Talk of what mobile networks may look like in 2030 has, until recently, been met with raised eyebrows and impatience.
Typical comments – ‘2030 will be 6G, but we haven’t even deployed 5G properly yet’; ‘my job depends on monetizing the network in the next three years, not the next decade’, and so on.
These are quite reasonable comments, and too much future-focusing can be a way to distract from current challenges and disappointments, leading to accusations of ‘always jam tomorrow, never jam today’. It was encouraging that this year’s Mobile World Congress had far less hype about ‘6G’ than expected, and far more emphasis on addressing the challenges of today in a pragmatic way.
However, 2030 is now less than seven years away. That is not a long time in the world of hi-tech infrastructure, especially if, this time around, we need to focus on an evolving platform that will not need to be replaced every 10 years. To achieve a future mobile platform that can support the use cases and behaviors of the future (whatever they may be), but can also build on the deployments and investments of the present, requires deep thought and clear planning – and that needs to start now.
So this year’s Small Cells World Summit isn’t going all blue-sky or sci-fi, but there is a strong awareness that however the networks of 2030 look, they will be largely based on ever-larger numbers of small cells. Whether we are thinking about fully immersive experiences, next-generation Industrial Internet, or the ‘metaverse’, it is clear that ubiquitous coverage and high capacity will be needed to connect every possible location, person and device.
So, the conference’s first session will be entitled ‘Generating value on the roadmap to 2030’, reflecting the need to start thinking about what will be required from connectivity by that date, and how the industry can build towards a platform to support those requirements. Essentially, the old ‘build and they will come’ model that defined the mobile market is certainly over for 5G and future 6G. Now, operators and infrastructure builders must be able to evolve their networks in such a way that each milestone can be monetized, with new capabilities and use cases layered on the old ones.
So, while some of the speakers will set out the key stages on the journey to 2030 or 6G, this will not be about mighty leaps or replacing the 4G and 5G small cells of today. Instead, different sessions will examine how current systems can evolve – for instance, leveraging the 5G core to implement 5G Standalone first, and therefore enable immediate new revenue streams, then building on that base to add further new capabilities as the 5G-Advanced standards roll out.
It is already clear that small cells often lead the way in these architectural evolutions. Macro networks have significant challenges of backwards compatibility and seamless roaming, that encourage conservatism, but small cells are often being deployed in greenfield scenarios such as new-build factories or a new layer of capacity to support a venue or city beneath the macrocells. This means they can implement the most advanced solutions available from day one. This was clear in 2022, when vendors were openly disappointed at the slow progress of 5G SA, except in small cell networks, where there were large numbers of deployments and trials. These self-contained roll-outs contribute to broader industry progress by showcasing the type of new experiences and use cases that 5G SA, and in future 5G-Advanced, will enable. Deployers, developers and enterprises can experiment in relatively low-risk environments before they try to implement something radical in the main network.
Over time, this will reverse the traditional order of roll-out of new standards – macrocells first, followed by small cells when capacity is stretched. In the remaining years of the 2020s, small cells will increasingly lead the way because operators will need entirely new use cases to support revenue growth, and these will often need a new approach to network design. Talk of spectrum famines will die away, but much of the plentiful new spectrum will be in high frequencies and so lend itself to densification and to ‘hotspot’ deployments to support specific locations or customers, rather than coverage.
These questions and topics will be covered by the SCWS speakers as they dwell, in parallel, on the future nature of connectivity, and the path to move profitably from the current systems to those of 2030.
Two words will be more important even than the old mobile themes of speed, coverage or capacity. These are sustainability and monetization. If these cannot be assured in the planning of 2030’s networks, we may not see ‘6G’ at all. A discussion of how small cell networks can make networks more sustainable in future, led by BT, is sure to be a hot ticket.
And without monetization models, investors will not flock to support another generation of mobility. They will look for new architectures, heavily based on small cells, that can enable new experiences and applications and expand connectivity to more communities and devices. But that process must be step-by-step, not a big bang, and there must be revenue and return on investment opportunities at each step, and for each stakeholder in an increasingly complex ecosystem.
The panel debate that will round off this session is aptly entitled ‘Monetizing an iterative roadmap to next generation connectivity’. This sums up the entire challenge facing the mobile industry between 2023 and 2030, and seven years is not a long time to work out the best solutions. Whatever they prove to be, small cells will be at the heart of the next generation of connectivity. The work of groups such as SCF, and cooperations from conference discussions to plugfests, will all be important contributions to identifying the best business models and architectures for the future.
To join the conversation, register for SCWS 2023 in London here.