7 Emerging Themes in 6G During 2021 So Far

June 28, 2021

Written by Alex Lawrence
CATEGORY: Exclusives

While much is still unknown about what comes beyond 5G, the past six months have seen some considerable leaps forward in the thinking around it. 6GWorld has been fortunate to be involved with many conversations, webinars, events like the 6GSymposium, and more, and there are a number of patterns in people’s thinking that seem to be emerging. Excitingly, there is a clear awareness of how radically different the telecoms sector will need to be and how differently it will need to do things, in order to deliver in a way that works for business, society, and the environment.

While just about every aspect of the telecoms environment is being put under the microscope, here are seven ideas that will increasingly have an impact on the telecoms industry over the next couple of years:

  1. Whatever ‘6G’ will be, it’s Likely to be a Combination of Enabling Technologies Supporting Optimal Service Delivery in Different Contexts.

One of the significant elements of common 6G definitions is ubiquity, the ability to access services wherever you are. This is going to require different access technology solutions in different contexts: satellite systems when outside “regular” coverage; high-frequency and high-capacity services in busy areas; potentially both WiFi and new radio technologies for indoors, sometimes ad-hoc mesh networks and sometimes fixed broadband; and potentially even a local “body-area network” of devices, implants, and sensors.

Delivering this would require knitting together new and existing technology capabilities into one seamless platform for service delivery, something that can understand the local situation and determine the most effective way to deliver the customer’s services. This “thoughtful” intelligence to manage the services and traffic was a key point in the speech by Paul Hart, EVP of NXP, during the 6GSymposium’s opening keynote session.

A corollary of this is the thought that services will or should determine the nature of the networks being used to deliver them. This reverses today’s paradigm, where the constraints of networks determine what services can be effectively used.

  • People Don’t Want to Repeat Endless Cycles of Gs.

What comes after 5G will ideally be a platform for incremental but regular growth and evolution. If 6G can be, essentially, a fabric of intelligent networks and access technologies collaborating to deliver a service, then different access methods – whether fibre, satellite, WiFi, 4G, or new radio types – essentially sit on top of that. Each will have their strengths and their use cases; for example, plant monitors in a vineyard have no need for the low latency of 5G, let alone anything beyond that, but they will need to run with very low power demands.

The implication of viewing 6G in this way is that it separates evolutions in access technologies from the cycle of telco generations. In theory we could find different varieties of new radio types or waveforms put to use for specific use cases, if the context merited it – as Ray Dolan of Cohere Wireless recently posited. Certainly in the case of software-based radio, upgrades could take place every year or so, much as they do for Android.

This would also reduce friction for end users in industry. Organisations such as the 5G Alliance for Connected Industries & Automation (5G-ACIA) would find representing the needs of industry in standards bodies becomes much more straightforward, insofar as any new requested capabilities could be built into standards that evolve over time – almost in a DevOps approach – and enable greater flexibility and experimentation to deliver outcomes to end users. Governments too could push for specifications that match particular use cases. These could be developed more rapidly and more cheaply, and therefore open new ways for network operators to make money supplying actual market demands, rather than gambling with a “build it and they will come” approach.

A move in this way would also transform the nature of telecoms investment cycles. Historically investment in a network technology has involved huge upfront deployment and spectrum costs which could only be recouped over years running the infrastructure, all the while maintaining legacy infrastructure as well. If investment can go into maintaining and improving what already exists, not replacing and overlaying, then the economics of being a telco would change radically, as would the appeal of investing in such companies.

  • Technology KPIs Beyond 5G May be Less Important Than Different Measures.

While the telecoms world still likes to talk about latency, speed, capacity, and other key performance indicators (KPIs), there are many use cases which have already had their requirements amply met. Other values, such as carbon footprint or energy usage, security, resilience, and usability offer better business outcomes for the telecoms sector or their users.

A focus on these new KPIs will help with a change in mindset away from the concept of technology for its own sake and towards an outcome-oriented industry. An excellent discussion on this can be found here, also outlining the differences between “good 5G” and what comes next.

There has been quite a lot of work already on some of the environmental and energy-saving elements of future networks. Notably, the NGMN has this as a key part of its upcoming work streams (a good outline of which can be found here), while a study of both the direct and indirect environmental effects of the spread of IoT devices and other emerging technologies can be found here, backed up by this webinar that expands on many of the themes.

  • Telecoms is Being Perceived Less as an Industry, More as a Means of Delivering Desirable Outcomes.

