In late October, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Anne Neuberger, Deputy National Security Adviser for Cyber and Emerging Technology for President Biden, as part of the opening keynote at 6Gworld’s 6GSymposium in Washington D.C. When asked about how the industry needs a diverse set of trusted suppliers for the 5G wireless industry (and going forward into 6G), Ms. Neuberger stressed the importance of global consumer needs in the context of the security community.
“When we think about connected cars, when we think about robotics and manufacturing, all of those require data and they require high speed, uninterrupted data. And we’re all consuming more data today than we did yesterday and more data today than we did a year ago. The growth of the technologies around telecommunication […] is foundational to our country leading in these economic areas and in innovation on the global stage. Similarly, from a national security perspective, the national security community needs the same technology. We’ve been talking about the networked battlefield for a decade. Those fundamentally rely on sensors, deployed on platforms, on various kinds of platforms in the air, sea, and on land used by individual fighters.”
There are several important points here to unpack. First, the appetite for connectivity is always increasing, and since humans are mobile creatures, the need for mobile bandwidth grows every year with no end in sight. Second, broadband is now evolving to include all sorts of applications, many with machine-to-machine connectivity that have strenuous requirements for throughput, latency, and reliability. Finally, entire industries are looking to converge with traditional cellular networks to leverage the benefits of the massive R&D spending that has led to the multi-trillion-dollar cellular industry we know today.
Ms. Neuberger then points to the defense sector, which relies increasingly on robust connectivity. She hints at the incredible potential for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to leverage commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) cellular platforms to host bespoke solutions (both existing and new) that meet the unique needs of our warfighters. The same is true of other large industries such as manufacturing, medicine, and transportation. These industries represent enormous potential sources of new revenue to cellular carriers. They already have massive IT solutions serving billions of customers today and will create huge value if they migrate smoothly to work onto wireless networks. However, first we need to drive some architectural changes to the wireless networks that will allow these innovations to be incorporated profitably.
The Path Towards Multi-Generational Innovation
We’ve already “virtualized” the critical networking applications, meaning almost all modern networks already run as software. Most of these applications can run using general-purpose silicon, and we need to keep pushing in that direction. Next, networks are becoming increasingly programmable, and we need to push to full programmability. There is now a big debate in the industry, with some proposing System-on-Chips (SoCs) to lower power and cost versus the alternative of running on general-purpose silicon. While moving quickly to SoCs is tempting short term, it risks creating an impediment to the enablement of continuous innovation. My personal view is that innovation is the critical vector. Innovation will drive by far the greatest impact on overall network economics through improved spectral efficiency, network performance, and agility. Waveforms can be optimized for specific applications. Meanwhile, Moore’s Law will continue to drive down the underlying cost/performance of the silicon, leading to the best outcomes, both short term and long term.
Once virtualized and fully programmable, we need to create a platform to host multiple waveforms. This was the goal several years ago for Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) that intended to pull together 4G and 5G in a single package, except that it led to significant performance degradation, leading to limited deployment. The issues plaguing DSS could be solved if networks are fully programmable all the way down to Layer1 (the “physical” layer), an approach that is embraced today by Intel in its FlexRAN solution. Once wireless networks are fully programmable, the real fun begins.
If 4G and 5G can be packaged, any G can be packaged, leading to a faster pace of innovation. The road to 6G doesn’t need to be another 10-year process, stretching from study to discussion (and compromise) to standardization and then to implementation. Applications that arise can quickly be defined, and then wireless solutions can be built and hosted by a common multi-generational (Multi-G) platform. In this marketplace of continuous innovation, networks don’t need to be decommissioned and then repurposed as technology evolves. Rather, all networks will be Multi-G networks and continuously evolve in software, with occasional hardware upgrades when price/performance warrants. This will lead to the most efficient use of spectrum with little or no stranded spectrum that requires refarming.
During the morning keynote on Day 2 of the 6G Symposium, Igal Elbaz, SVP, Network CTO at AT&T,stated: “We need continuous progress. Don’t think in G blocks. We need a robust and converged network. To interact with APIs and software, it must be open and programmable. We will need a highly distributable cloud, converged broadband and wireless, and open networks that minimize capex. Network enhancements will need to be software based.”
