This month, 6GWorld hosted two webinars, seemingly on very different topics: Leveraging 6G and satellite together to overcome global digital divides/disparities, and a retrospective on the past 6 months’ (fairly seismic) developments in shaping the concepts and approaches to 6G.
In each case, we had highly engaged audiences who asked many more questions than we could answer across a broad range of topics. As these reflect the interests and understanding of 6GWorlds’ readership, we have tried to address the biggest and most popular questions raised in this compilation article.
Many thanks to the following for their inputs and questions during the webinars: Alexandre Petrescu; Almashakbeh Alansari; Antonio Consoli; Chandrasekhar Manjunath Varayali; Eddy Setiawan; Fabio Pittalà; George Haddad; Kuldeep Panwar; Muhammad Reza Kahar Aziz; Paulo Henrique; Raghu Srimushnam; Shailendra Mishra; Siva Sankaran; Sophia Anong; Tarun Chaki; Terry Edwards; Uttara Sawant; Vijayalaxmi Sadlapur; Yaakoub Berrouche; Yongchao Dang; and all those of you who remained anonymous in your interactions.
In this article we’ll cover two major lines of questioning: around non-terrestrial networks and coverage, and around the evolution path from 5G to 6G.
Coverage and Non-Terrestrial Networks
In both webinars there was an important emphasis on the delivery of coverage as a key part of 6G’s capabilities. Speaker Matti Latva-Aho pointed back to the original intended meaning of 6G as ‘whatever people are using to communicate in 2030’ rather than a specific technology.
Coverage has emerged as perhaps one of the most important attributes of a future 6G system, with emphases more on being able to provide a consistent service wherever you are than on accelerating speeds in existing coverage areas.
This implies a strong component not only of satellite and non-terrestrial networks but also interworking with Wi-Fi and other standards for indoor work, and potentially also ad-hoc or mesh networking.
With previous generations of telecoms deployed at very different rates worldwide, conversations about coverage – especially through satellite – also help address the gap in connectivity between different countries. Questions included:
- Satellites promise to help serve millions of people worldwide with quality internet coverage. This is also considered a key feature of 6G. How will these two areas work together to bridge the digital gap between countries?
Satellites and drones will play a role in the delivery of coverage in future, clearly. We are already seeing early deployments of satellites with direct-to-mobile capabilities, while satellite backhaul has been a key element of networks for decades. There are companies such as Supermicro and Xenesis with innovative ground station equipment too, the cost of which is declining in a similar way to that of the cubesats being deployed en masse. Indeed, this article demonstrates the ways in which non-terrestrial capabilities are ramping up over the coming decade to potentially create a very different form of network which carries most traffic over the air, not through fibre.
What 6G adds into this evolution is the ‘network of network’ concept, wherein traffic would flow seamlessly across the most relevant networks and access technologies for any given time and place. The emphasis in areas with low levels of pre-existing infrastructure will necessarily be on non-terrestrial solutions, whatever country that may be; however, companies developing fibre networks, submarine cabling and other infrastructure would still be able to deploy effectively as a complement to solutions such as drone or LEOsat fleets.
The capabilities in space today are not the equal of the masses of fibre and other infrastructure in some countries, but this is certainly an opportunity to close the gap between countries. However, as a step towards the next generation of mobile internet, ESA has recently opened registrations for companies and institutions willing to build the world’s first in-orbit 6G lab.
- Clearly the situation in most of Africa is very challenging. Do you think the introduction of 6G with satellite may enable much of Africa to “leapfrog” 4G and 5G terrestrial network offerings?
Speculation about the ability of African countries to leapfrog legacy technologies has been rife since the development of 4G; and, in fairness, there have been greenfield deployments of 4G and 5G.
While it’s unlikely that satellites alone will be able to deliver the same kind of performance as we see elsewhere using terrestrial services, it’s not impossible that we could see a very different architecture developing in Africa where non-terrestrial services play a greater role than elsewhere, where they are largely considered ‘infill’ services.
Cellular 4G and 5G radio technologies already exist on the continent and are liable to become less expensive as a shift to open networks allows more competition into the market, including solutions and systems tailored for the local climatic and economic environments. Especially in urban areas, delivery of good in-building coverage will probably still require fibre-based broadband and/or in-building systems such as DAS, which requires spectrum currently allocated for 4G and 5G services and which are good enough for many existing requirements. As a result they are almost inevitably going to play a role for decades to come.
