lot of money has been spent since it officially kicked off in 2019. CTIA estimates that in the US, vendors have so far invested $160 billion in 5G since the start of 2018 and may eventually commit $275 billion in rollout: Europe has spent even more, perhaps $400 billion; Asia-Pac telcos will invest at least $259 billion on networks by 2030, mostly in 5G. Africa is lagging for sure--by 2027, Ericsson predicts that 80% of European phone users will have 5G service but Africa more like 10%, but the money is being spent to upgrade the continent’s infrastructure up from 4G regardless.

These numbers show how seriously the sector takes 5G, and there’s plenty of data out there to show uptake of the thing; it’s now almost a cliché of 5G summaries to say it’s being adopted quicker than previous cycles of network tech, and we are all fairly sure that 5G subscriber numbers, already at 2.8 billion, will hit 5.9 billion by 2027.

But in almost a now-standard way, the consensus seems to be building that 5G has so far failed to expand use cases beyond mobile broadband and FWA (Fixed Wireless Access), and so “ultimately change the revenue trajectory for the carriers” (translation: make more dough).

Against this conclusion, no wonder PwC says a “lack of enthusiastic customer migration” in North America means returns on 5G investments have so far been “underwhelming”. As none of us need reminding that 5G is not really a consumer play (even though it was incautiously hyped as such by some operators) and really can only deliver long-term and at scale in B2B, that kind of doesn’t make sense… but 5G advocates do now need to find a response to the scepticism.

Reframing the 5G narrative

There is certainly unease in many boardrooms right now. Senior representatives of Vodafone UK, BT and Orange recently spoke in public about the ‘tough’ situation they feel they are in: “After years of heavy investments into sunsetting legacy assets and rolling out fibre and 5G, they believe they need time to monetise these efforts.”

There are, of course, several current external factors at play here—not just ‘5G,’ but also inflation, energy costs and higher interest rates than we’ve had for a generation. But when BT says it is spending £5bn a year on investing to refresh the access network and moving off 4G, then something is clearly going on.

But what is also surely true is that we need a period of consolidation. At that same event, BT’s networks head stressed that the industry needs to pause to allow it to get some ROI out all the money spent in the last few years: “It will come good, provided we as the technologists have some discipline with how fast we want to refresh this stuff…. [so] let’s not rush 6G too soon. Let’s make it 2032, not 2028.”

That period of consolidation and reaping the genuine gains there are to be had from 5G has to start with patience and commitment to education. We must be accurate about what we call things. We recently saw a diatribe from that suggested that while that awful 5G thing hadn’t done us any good, something much better was coming: 5.5G!

… but not in naïve ways, either

“Something intense is on the horizon, and it’s designed for those seeking relief from 5G's scattered shortcomings," this organisation states. Apparently, this amazing new 5.5G thing can  accommodate a larger number of devices without compromising speed; will cover larger distances using fewer base stations, thereby reducing infrastructure costs; optimises power efficiency, allowing mobile devices to have extended battery life while maintaining a high-speed connection; and will end all 5G’s terrible “inefficiencies” by taking advantage of very useful-sounding enhanced cellular technology that promises to provide pervasive network coverage and capacity.

Sign me up. Oh, hang on; isn’t this is just the latest version of the standard? It’s not an amazing tech response to all the “problems” of 5G, and is actually exactly what we were promised and knew was coming… 5G Advanced, aka Release 18, which we were told about in, er, 2021? Wait until these guys hear about all the astounding advances in Release 19!

On the one hand, it’s a bit ignorant to not understand that no Network Generation emerges fully formed and that, throughout a standard’s evolution, advances come, and sometimes slower than one would like.

It’s also a little dim to not understand that the solution to the alleged “flaws” of the Fifth Generation is not more of the same but rather a wide rollout of 5G SA, which brings slicing (on a 4G/NSA core, you just can’t have this), and network slicing is almost certainly the “killer app” investors have been waiting for.

But we probably need to own up and accept these are misconceptions and imperfect understandings that the 5G industry created. There were probably just one too many over-excited PPTs in the early days and one too many dollar signs drawn in the eyes of the money guys, back when it was effectively free.

If we were to dial down the hype, explain as many times as necessary that 5G isn’t going to make your mobile phone service really that much sexier than it already us, and that 5G really happens when there’s these last steps in functionality available, then we might be OK and the days of headlines about how South Korea's biggest mobile telco says 5G has failed to deliver on its promise would be behind us.

We must have a better story for both 6G—one that doesn’t make it the basis of yet another politically desirable ‘universal broadband’

Yet, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the kitchen and full 5G SA availability remains a project in progress, suddenly 6G is all over the place. A year ago, His Majesty’s Government—in the same breath it committed to an “ambition” to deliver nationwide coverage of standalone 5G to all populated areas by 2030—set off hares racing about a £100 million investment to “draw on our expertise and experience” to ensure that “our wireless future works for British people and businesses in every corner of the country”.

Yes—but the sector urgently needs to strike a new deal/understanding with the Government to not let 6G excitement become fizz again. The best way to start would be to curb possibly needless expense and investment by, as part of potentially imminent license conditions, making national coverage for 6G be obligatory.

Doing so could be a huge mistake, as it could raise the spectre of overkill. There’s no point in running mobile Internet that’s anywhere from 10 to 1,000 times faster than current 5G networks over fields where the only possible beneficiaries would be England’s most abundant mammal, the beautiful but to our knowledge as yet not digitally transformed grass-tunnelling field vole.

Instead, a combination of existing tech, perhaps in areas that make technical but most importantly commercial sense, could make the vole’s human neighbours get to ‘6G’ in affordable and pragmatic ways. Doing so would mean we could very usefully swerve a new ‘universal’ ‘6G’ broadband mess, where MNOs are obliged to rollout nationally but have to commit to probably very expensive and even over-the-top functionality and speeds – the very investments that frighten their stakeholders and lead to recrimination further down the line.

A pragmatic, local 6G story would be so much better

Let’s not promise 6G in, say, Weymouth and Dorchester—beautiful parts of rural Dorset but which have populations (of which, for sure, a proportion will be the next British Elon Musk or Sam Altman) of 54,000 and 22,000 respectively, and instead say, We’ll give you an upgrade and hook you up to the global digital economy, but in ways that can be done quickly and easily and not by making everyone pay (and expect) billions.

Summing up, we have to have both a more mature story to tell about what 5G is and what it isn’t AND an equally mature (for which, read ‘adaptable and differentiated’) approach for what advanced connectivity makes sense where—not just some totally new and very possibly unrealistic new ‘lowest common denominator’.

That means we could avoid repeating the ‘5G didn’t deliver’ hype-disappointment cycle—and say that 6G will be great and worth doing but won’t be an answer to all your latency or data delivery prayers.

Let’s also just not promise 6G level speeds to areas that might well be better served by more local, indeed innovative, solutions. Maybe really bite the bullet and not even mention 6G in the consumer ads at all?

False hope? Perhaps. We can’t help ourselves; we must promise to get people excited.

But if you’re not clear about what the benefits are, that excitement turns all too quickly to disappointment… and, with 6G, to looking forward to the Next Shiny Object that will really be the bee’s knees.

In the meantime, let’s get behind 5.5.

Maybe it really is better than that awful 5G thing, huh?

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