Already today, 60 per cent of AT&T’s traffic is running on open and disaggregated platforms, accordingly to Elbaz. This is what real change and leadership looks like, and other carriers are following suit.
Understanding the Lessons of the Past to Secure a Bright Future
6G technology must deliver on the specific goals of significantly lowering costs while opening up massive new sources of revenue – the foundation for further profitable growth for carriers worldwide. I’ll discuss the required cost structure later, but first let’s discuss revenue, which has largely alluded carriers that purchased licenses and deployed 5G networks only to find that to date they’ve gained more “all you can eat” mobile broadband.
These potential new revenue sources are largely enterprise-based today, and they are best pursued with a platform strategy that allows entire industries to migrate to cellular connectivity without undue burdens to existing users, as illustrated by Ms. Neuberger’s example of the global defense sector. But this will only happen if we remove or reduce the friction for these applications to migrate without major changes to the user experience. Imagine that the defense sector could ride on cellular networks, but only if users change their equipment and user experiences. It’s not going to happen in any large industry vertical. Cellular innovations need to provide a seamless path for migration, period.
To further illustrate the point, let’s look back at the transition from 2G to 3G. Since cellular “generations” often take approximately 10 years from initial concept to deployment, it’s important to recall that discussions around 3G began prior to the internet becoming what it is today. Incredibly, the IMT-2000 specification (3G) didn’t even mention the word “internet”. Still, during the 1990s, as the internet bubble grew, 3G was repositioned to be “multimedia”. Wireless suppliers back then suggested approaches like WAP (Wireless Access Protocol) and BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless). These approaches dictated that applications that enterprises used to support their users must be modified to run over cellular networks. There would be a wireless app for eBay, for Amazon, for Schwab, for E*TRADE, and so on. There would actually be a “wireless web”, that would run in parallel to the “wired web” as a walled garden. That really was the plan. Companies like Nokia proposed Symbian, while BlackBerry had its own proprietary enterprise OS.
Of course, we all know what happened. Apple unleashed the web using a PC that looked like a phone, and the iPhone era drove the migration to 4G almost overnight, replacing the poor 3G user experience and driving more than a decade of profitable growth for operators. Looking back, 3G had the shortest life cycle of any “G” largely because it didn’t drive new revenue. It was merely a wider version of the prior 2G (CDMA) standard, with marginally better cost benefits. It was simply a four-lane version of the existing wireless highway.
Here we are again with 5G being a four-lane version of the 4G (OFDM) highway, generating more mobile broadband at marginally lower cost. Is it possible that 5G will have a similarly stunted utility? Time will tell.
So, let’s turn to cost. Cloud economics are the only path to meaningful improvement in operator profitability, period. With a fully programmable, software-based Open RAN, we have finally enabled the migration to Cloud RAN. With a Multi-G platform that can host 4G/5G/6G and beyond in seamless coexistence, network architectures can evolve to move the scheduler to the edge data center. This further improves spectral efficiency through Coordinated MultiPoint (CoMP) and enables policy enforcement from the cloud where the User Plane Function (UPF) sits. This makes the migration of enterprise applications simpler and allows users to connect seamlessly just like they do today from home to office and in-between.
In the coming months, leading up to MWC Barcelona in 2024, several industry innovators will come together to lay out the foundation for an open, secure, distributed cloud RAN. To be clear, this will be a vision at first. But leveraging the work of many innovators of the past decade, we will quickly deliver to carriers the first opportunity to profitably harvest enterprise applications and continue to deliver on the wireless promise.
The future comes at you fast. With smart planning, foresight, creative thinking, and tremendous passion, what seems impossible can be accomplished. I experienced this firsthand as the CEO of Flarion Technologies, as we pioneered OFDM in what was then a CDMA world. We created what is now known as LTE. Sometimes you need to challenge conventional wisdom to change the world.
Stay tuned for news about our progress in the coming months.
Ray Dolan, Chairman and CEO