At a minimum, the last 18 months have made one thing clear: fast, dependable connectivity has become our collective lifeblood. It has proven to be essential for consumers, enterprises, and governments.
Customer expectations have also become crystal clear: calls for "I want what I want when I want it" have greater urgency than ever before.
In a bit of serendipity, the ongoing rollout of 5G is enabling game-changing connectivity. The power of 5G will also accelerate the digital transformation of multiple industries.
Establishing the major themes
The present and future of communications are dominated by three major themes: network modernization, new use cases and business models, and the evolution to 6G.
Looking at modernization, the new networks are software-based, and some have joked that "everything but the antenna is software." This is getting closer and closer to the truth. To meet the demands of consumers enterprise for connectivity, bandwidth, and latency, the network needs to offer unprecedented scale at a lower cost. Solutions include virtualization and autonomous management.
Next, new use cases and business models are the paths to new revenues. For mobile network operators, consumer wireless still accounts for more than 70 percent of annual revenues. New possibilities in vertical markets and industrial applications will provide new growth.
Third, as the global rollout of 5G continues, research into 6G is picking up. The goal is to deliver the evolutionary and revolutionary changes needed to enable a vision of pervasive connectivity.
With this baseline, let's look at the path ahead and a pair of time horizons that will be here before we know it: 2026 and 2031.
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Envisioning the future: 2026
The longstanding notion of "everyone and everything, connected" has the potential to deliver a powerful set of benefits to consumers, businesses, and governments. Expectations continue to evolve as more users, devices, and use-cases demand the best quality of service (QoS).
These expectations are all about dependable, pervasive, and seamless connectivity—and 5G will enable this, likely being available to 60 percent of the global population by 2026. Ericsson expects 5G subscriptions to grow to more than 3 billion, and some forecasts predict that by that time, 5G networks will carry more than 50 percent of total mobile data
traffic. This is based, in part, on an expanding array of possibilities:
- Mobile cloud-gaming, expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 41 percent
- New industrial use-cases, which could be a $1 trillion business by 2028
- Connected transportation, which is crucial to autonomous vehicles
- NTN based in part on constellations of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites
- As many as six billion cellular IoT connections, with half being "mission-critical IoT"
While growth may come from the next "killer app," significant opportunities are likely to come from areas such as new services for retail and industrial applications, including private networks. There could also be opportunities to create lucrative new marketplaces no one has yet imagined.
Envisioning the future: 2031
By 2031, early networks for 6G will be ramping up: the convergence of the physical, digital, and human worlds through applications, computing, and communications. Some have called this new level of interaction the Internet of Everything.
One key characteristic will be the co-existence and seamless integration of heterogenous radio-access technologies, far beyond what is possible today. 6G use cases will also drive the need for higher data rates. This entails using spectrum above 100 GHz with multi-gigahertz bandwidths while also making even more use of bands below 100 GHz. Spectral efficiency, energy efficiency, and waveform design will play crucial roles.
AI-driven network management will enable flexibility, and time-engineering will be necessary to facilitate new use cases. 5G's low-latency benchmarks will be augmented by time-predictability, in which the absolute time of arrival of data (neither too soon, nor too late) will be precise. This requires exceptional capabilities in time synchronization and routing control.
With such dramatic changes in the interactions of humans, machines, and the connected world, trust and security must be designed in from the beginning. The consequences of hacks and breaches are already severe—so 6G will need to achieve high levels of sophistication in detecting and neutralizing threats while enhancing threat prevention and organizational resiliency.
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Leading the way with openness
Coming back to the present, the path to 2026 and 2031 starts with a fundamental change that is currently underway: the advent of open radio-access networks or open RAN. This approach standardizes interfaces in a disaggregated RAN architecture to enable flexible network deployment, and it also drives a common approach to virtualizing the RAN. Open RAN has evolved into the concept of the RAN intelligent controller or RIC, which is an initial step towards the inevitability of merging the RAN and the core network.
While this has the advantage of reducing infrastructure costs and enabling flexible expansion for mobile operators, it adds interoperability challenges amongst network elements from different vendors, both software and hardware. Another challenge: open interfaces also increase the security attack surface, demanding more and better security measures. Industry leaders are working together to address these challenges through an organization called the O-RAN Alliance.
We can reframe all of this as an opportunity to facilitate change within organizations and across the industry. It can be useful to split this into parallel trains of thought: accelerating new use cases and managing crucial risks.
First, a clear mindset can help accelerate new use cases. Moving from vision to action to success starts, as always, with speed of execution. This is even more important for those seeking differentiation through new business models that will focus the technology on areas that will ensure the most impact.
Second, business is always about managing risks, and new technologies must be developed and validated quickly and confidently. So, whether you are making semiconductors, network systems, or user equipment (or other new devices); whether you are a service provider, hyper-scaler, or an automotive OEM, creating new alliances based on shared goals has proven to be another key to success.
Ultimately, the ability to drive changes that anticipate and meet future expectations requires research, design, and validation alongside processes that effectively and continuously assess user experience within critical use cases. From semiconductor device physics to advanced radio systems to autonomous and virtualized network systems, making it all work will require expertise and tools that assess everything from physical and functional behavior to QoS.
Making our way forward
Looking across the technologies shaping the future of connectivity, the path ahead is filled with challenges. For leaders in technology, our role is to help the industry accelerate innovation and thereby accelerate progress towards dependable connectivity, new possibilities, and exceptional user experience. We look forward to working with the industry and exploring this path together.
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Kailash Narayanan, President, Commercial Communications, Keysight Technologies