Nearly four decades after the launch of 1G in 1979, telecom networks are now rapidly moving towards 5G. Telecom operators globally are strengthening their 5G connectivity. India is also witnessing growth in 5G coverage. As of August 2023, Jio and Airtel have installed 314,000 5G base stations, making India’s 5G service roll-out among the fastest in the world.

While the expansion of 5G connectivity is gaining momentum, work for laying the groundwork for the subsequent generation of technology, that is 6G, has already started. Although 6G is expected to be rolled out by 2030, countries worldwide have started discussions around developing standards and generating intellectual property for the technology. India has launched the Bharat 6G Alliance, a collaborative platform comprising public and private companies, academia, research ins­titutions, and standards development organisations. The alliance aims to build coalitions and synergies with other 6G glo­bal alliances, promoting international co­operation and knowledge exchange.

Together, both 5G and 6G technologies will usher in new and innovative use ca­ses across industries. They will create se­veral opportunities for stakeholders in­cluding telecom operators, towercos, digital infrastructure providers, network testing companies, software/device provi­de­rs and developers.

Market trends

According to the latest data by GSA, 543 operators worldwide are investing in 5G, while 265 have launched 5G services commercially. Of these, 162 are in the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region, 62 in Asia Pacific (APAC) and 41 are in the Americas. In terms of demand, the Eric­sson Mobility Report notes that global 5G subscriptions rose to 1.3 billion during the second quarter of 2023. India accounted for most of the net additions (7 million) during the period, followed by China (5 million) and the US (3 million).

Further, industry experts believe that the 6G market is currently valued at $5.1 billion and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 34.2 per cent from 2023 to 2030. The revenue from the technology is forecast to reach $40.2 billion by 2030. The key drivers for the technology will be the increasing demand for ultra high-speed connectivity in enterprises to support data-intensive applications and the adoption of internet of things (IoT), augmented reality and virtual reality, etc.

Role of open networks

With the rapid global roll-out of 5G , the concept of open radio access network (RAN) has gained significant interest. Open RAN’s role in accelerating 5G adoption and improving its cost-effectiveness is becoming increasingly popular, particularly for smaller mobile network operators. This is because it allows them to avoid being locked into proprietary hardware and software from a single vendor, which has traditionally been the case in the telecom industry.

Further, the technology can promote the use of virtualisation and cloud technologies in the mobile industry. By using open interfaces and standard application programming interfaces, it allows the integration of different vendors’ solutions and technologies, simplifying the deployment of new services and applications. This approach provides network operators with greater control over the network, and can result in faster innovation, more efficient network management and better service quality.

According to Omdia, the adoption of open RAN is expected to grow by 50 per cent annually, reaching a market size of $1.4 billion by 2024. With major global telecom players such as Telefonica and Vo­da­fone committing to implementing open RAN in their networks, it is likely that more telcos will follow suit.

Further, open RAN will be a part of future 6G networks. Since 6G networks will be driven by artificial intelligence (AI), they will be automatically monitored, op­ti­mised and reconfigured. However, to enable this, open RAN infrastructure is essential. In fact, industry experts view open RAN as the foundation of future 6G networks.

Complementary technologies

Apart from open RAN, several other complementary technologies such as edge computing, network slicing, AI, machine learning (ML) and IoT can be utilised to support new applications and services that require high speed and low latency connectivity in 5G networks. Each of these technologies has its own set of use cases, which are also inextricably connected to one another. For example, edge computing can reduce latency by processing data closer to the end-user while network slicing enables the creation of virtual network slices that can be tailored to specific use cases. Both technologies enable the efficient use of network resources and support a range of applications.

In the 6G era, intelligent radio network orchestration will be integral to control the radio network for near-real-time and non-real-time applications. Further, 6G networks will support network flexibility through AI-enabled functions, particularly with ML systems. Hence, the role of AI/ML is significant in the envisioned 6G paradigm.

Infrastructure requirements

A robust infrastructure is essential for en­abling 5G roll-outs today and 6G roll-outs in the future. Improving fiberisation levels and increasing small cell deployment are critical for the successful roll-out of 5G services. Fibre-based backhaul is required to achieve low latency, low interference and high network capacity in these ad­vanced telecom networks. Small cells are emerging as a critical component of the global 5G roll-out strategy, given that most telecom operators are using millimetre wave spectrum, which has higher ca­pacity rates but covers smaller distances. Thus, radios need to be closer compared to 3G or 4G, making small cells a natural fit for 5G roll-out. Each small cell must be backhauled through fibre, further highlighting the importance of fiberisation for 5G deployment.

For 6G networks, it is unclear whether they will be fully supported by the infrastructure of pre-existing generations, especially 5G, or if a complete overhaul of infrastructure will be necessary. Never­theless, it is important to recongise that the existing tower infrastructure is unsustainable, and the complete utilisation of 5G and subsequently 6G potential will require a more robust and sustainable inf­rastructure.

Challenges and the way ahead

While both 5G and 6G technologies promise various use cases across domains, their deployment comes with its share of challenges. A key challenge is that expanding 5G services requires substantial investment. According to a recent report, the Indian te­lecom industry would require a total investment of Rs 921 billion-Rs 1,411 billion during 2022-27 to deploy the various building blocks of 5G, including fibre and micro­wave, outdoor small cells and in-building solutions. For an industry that is already burdened with debt, securing such large investments is a formidable challenge.

Another challenge is the increased susceptibility of 5G to cyberthreats due to the unique features that differentiate it from earlier communication technologies. Its ov­er dependence on the cloud, IoT and vir­tualisation creates potential risks for ma­jor security flaws and introduces new attack surfaces. The large number of de­vices connected to a 5G network, each with varying levels of security, adds to these security challenges.

When it comes to 6G, the alliance between open RAN and AI/ML raises concerns about security and privacy. The hyperconnected internet of everything data collection for 6G application services may also raise privacy concerns. In addition, open RAN’s virtualised and software-based architecture expands the threat and attack surface of the network. Therefore, the open and AI-enabled 6G radio network is susceptible to hacking, attacks and disruptions. However, as 6G technology is still at a nascent stage, it remains to be seen how these challenges unfold in the future.

In sum, despite the deployment challenges, both 5G and 6G promise an innovative future that relies on supporting data-intensive applications, delivering high network speeds and enhancing customer experiences.