Indeed, we can probably imagine that in future people will still be connecting their phones through 4G or 5G radio, with 6G as a software overlay working in the background to manage the service. The end user might be getting that 4G or 5G signal from a cell tower, an in-building small cell or direct from a satellite, but all they will see is the ‘4G’ or ‘5G’ sign on their phone. If they don’t notice at all when they are moving from one access method to another, that will be a sign of success.
- What are the initiatives to fight the challenges of the usage gap between wealthier and poorer countries, as access to mobile broadband is growing more and more each day?
There are two types of digital gaps: the coverage gap – characterised when a given population is not covered by the internet signal – and the usage gap – which happens when people are covered but several barriers prevent them from going online. Around 40% of the world’s population is stuck in the usage gap.
According to a GSMA report, these can be obstacles such as skills and knowledge, affordability, concerns about safety and security, and lack of relevant content or services available.
In an article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jane Munga suggests “building broadband infrastructure, boosting last-mile connectivity, and providing access to affordable mobile smartphones” are key elements to close the coverage and usage gaps.
Reducing the cost of infrastructure will be a significant way to deliver services to a broader global populace at a price point they can afford. As mentioned above, declining costs as well as improved performance for satellite services may be a significant element in this.
Finally, the relevance of services. There is a degree of chicken-and-egg here, as giving services local significance is in part a question of making them available in local languages. With more services and content available, the perceived value increases and encourages people online; which makes more incentive to create in local languages. The development of AI-based translation services, while imperfect, may help accelerate the availability of services and content outside the originating languages, which tend to be fairly limited.
- It isn’t easy to say that Non-Terrestrial Networks [NTNs] are a significant part of a future 6G and yet not consider that they have their own standards development organisation, industry bodies etc. What will be the relationship between 3GPP and satellite (and other) standards bodies?
ETSI’s David Boswarthick was keen to point out that there is already a collaboration between different standards development organisations (SDOs) under the ITU. 5G falls within the ITU’s IMT-2020 family of standards, and IMT-2030 will outline the 6G family of standards across mobile and other areas.
3GPP Release 17 and 18 both describe interaction with non-terrestrial networks part of 5G, and recently the latest DECT standard has been included in 5G.
While people outside the system may worry about the technology and standards being misaligned due to silo mentalities, functionally this is not the case. As well as interactions and coordination between the SDO management teams, within any given vendor or service provider there tends to be one small team acting as the SDO interface, working across multiple SDOs. This means that there tends to be a cross-pollination of ideas and a coordination of processes quite organically as the individuals involved see and affect what is happening in different domains.
The direction of travel within 3GPP seems to be moving from coordination and interaction between terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks in 5G towards a much more integrated system in 6G. This will naturally require deeper collaboration between SDOs, but there is some caution about whether it requires a wholesale change of approach or practice.
Migration Path To 6G and Market Implications
The question of how 6G relates to 5G and the lessons to be drawn from it were high up on the audience agenda.
- Would we see a 5G to 6G migration path similar to the 4G to 5G migration path? Should we expect 6G NSA configuration first moving to 6G SA?
Alain Mourad from InterDigital points out that “the path followed from 4G to 5G is fully justified from an economical standpoint. This is likely to continue to be valid and hence the way to go in transitioning from 5G to 6G.”
The point here is that many operators have adopted 5G NSA as a halfway house to the full 5G capabilities without investing in a completely new network – indeed, in February Counterpoint Research highlighted that only 42 operators worldwide have deployed 5G SA and implemented a 5G core commercially.
At 6GSymposium earlier this year, a panel of operators set out their hopes for 6G as a backward-compatible set of capabilities – principally in software – that could be instantiated or rolled back in various places around the network as desired. This would enable more testing in a live network, cutting deployment times and allowing for experimentation with new features and capabilities in almost the same way that hyperscalers do.
It also implies an upgrade path from 5G that could be very gradual: the degree of ‘6G-ness’ in any given network might change over time as more functionality becomes available and desirable.
While the details of how 6G capabilities and standards might develop are still up for grabs, we can already see that 3GPP has been taking quite a gradual approach in building up capabilities from Release 15 to 18, or from 5G to 5G-Advanced. There doesn’t seem to be much appetite for a major discontinuity from 5G-Advanced to 6G.
- What would the supply chain look like for 6G? Would we be looking at the same vendor players for 6G network elements or are we talking mainly about IT virtual/cloud hyperscalers? Or a mixture of both?
Almost inevitably, a mixture of both. There is pressure to increase the role of software in future network evolution, not least because the idea of implementing yet another new physical network is unappealing to operators who already have to deal with multiple legacy generations of hardware. The NGMN earlier this year set out some clear directions in their “6G design requirements and considerations” document, not least of which is to enable “affordable deployments”.
