How will cellular networks support the metaverse?

Telcos will be front and center when it comes to providing networking infrastructure to make the metaverse work. Early requirements for the metaverse suggest that Communication Service Providers (CSPs) have a lot more work to do before the metaverse can operate, however. 

To look at how cellular networks will support the metaverse, let’s look at how cellular networks are supporting metaverse efforts today.

Telefónica, TIM Group, and Deutsche Telekom (DT) collaborated with DoubleMe to create HoloVerse based on TwinWorld, DoubleMe’s extant metaverse platform. Their efforts focused on testing edge-based 5G telco cloud network infrastructure for its metaverse suitability. The three carriers, operating in Spain, Italy, and Germany respectively, collaborated under the aegis of the GSMA as part of the Telco Edge Cloud consortium to carry out tests on HoloVerse through the end of 2021.

David Moro, Telefónica’s head of network service platforms, said his company’s goal was to create a new communication service based on the concept. 

“Using the TwinWorld platform, we can test the possibility of a real-world metaverse in 5G telco edge cloud,” Moro added.

The focus of finding performant telco edge cloud network architecture to drive metaverse experiences is telling because central to the metaverse story is the demand for lower network latency, and not just by a few more milliseconds. Meta (née Facebook) wants “an order of magnitude” less network latency than users can now expect, from “single to low double-digit milliseconds,” according to Meta VP Dan Rabinovitsj. 

Meta also wants symmetrical bandwidth as well as the development of a common framework for metaverse networking metrics which don’t yet exist. Meta has some big assumptions for how metaverse technology has to work to provide an immersive experience, and the “metaverse” concept in general is casting a wider net than just Meta’s interpretation. Meta also readily admits there won’t be only one metaverse, nor will it control the others.

So, your metaverse mileage may vary, at least when it comes to the cellular networks powering the metaverse. 

There’s plenty of room for more headroom from cellular networks, metaverse notwithstanding. Most mobile customers today connect using LTE or 5G NonStandalone (NSA) networks. More bandwidth, lower latency, orders of magnitude higher device density support and network slicing are all features that await once 5G Standalone (SA) is ready to deploy – all foundational to getting next-generation tech like the metaverse to work the way it’s being envisioned. But so far, network operators have been slow on the uptake

Limited user equipment, a smaller base of users, and fewer use cases have put a damper on 5G SA rollouts. Market research from Dell’Oro Group suggested in a July report that supply chain challenges, growing inflation, Russia’s war in Ukraine and increasing revenue pressure from telcos were all working against the deployment of 5G SA networks.

South Korean telco SK Telecom (SKT) isn’t waiting for a common framework or other industry consensus, it’s forging ahead with the development of its 5G metaverse platform called Ifland. The company launched the service in 2021, aiming it squarely at Millennial and Gen Z-aged users that it thought would be most receptive to the concept. Ifland lets users create their own virtual environments, populated with hundreds of different avatars with customizable appearances. It’s off to a modest start: SKT revealed during its Q2 2022 financial results call with analysts that Ifland, which recently reached its first anniversary, had garnered 1.63 million monthly active users (MAU) and 8.7 million cumulative downloads. But SKT has bolder plans for Ifland than just as a virtual playground for its own customers. SKT is licensing the tech for other telcos to use too. 

“We are also working for gradual expansion into the global market in the second half of the year through close cooperation with leading telecom companies in major regions, including Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Asia,” said Jin-won Kim, SK Telecom CEO.

The company has already found a partner in DT, fresh from its HoloVerse testing with TIM and Telefónica. DT and SKT announced a deal in May that will bring Ifland to German customers. They’re creating a virtual version of a real German city. Live trials of the new service are expected to launch before the end of 2022.

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