There are quite a few vision documents spelling out what 6G might or should accomplish, whether that’s from bodies like NGMN, SNS-PPP and the Next G Alliance or companies including Samsung, Fujitsu and Nokia. While some of this is ‘more of the same’ in terms of faster speeds, lower latency and so on, there are some particularly striking themes which make 6G stand out.
These themes are to do with non-technical deliverables – greater trustworthiness, more sustainability and bridging digital divides within and between countries.
The underlying reason for this isn’t hard to find; quite simply, building these elements into a vision for 6G ties in with the priorities of governments. While in the 3G-4G era organisations like the GSMA were encouraging the spread of mobile broadband by using statistics suggesting GDP grows in line with broadband, the world has moved on.
Countries have been able to see the benefits and problems brought by digitalisation, thanks to stories such where the Afghan government was able to pay police officers directly through mobile payments, enriching the officers by cutting out intervening layers of graft. However, the epidemic highlighted just how valuable broadband can be for healthcare, for keeping people in employment or in education… and how vulnerable citizens are when they lack straightforward access to these services.
As a result, many countries are aiming to improve their society through the use of future digital services, but this means taking a role to ensure that technology will be applied in specific ways, or for the pursuit of specific ends… or at the very least, not in defiance of those ends.
While the use of Key Performance Indicators to drive development of new technologies to meet a standard is well understood, discussions of 6G from early on included a new set of metrics – the Key Value Indicators [KVIs].
Using KVIs to reflect societal demands being put onto 6G is new. It is a process which the EU has put focus on in the development of the SNS-PPP, and there are equivalents elsewhere.
KVIs sound great in principle, but they are very much an innovation in the telecoms world. Up to now people have rolled out technology with the blithe assumption that it will make things generally better. However, digital divides exasperate social ones, making the disadvantaged even more so; access to information is being matched by access to misinformation or data cherry-picked by algorithms to drive very partial world-views.
Though KVIs will ultimately demand technology solutions, such as the use of non-terrestrial networks to fill in coverage black spots and deliver services where people lack connections, they are not technology-driven and almost certainly cannot rely on a single technology solution to attain.
Work on 6G KVIs is itself at an interesting stage. Programmes in Europe such as 6G Sandbox include deliverables for creating project KVIs (though that deliverable is yet to come); meanwhile, the Hexa-X programme originated the concept and is now feeding into Europe’s SNS-PPP research programme to take these further.
In the USA, Next G Alliance’s Societal and Economic Needs working group has identified a set of priorities for North America: Improving quality of life, promoting digital equity, data privacy, economic growth, and building a sustainable society.
Around the world, countries including China, Japan, India, the UK and more have come out with their own versions of these priorities, which have been condensed by the ITU into a 6G Framework with four overarching priorities: Connecting the unconnected, sustainability, ubiquitous intelligence and security/privacy/resilience.
The problem at the heart of this is that – while these priorities are praiseworthy and necessary – they haven’t yet translated into specific and measurable KVIs. That means that it’s difficult to measure or incentivise behaviour that might meet these goals or even identify things that work against them unless they’re at comic-book villain levels of obviousness.
I’ll say again, though – at least two years after the concept of KVIs was introduced, we have no overarching KVIs in position; however, we are gearing up for technology standardisation activities from 2024. Without a moral compass to guide those discussions, how can we expect that things will ‘just work out’? The people meeting are technologists, not moral philosophers. It’s not reasonable to think that they can juggle technology targets with the commercial drivers of the companies they represent and carry responsibility for finding the ethically ideal way forward.
This is not to say that the individuals or companies involved are in any way “bad”.
On the contrary, the telecoms industry has worked to build itself a reputation as ethical; from individual companies such as Axiata Group, whose strategies and annual reports include strong focuses on the ‘triple bottom line’ to movements from organisations such as the GSMA to make the industry accountable against the United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals.
However, while senior leadership may often buy in enthusiastically to these programmes, further down the organisation these often collide with the incentives of particular parts of the business such as Procurement, Finance, Marketing or Sales. Where there is conflict, the outcomes that are rewarded will be the ones selected for by the employees.
Worse, in financially troubled times grand ethical claims may be the first things discarded; sometimes by new management brought in by investors to focus on value extraction or sometimes because they are seen as optional or extrinsic to the company’s core purposes.
As has been repeatedly pointed out, technology in itself is value-agnostic; it is what is done with technology that can make it good or bad. KVIs are an attempt to quantify ethical aims and impart values to the process of creating and rolling out a new technology which, in itself, has no values.
How do we make this work in practice, though?
Is it possible to create a new generation of communications incorporating ‘ethics by design’? Whose ethics would they be? Despite broad alignment, sensibilities and political positions are quite different between the USA and Europe, for example, and more so compared to India or Japan. For example, where personal privacy and national security conflict, different governments will prioritise differently.
More to the point, is it possible to do this effectively given the processes and operations of the current telecoms market? Who needs to be held to account through the process, and by whom? What mechanism do we have for this?
Are Key Value Indicators going to end up as the 6G version of greenwashing? If they are to be taken seriously, what needs to be done differently in the creation of the next generation of telecoms?
These questions can and should permeate every level of the journey to 6G, from decisions about what requires research focus and why; to how to build ethics into standards and technical specifications; how to create business models that work for the bottom lines of stakeholders in the value chain and deliver on values (perhaps even because they deliver on values); to where accountability lies for achieving, or failing to achieve, KVIs on a national or global level and how to monitor that.
There are structural elements within the telecoms ecosystem that might be re-tooled or re-purposed to help achieve societal and value-based objectives. The different approaches to how spectrum is allocated, licensed and shared between cellular and Wi-Fi bands has created some massively different business models and markets, for example.
We might also take solace from some other markets. While ‘ethical telecoms’ might be a new concept to us, there have been discussions already in the field of AI, while they are baked into medical and bio-sciences and the atomic energy industry. There might be lessons we can learn from those industries.
Over the next few months 6GWorld will be digging into these questions with the help of experts from across a wide range of backgrounds, to understand their ideas and raise their concerns. While this article is essentially a problem statement, we look forward to getting closer to some answers.
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 email@example.com.