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What will telecommunications technology look like in 2026?

Telecom networks are looking more and more like computer networks, and the distinction may disappear eventually.

When Alexander Graham Bell received his patent for the telephone in 1876, he could scarcely have imagined how his invention—built around the concept of converting electricity into sound—would change the fabric of society, much less how it would spur the creation of the myriad telecommunications technologies we know today.

As the 150th anniversary of Bell's patent approaches, rather than looking backward, it's time to look ahead. What will the next five years bring to telecommunications and network technology? While it's all but certain we'll still be glued to our smart phones come 2026, the experts we spoke with predicted advances that are likely to impact consumers and businesses alike.

The digital nomad becomes a global fixture

COVID-19 created some huge waves for the telecommunications industry, as millions of office-bound workers began working from home, effectively overnight. In the past year, many of those workers have begun to realize that working from home actually means working from anywhere, giving rise in earnest to legions of digital nomads. Digital nomads work wherever they happen to be, whether that's in a cabin in the woods, in an RV on Route 66, or in a sailboat bound for the Azores. To make that work, they're demanding high-speed connectivity on a global scale—and they're getting it, thanks to emerging 5G networks.

Please read: New tech promises faster Internet no matter where you live

"The digital nomad is going to become part of every employee's vocabulary," says Jeff Edlund, CTO of the Communications Media and Solutions group at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. "5G is going to allow employees to take more control over their work environment … and the companies that embrace and promote flexible work will attract the best talent as this technology really matures and new capabilities come online." As for 6G—which will provide unprecedented computing capabilities and is targeting a peak throughput of 1 terabit per second—the current estimate for arrival is 2028.

A lifeline for remote users

Not everyone wants to kick back in an Alaskan yurt to get their spreadsheets done. But many workers are happy to be working from home—or they would be if they could get decent Internet service. As of 2019, only 63 percent of the roughly 60 million Americans who live in rural areas said they had access to broadband Internet, a gap that has lingered since the dawn of high-speed access.

That will change as these customers demand better services in an age when they have no real alternatives, and as telcos move to take advantage of this fertile market. New technologies will become commonplace, dramatically enhancing rural and remote access. These include low-cost 5G fixed-access networks and satellite-based technologies like Elon Musk's Starlink. "We'll soon be able to create a very high-speed, low-latency link for anybody, wherever they are—whether you're on top of Kilimanjaro or sitting here with me," says Edlund, who lives in rural Missouri. "The way we work is going to absolutely, positively change forever."

Computing power peaks at the edge

One of the concepts behind 6G is that wireless bandwidth will be so fast that we eventually won't have to worry about processor speed and computing power on our personal devices. Servers in the cloud will be able to do all the processing for us and beam us the results faster than our devices can do the work themselves. We're not there yet, though, and in the short to medium term, consumers will continue to demand everything they can from their handsets and other mobile devices.

The next few years will see a continued push of computing power toward these devices on the edge. And many emerging technologies, from wearable health monitors to self-driving vehicles, wouldn't be possible without this kind of power. As edge-located power increases, "cloud platforms will need to find a way to 'lend' applications to these devices if they want to maintain their position," says Phil Mottram, senior vice president of HPE's Communications Technology Group.

Please read: How edge computing has become part of daily life

Meanwhile, it will be the role of 5G to support these devices with a fast, reliable connection—providing a communications lifeline to the cloud while handsets and other mobile devices increasingly do most of the heavy lifting. "Big tech companies today are constrained by the network that underpins their ideas," says Mottram. "5G and 6G will help by getting in the way less."

A network of one's own

Speaking of mobile devices, it's time to get ready for more of them as devices begin to proliferate. Consumers wearing smart watches were just the first phase. Augmented reality-powered smart glasses are finally set to make a return appearance in earnest, nearly a decade after the ill-fated launch of Google Glass. We won't see radical changes in smart phone form factors—though improvements in battery technology and storage density will give devices more flexibility—but they're nonetheless likely to evolve into a more prominent role in a personal technology ecosystem.

"The phone becomes more of a server," as it connects to and orchestrates the behavior of your other wearables, Edlund says. "The phone could really live in your purse or pocket, and you'll never have to take it out."

He notes that smart watches already offer a primitive form of this capability but that their limited screen real estate restricts their overall usability. The potential for new methods of interaction—either through projection devices or smart glasses—could raise the bar here. "It's this interconnectedness that will make people's lives interesting," adds Mottram.

Please read: The edge is on your mango: Energy harvesting and IoT

One caveat to consider is the increased risk of burnout from users living a truly always-on lifestyle. Cell phone addiction is already a confirmed mental health issue, especially in adolescents, and the next five years could see this issue become an even bigger problem as devices proliferate.

Augmented and virtual reality finally go mainstream

Pundits have been talking about AR and VR as hanging on the precipice of mainstream adoption for years. But new advances in technology and changes wrought by the pandemic may finally be what it takes to make it happen for real, especially in the workplace. With in-person meetings no longer an option, AR/VR is becoming an increasingly viable solution for getting everyone on the same page.

"AR and VR are not just for gamers anymore," says Edlund, pointing to a real-world case where a developer began to host stand-up scrum meetings in a virtual workspace. This had the effect of getting teams around the world more closely aligned while also increasing code quality. Edlund says the company realized a 70 percent increase in productivity after embracing its VR workspace, and as AR/VR rolls out, he expects to see similar gains in other industries, from retail and medicine to transportation and tourism.

Lessons for leaders

  • Telecom networks have big advantages for enterprise connectivity, but so do hyperscalers.
  • The pervasiveness of fast Internet and edge computing will enable new business opportunities.
  • Computing power at the core and edge are now an essential part of telecom; it's not just communications.

Related stories:

New tech promises faster Internet no matter where you live

The edge is on your mango: Energy harvesting and IoT

How edge computing has become part of daily life

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.