To a degree, this interconnects with the discussion on KPIs. While during the days of 2G and 3G particularly, telecoms was considered valuable, it was treated by governments as an industry with a similar approach to that used with transport, power, or other key industries. With the launch of programmes such as Horizon 2030 and its equivalents in other nations, we see governments treating the private sector telecoms networks both as essential infrastructure and as an engaged partner in delivering the outcomes for, for example, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

At the same time, this ties in with a need for the sector to be relevant and the growing voices of shareholders to deliver more than simply dividends. The telecoms sector was the first (and to 6GWorld’s knowledge still the only) sector to report to the UN on how it performs against the SDGs.

It is, as yet, unclear how these changes will affect the telecoms sector as a whole or whether we will start to see new types of public-private collaboration. However, the foundation seemed to be laid in a recent keynote session with the European Commission, European Investment Bank, 5G Infrastructure Association, and Deutsche Telekom, not to mention an extensive discussion of global 6G initiatives. 6GWorld will be exploring the question of public-private relationships in more depth in this upcoming webinar.

  • Private, Mesh, Sliced, Edge, OTT, and Distributed Networks are Here to Stay.

End-to-end control of a network and the customer experience is no longer a given or even necessarily desirable. This is already the case with the adoption of private networks but will only accelerate. Many concepts taken for granted in previous generations will hold true less and less:

  • Being a network operator doesn’t mean being a service provider.
  • It certainly doesn’t relate to “owning the customer” or their data.
  • The company delivering a service may not be responsible for quality of service failures, even if it is contractually liable for them.

Over time this will have significant repercussions for operations, business models, and mindsets throughout the telecoms sector. We can already see the start of this with companies such as Exium offering enterprises essentially a global ”OTT 5G Network” play. 

Some good discussions on this topic and related issues can be found in the 6GSymposium’s session ‘From Network Ownership Centricity to Service-Oriented Networks’ and this webinar on Operating and Monetising in a New Network Reality.  

  • Data Storage, Sharing, Privacy, and Consent will Become Much More Complex.

If we are providing distributed, “network of network” environments, we will be observed by many more devices than our smartphones. We have control over our smartphones – we can turn them off – and they are closely related to us. In the future, though, increasingly machines unrelated to us will be engaging with us, whether these are robots, vending machines, cameras, or other devices. Some concepts, like the idea of data ownership and what kinds of data are personal or what information gathering requires consent, may have to be re-thought entirely.

The question is made more complex by the spread of AI. AI systems, even being fed anonymised data, can ‘re-individuate’ and identify people. The discussion can, and possibly should, move away from the idea of privacy as an absolute towards the potential outcomes it enables, i.e. the treatment that we feel is appropriate and who determines what is appropriate treatment (For example, is discrimination by age or skin colour appropriate? Is feeding people different diets based on what would be healthy for them discriminatory?).

Traditional privacy law is going to be problematic. Companies cannot give notice to customers about the data being collected or what it is used for because of the complexity and uncertainty around the data’s use and the way it will move and be processed through complex networks. Meanwhile, if such notice could be given, users would need a great (unrealistic?) deal of technical knowledge to give informed consent.

There is a considerable amount of work on these questions that needs to be explored by regulators, in courts, and in practice. There is a great exploration of these issues and more – such as transparency, responsibility and standards – in this presentation and conversation.

  • The Complexity (and Vagueness) of Pressures and Expectations on Telecoms Leads to a ‘Wicked Problem’ in Developing Beyond 5G.

As discussed by futurist Catherine Van Holder, wicked problems have unclear problem statements and desired outcomes. The sheer multiplicity of demands by governments, industry players, and the telecoms providers themselves creates tensions between different outcomes: complexity of AI and autonomy versus energy reduction, for example.

Wicked problems are capable of solution, but the processes to find the solution tend to be iterative, open, and far from linear. This highlights further challenges to established technology and standards development processes, in addition to what has already been outlined above. There is a genuine risk that, without different approaches to handling the journey towards 6G (whatever it turns out to be), standards bodies will find themselves less relevant compared to large companies willing to move fast and put pre-standards solutions on the market – a risk also discussed in the context of  the standardisation roadmap.  

As you can see, this is a very partial overview based on personal preference. There are other topics that tie in very closely with the topics selected, such as how business models, regulation, and concepts such as the edge or universal service might evolve. 6GWorld will be digging into all of these and more. If any of this has struck a chord please feel free to reach out with any questions, comments or suggestions to alex.lawrence@6gworld.com.   

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