AT&T’s Sambar: ‘The industry has questions’ on 6G

Research and development efforts around the world are already honing in on what will constitute future 6G systems, from candidate spectrum bands to potential capabilities such as joint communications and sensing, and intelligent reconfigurable surfaces.

6G is also expected to herald a massive increase in usage, as Chris Sambar, EVP of technology at AT&T, said during remarks at the Brooklyn 6G Summit today. “We’ve been told it should enable up to 10x increase in usage on the networks,” he noted—which is not unrealistic for the wireless network alone, considering that overall network backbone traffic for wireless and wireline has increased about that much compared to 10 years ago. “That makes me sweat a little bit. … We’re going to need creative and innovative solutions to handle that.”

5G has already brought significant increases in usage, he added, saying that the average data usage at a sports game at AT&T Stadium over a 3-4 hour period is about 21 terabits. (The record data event at any stadium in the U.S. to date, Sambar said, was a Taylor Swift concert where 29 terabits were used.)

But operators are concerned about the economics of 6G.

“To be completely honest and transparent, the industry has questions on what is 6G going to bring us, what are the use cases that customers want from 6G and frankly, what’s it going to cost us?” Sambar continued. “And I don’t want that to come across as negative or cynical, but to give you an example, if you buy a band of spectrum at auction … and you deploy it in the network, that is mid-single-digit billions [of cost]. Six to eight billion dollars, for a single spectrum band, putting it on most of our towers nationwide. Not even every single tower,” he explained. A new spectrum band, particularly large swaths of 40 megahertz or more, involves not only putting up a new radio and antenna but cabling work and augmentation of baseband processing at the tower and boosting transport links, he said—and that doesn’t even start to get into the cost of re-farming existing spectrum and upgrading equipment from, say, LTE to 5G—which will happen eventually.

“When you see in the wireless industry that it seems like investment is in a trough right now, that has a lot to do with it,” Sambar said. “We’re getting a little bit worn out with the economics of the industry.” The telecom industry is “healthy and vibrant,” he said, including in carrier earnings, but at the same time, “the capital investments, they have to be logical. We have to have clear line of sight to what the consumer use cases are for those capital investments.” He cited examples across all three major carriers: AT&T has spent $40 billion on spectrum in the last few years; Verizon has spent more than $50 billion; and T-Mobile US had to acquire another major operator to get its spectrum holdings. With 5G not even at its midway point and the industry already trying to figure out what they might have to spend on 6G, “it can’t be a bottomless-pit industry,” he said.

That said, Sambar did also discuss the promise of 6G for extended and virtual-reality immersive experience for training public safety and military members, and the potential of better network-focused AI and ML to save network operators “hundreds of millions or billions of dollars” if things like self-optimization of networks can be done better and faster. That in itself represents a major challenge. Sambar says that he has thousands of employees in network operations, between AT&T’s wireline and wireless networks and “hundreds” of algorithms that do very simple if-then work and essentially send tickets to humans when a scenario comes up that fits its if-then criteria. If one of those algorithms breaks, he said, “we have to go figure out where it is, what server it’s sitting on, what’s wrong with it and how do we fix it. I would love a machine to manage that for me”—or even better, to stitch the capabilities of multiple algorithms together for more efficient and effective AI/ML applicability to network operations.

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