Alongside the de-emphasis on proprietary hardware we are already seeing enthusiasm for open systems which enable competition from new entrants. Once again, this offers scope for companies who are established in the IT sphere to play a role.
However, there is talk of using spectrum in bands outside those currently used, whether at THz or CM-wave. Inevitably there will be a need for new hardware in some of these cases, for example for high-capacity coverage in smaller areas. The development of Reconfigurable Intelligent Surfaces [RIS] will also be a spur the deployment of new hardware.
Meanwhile, we are starting to see the involvement of new hardware players – both startups and major companies – in areas such as high-altitude drones which can be used as an intermediate layer between satellites and terrestrial connections.
While it’s not exclusive to 6G, there is a strong pressure for sustainable and low-energy solutions to be deployed throughout future networks. There is research ongoing all the way from optical-only networks (cutting back on inefficiencies caused by switching between electrons and photons) up to AI management of components to minimise their energy consumption. AI and automation in networks, and as a service, is opening up new areas for companies to enter the market; and so on.
Overall, the value chain will start to look incredibly diverse due to the way 6G is intended to respond to a wide variety of issues and situations. IT players and hyperscalers will play a role, traditional network vendors will remain, but new hardware and software players will also be there.
- To what extent are hyperscalers active in the 6G standardisation initiatives?
There are no initiatives for 6G standardisation quite yet. However, hyperscalers such as AWS, Meta and Microsoft are active in organisations such as 3GPP, ETSI and others. Famously Meta founded TIP which, while not a standards body, does have an impact on the direction of telecoms evolution.
While the telecoms industry does seem like an appealing target for hyperscalers – and operators have previously been worried that moves such as Google Fibre or Project Loon would see new competitors enter the market – these have tended not to come to fruition. Instead, hyperscalers have taken a role by hosting operator networks in their clouds. While it’s not impossible that they will take a larger role in future, it seems more likely that they will remain active in areas where they can compete by creating de facto standards. From their business perspective the details of how devices connect to cloud services are much less important than the fact that they do.
- What are the chances that we will not see a unified global standard in 6G? Who benefits from regionalisation? What is your guess on the probability of regional standards, considering the impact on economies of scale?
There is certainly a good deal of competition between national governments in a ‘race to 6G’ and a desire in many places to rely less on other regions for strategically-important materials and software; the US-China tensions in recent years are one example of that, but the EU’s high levels of investment into 6G research through programmes such as SNS-PPP and Hexa-X II or India’s Bharat 6G, which ties into initiatives such as ‘Make in India’, also reflect this.
At the same time, beyond the policymakers much of the work on standardisation is taking place at a global level. Few people within the telecoms industry itself want fragmentation of standards after all the work it took to find global accord for 5G. We have seen that competing or fragmented standards tend to slow market deployments for a variety of reasons. Economies of scale are one, but there is duplication of effort in developing multiple standards in the first place, and then duplication of effort in matters such as certification, interoperability management, device design and so on. In some markets it may be unclear which standard to adopt, leading to delays in decisions.
The enhanced role of NTNs is likely to play a part in encouraging global alignment on technology standards, too. After all, why miss out on taking advantage of the connectivity options overhead?
In practice, it seems likely that activities such as the CHIPS and SCIENCE act in the USA will help North America develop a stronger chipset manufacturing base. This does not necessarily impact standards at all, only the choice of vendors to fulfil the standards within the region.
Coming back to some of the design concepts around 6G, as a network of networks with (as much as possible) software building on the capabilities of 5G, we could see something quite unique in the development of future networks.
There are many alignments between nations on what they desire (such as improved security, a reduction in digital divides, better sustainability etc) there are many differences in emphases. Network operators may find that 6G hands them a set of tools built on standards; which ones they adopt, and how they use them, may well make ‘6G’ perform very differently between countries or regions.
However, it’s in nobody’s interest for us to go back to situations where a device that works in one country stops working in another.
To catch up on the (many) insights from the webinars involved, you can view recordings free by registering at
Alex Lawrence is Managing Editor at 6GWorld. His mission is to bring together stakeholders from across industries, countries and disciplines to make sure that, as technology evolves in the coming decade, it’s meeting the changing demands of society, government and business.
He has been involved as a professional nosy person in the telecoms sphere since 2004, with short detours through industrial O&M and marketing.
If you’d like to talk to Alex about your ideas or projects he’d love to hear from you. @animalawrence or firstname.lastname@example.org.