Next-gen mobile internet — 6G — will launch in 2030, telecom bosses say, even as 5G adoption remains low

Key Points
  • Executives at some of the world's largest telecommunications and technology firms told CNBC that 6G, the next generation of mobile internet after 5G, is likely to launch in 2030.
  • After hundreds of billions of dollars of investment into 5G networks, carriers have struggled to see the return while 5G penetration among consumers remains low globally.
  • Still, work is underway on 6G standards which could be completed later this decade, executives say, with rollout in the early 2030s.
Telecommunications firms have been discussing 6G, the next generation of mobile internet after 5G. It is still unclear what it will look like and how it will work. But executives predict it will be rolled out in 2030.
Rafael Henrique | Sopa Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

Executives at some of the world's largest telecommunications and technology firms told CNBC that 6G, the next generation of mobile internet after 5G, is likely to launch in 2030.

But top bosses also warned that the industry should not create too much hype around the technology to avoid confusing consumers. It comes as companies also weigh up how to make a return on their multi-billion dollar investments in 5G over the past few years.

"We have not completed the deployment of 5G yet," Ha Min Yong, chief development officer of SK Telecom, told CNBC last week. "I don't think it's mature enough to talk about 6G seriously ... it's already a bit too early."

6G was the talk of the town at Mobile World Congress, the world's biggest mobile industry trade show last week in Barcelona, with global telecommunications companies giving their views on the latest tech.

5G adoption remains low

Mobile operators in China, South Korea and the United States began rolling out 5G in 2019. The technology is the next-generation of mobile internet after 4G which promises superfast speeds.

But penetration among consumers remains low. Just one in seven people worldwide today use a 5G smartphone, according to Strategy Analytics.

5G however has been positioned by the telecoms industry not just as a consumer product for faster download speeds, but as a network that could underpin new technologies like driverless cars or unpiloted air taxis. That's because it has lower latency than 4G. That means the time it takes for devices to talk to each other is significantly reduced, a feature important in scenarios where data needs to be delivered quickly.

However, after hundreds of billions of dollars of investment into 5G networks, carriers have struggled to see the return. Analysts said that the real potential to monetize 5G might be on the horizon.

What is 5G?
What is 5G?

"5G adoption is accelerating in most countries where it has been deployed (including India, which is rapidly building 5G networks), but consumer subscribers are only one metric of take-up – ultimately enterprise markets, and industrial segments are where much of the potential is," Richard Webb, director of network infrastructure at CCS Insight, told CNBC by email.

So why is the industry talking about 6G?

Telecommunications networks require standards. These are, at their best, globally accepted technical rules that define how a technology works and its interoperability around the world. Interoperability refers to the ability for two or more systems to work together.

These standards take several years to come up with and finalize and involves a number of players from companies to academics and industry bodies. That is why the industry is thinking about it so much.

Work is underway on 6G standards already through standards-setting bodies like 3GPP, which contributed to 5G. But it's still in the early stages right now.

"Well 6G for us is really on the research stage," Sigve Brekke, CEO of Telenor, told CNBC in an interview last week.

We expect an extended 5G market peak of many years, Nokia CEO says
We expect an extended 5G market peak of many years, Nokia CEO says

Telecoms executives who spoke to CNBC said the key would be to focus on 5G deployment even as 6G research takes place. That's because talk of 6G could confuse consumers and there are still advancements to be made in 5G, according to BT's technology chief Howard Watson.

"What I would say though is, we as an industry need to stop confusing customers by talking to them about Gs because the next thing you'll ask me is when is 6G coming? I don't see any use cases today that we can't do with 5G or its immediate evolutions," Watson told CNBC last week.

"I do not want to be confusing consumers and enterprises with, wait for this new thing called 6G."

Many of the current 5G networks are built on top of equipment and technology from 4G. But operators are now rolling out what they call standalone 5G. That will use technology independent of 4G and comes with the promise of realizing 5G's full potential.

There will also be more software that powers 5G networks helping with efficiency such as the management of data traffic.

"There is still one step to come before 6G and that's going to be called 5G advanced, which will become available on the market in a couple of years' time," Pekka Lundmark, CEO of Nokia, told CNBC in an interview last week.

Lundmark said that would help improve the experience of technologies like augmented and virtual reality and even to support the flying of drones.

"There is no reason to wait for 6G," Lundmark said.

So what is 6G?

At this point, because 6G standards have not been set, there is not really a clear idea of what the technology will look like.

BT's CTO Watson said "it's important we think as operators to at least start signposting what will it be, what won't it be. That work's just started and it's too early to say."

He added that 6G will bring enhanced cybersecurity to the mobile network as well as more artificial intelligence features.

Nokia CEO Lundmark said the 6G network would "act as one big large sensor" which could detect the size, speed and direction of a moving object. This feature could aid the creation of automated factories and even driverless vehicles.

6G in 2030

A number of executives, including the Nokia CEO, predicted 6G would be rolled out in 2030.

Nick McKeown, senior vice president of the Network and Edge Group at Intel, told CNBC he also sees 6G being rolled out in 2030, with standards being set a few years before.

"So the standards work is actively taking place in these standards, right now. And there's a certain amount of, you know, figuring out testing and probing on different technologies, a little bit of jockeying for position on what the technology will be," McKeown said in an interview last week.

The CTO of BT said next generations of mobile networks are usually rolled out around the Olympics. He thinks that 6G will be launched around the 2032 Olympics in Brisbane, Australia.

Neil Mawston, executive director at market research firm Strategy Analytics, said he predicts the first 6G-enabled smartphone to be launched in 2029.

"The 6G race is underway," Mawston said.

CNBC's Ryan Browne contributed to this article.