Peter Jarich, Head, GSMA Intelligence

Welcome to the 6G Metaverse…and Welcome to 5G-Advanced

I suspect many people will read the title above and think, “this is just clickbait.” If you’re one of those people, know that you’re only partly correct. Over the course of the last year, the GSMA Intelligence team was busy putting together research and insights about the Metaverse, including a panel with our friends at Mobile World Live to dig into the topic following a Metaverse-heavy CES and industry acquisitions tied to Metaverse aspirations. 6G, too, was well-represented on our research agenda. As far as I know, we were the first research house to survey operators about their 6G expectations and R&D plans.

As much as 6G and the Metaverse were big topics in 2021, we know they will form an even bigger part of mobile network transformation discussions and new product launches circa 2022 as everyone tries to wrap their head around “the next big thing.” To be sure, attempts from various corners of the mobile ecosystem to attach themselves to these futuristic concepts will be cringe-worthy at times. And yet, 6G and the Metaverse will also drive very real network innovations that will be felt in the nearer-term – and that includes 5G-Advanced.

But let’s take a step back from the future to talk about operator network strategies in the here and now.

As much as the industry needs to begin planning for 2030’s market demands, today’s demands – and those out to the 2025 horizon – are much clearer. Much more pressing. This is why messaging around 6G advancements is dwarfed by more pragmatic innovations around open architectures, automation, telco cloud, new use cases, etc. It’s why visions of what the Metaverse might be take a backseat to forward progress on enterprise digital transformation. And it’s why the GSMA Intelligence team connects with operators on a regular basis to understand what operator demands, priorities, and network transformation strategies really look like.

Network transformation strategy drivers Primary goal driving your network transformation strategy?

Source: GSMA Intelligence

And what did we learn from our last survey, talking to 100 network execs from around the world? Lots. But, three things stand out. While Opex and Capex savings matter to operators, they are less important than generating new revenues and improved customer experience. A focus on customer experience means that coverage and capacity top 5G RAN priorities. And, the vast majority of operators expect 6G innovations to deliver 5G network performance improvements, with roughly one in 10 already having a 6G R&D program in place – an impressive figure given the development horizon.

These three dynamics, then, provide a context for what we can expect for the medium-term evolution of 5G. If 6G is planned for an appearance in 2030, but operators recognize that 5G improvements must be realized before that, it stands to reason that a mid-point advancement is needed. With an expected arrival around 2025, this is where 5G-Advanced comes into play. 5G-Advanced represents the 3GPP’s branding for evolution of 5G technologies to be delivered by 3GPP Release 18 specifications and beyond. And, as operators look to deliver new (revenue-generating) experiences, the role of 5G-Advanced (its role, and its potential) can be seen in what it hopes to achieve and the use cases it hopes to support.

  • Covering the Basics. At a very fundamental level, delivering solid mobile experiences relies on providing robust capacity where it’s needed. This explains why coverage, speed, and network performance claims form the basis of so much operator messaging; these are metrics that customers prize. And these metrics will only grow in importance as ubiquitous access to bandwidth-intensive applications becomes an increasingly critical part of our work and home lives. You see this in 5G-Advanced RAN priorities including MIMO, uplink coverage, uplink capacity, and mobility enhancements alongside smart repeaters, and RAN AI innovations which should result in improved Quality of Experience.

  • Covering New Industries - IoT. 5G was built to serve two purposes: address growing consumer data demands, while driving new enterprise use cases. This latter bit plays into the broad interest in growing revenues, and a more narrow one around IoT. Most discussion of enterprise digital transformation, after all, is about IoT. And, moving beyond the basics of coverage and capacity, IoT evolutions are at the core of 5G-Advanced RAN development including reduced capability devices for lower costs (RedCap), improved device positioning capabilities, drone support, and non-terrestrial network applications for IoT.

  • Covering What’s Next – The Metaverse. You were waiting for me to talk about the Metaverse, weren’t you? Put aside the notion that coverage, capacity (uplink especially), and mobility enhancements will be important for supporting all new mobile broadband use cases. 5G-Advanced takes on the Metaverse with a deep focus on Extended Reality (XR) capabilities and services. Think application awareness, KPI and QoS characterization for XR services, and XR-specific power consumption, coverage, and mobility enhancements. Sure, XR has applications beyond the Metaverse. But a fully-realized Metaverse will require XR and all of the ecosystem messaging which connects 5G-Advanced to the Metaverse highlights the planned link.

Towards the end of 2021, we saw a myriad of network suppliers talk about 5G-Advanced and their views of what it could deliver. In 2022, I wouldn’t be surprised if broader 6G news drowns out the very real progress at making 5G-Advanced a reality. Yet, as a stepping stone between today’s 5G and tomorrow’s 6G (including a fully formed Metaverse), 5G-Advanced will be the real mobile network story of 2022.

About GSMA Intelligence

GSMA Intelligence is the definitive source of global mobile operator data, analysis and forecasts, and publisher of authoritative industry reports and research. Our data covers every operator group, network and MVNO in every country worldwide – from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. It is the most accurate and complete set of industry metrics available, comprising tens of millions of individual data points, updated daily.

GSMA Intelligence is relied on by leading operators, vendors, regulators, financial institutions and third-party industry players, to support strategic decision-making and long-term investment planning. The data is used as an industry reference point and is frequently cited by the media and by the industry itself. @GSMAi