Editorial – Dispelling Common 6G Illusions

December 28, 2022

Written by Alex Lawrence
CATEGORY: Exclusives

As the term “6G” grows in traction and awareness, it has given rise to some quite dismissive articles – these recent pieces by Light Reading and CCG are good examples. Taken on their own merits, it’s understandable why analysts would be extremely cynical about a new ‘G’ being developed. The industry’s certainly taking time to benefit from 5G, from Open RAN and other technologies which have been talked about for years.

Still, it seems clear that a lot of people are missing the point or don’t really understand the aspirations and driving forces behind 6G at this time. This article will, I hope, clarify some of the misconceptions around 6G.

That’s not to say that everything is fine. There are good reasons to be genuinely concerned about the industry’s ability to deliver, but it would be more productive if everyone involved is able to apply their worry in the same direction and come up with solutions rather than talk at cross-purposes.

Misconception 1: The ‘We don’t need a 6G’ argument.

On the face of it, this is a strange one to be made. While it’s true that many operators have not rolled out 5G, and fewer still have rolled out standalone 5G, I have yet to meet somebody from the operator community who’s confident that it will solve all their problems forever. So there needs to be something else regardless of whether you call it 6G, 5G Ultra Plus, or Scooby Doo.

Some people have suggested that the generational nature of telecoms should be over, as software doesn’t need ten years between releases, and that this is why they argue against a sixth generation. This is a much better point and goes to the question of what a generation of telecoms is or should be. The fact is that we have already lost definition of what a generation of telecoms is – for example, it’s no longer associated with a new waveform, as was the case in the steps between 2G, 3G and 4G. What we do know is that hardware will need updating even when software doesn’t; meanwhile, future network architecture and capabilities behind the radio are set to undergo a dramatic change. The discussion of whether that constitutes a new generation or not is the telecoms equivalent of trying to work out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

So ‘6G’, whatever that turns out to be, is coming. Uniquely, this is not driven by a push from the telecoms industry, and this is the overwhelming reason for saying that yes, this is needed. Maybe not by the telecoms providers but by customers.

Countries around the world have realised the significance of connectivity for their populace and have set out requirements for the next generation of networks: not in terms of technology demands but the societal outcomes they require. While exact details vary by country typical demands include improved security, universal coverage and accessibility, and sustainability. The ITU is pulling different requirements together into a combined vision statement due in 2023, but make no mistake about it; the impetus is coming from nations who realise this is a battleground for current and future economic and strategic competition. They are investing into early-stage research and into formulating national strategies which will be executed in the coming decade and beyond.

We have seen limited uptake of 5G from industry, too. Partly this is a question of operational challenges – the difficulty in scaling down to serve the huge number of SMEs with 5G, the fact that WiFi is much easier to set up and manage, and the difficulty in refocusing a salesforce from selling data and devices to solutions for digital transformation to name a few.

However, working in live environments it has also become clear that the parameters for 5G’s three use cases – enhanced mobile broadband, Ultra Reliable Low Latency communications (URLLC) and massive IoT – do not encompass all the varied demands from different industries. The ITU will be putting forward six use cases instead, with the aim of moving towards a more flexible response to actual demand from different industrial environments.

So, while telecoms providers may question why they need a 6G, the demand for it is out there in the wider world. This is an opportunity we haven’t seen before and it will be up to the telecoms providers to leverage that demand to create something that makes sense commercially.

Misconception 2: 6G will operate at Sub-THz frequencies

This, in itself, is not entirely untrue. Researchers are looking at how to push up into higher spectrum to use the huge quantities of bandwidth there.

The danger lies in thinking that that ‘is’ 6G or is in some way fundamental to it, which has opened up criticisms that 6G is only ever going to be any good for very local service delivery or that it would be ruinously expensive to deploy the necessary infrastructure – all of which would make it ‘impossible’ to deploy 6G.

We have already seen in 5G that different spectrum bands can be used or repurposed from previous generations to deliver services at a particular quality. Indeed, spectrum aggregation and coordination allow the use of multiple bands simultaneously. 6G will grow from and refine all the existing techniques, so it seems bizarre to pigeonhole it as any one frequency or set of frequencies.

Look back to some of those national demands – for universal coverage and accessibility, for example, or for security. These are not technology KPIs and don’t demand any particular spectrum or strategy. They will not be solved by ‘a’ technology or frequency, either. Work is under way to enable satellite services to integrate seamlessly with terrestrial mobile, Wi-Fi and fixed broadband services. By combining all these access mechanisms, plus the use of local mesh networks thanks to the sideloading being developed in 5G, the industry might be able to deliver on the demands set out.

While in the UK we have seen 5G being advertised by people landing planes from their homes or shaving people via robot, we should think differently about 6G. Think of it not as a technology but as the ability to do what you need to, wherever you are, regardless of the technology making it happen. At the moment this kind of simple service assurance just doesn’t exist but stands to have a huge impact. If rural digital connectivity is as useful as urban, it can help rebalance urban and rural economies by enabling jobs, education, IoT and much more regardless of location.

The integration of satellite into a seamless telecoms service experience creates some fascinating opportunities at a time when the satellite industry is also busy with its own renaissance. Again, a network architecture that can operate over satellite as capably as over terrestrial backhaul opens up some intriguing opportunities for how terrestrial networks are built, especially as the cost of that satellite communication drops. For example, small networks can pop up like mushrooms wherever people organise, rather than needing to be grown from a fibre ‘spine’.

Misconception 3: 6G is something different far off in the future

There are many people who don’t want to worry about 6G because 5G still has plenty of legs. While that is true, we come back again to the point about generations of technology. Many people would like to see an end to generations which are incompatible with each other and which leave problems of legacy networks, completely understandably.

To achieve this with a future 6G, there are two corollaries. Firstly, it means that 6G will have to build upon 5G’s developments. That’s pretty obvious.

However, it also means that any new technologies or approaches we need to meet with 6G will either need to be built into, or be ramped up from, 5G standards. We can’t just go rebuilding security protocols, sustainability elements and so on from scratch or we risk facing the same problem as we have seen in previous generations.

As a result, we need to be thinking now about the end-state to be achieved and build in progress to current and emerging standards and technologies.

For example, there is a strong school of thought that future networks beyond 5G should be software based, open, distributed and AI driven. If so – and it seems like a reasonable assumption – then work going on today in organisations such as the O-RAN Alliance, TIP and the Open Grid Alliance is foundational to the outcomes necessary. Roadblocks in testing, certification and interoperability are important now for open networks, but are also fundamental to the timelines and capabilities of future networks that depend on them.

Thinking about demands for security by design, it’s a fairly open secret that the internet wasn’t built with security in mind, and older generations of telecoms networks had clear gaps. While problems with both have to some extent been plugged or papered over, neither are secure by design. To get to and end-state that is, we need to go back to the drawing-board. When is it appropriate to do that, if not now?

Similarly, there is a variety of organisations working on the early stages of the metaverse, such as the Open Metaverse Interoperability Group. While no official standards organisation has demanded specific functionality for supporting the metaverse, any large-scale use of AV or mixed reality will depend on a much more robust network than today’s, due to the latency and capacity demands involved in both downlink and uplink – in other words, it will need 6G. Telecoms providers became the carriers of the internet and streaming video without having a direct and monetisable role; however, with the metaverse in its very early stages, there is time here for telcos to take a seat at the table. There is no successful metaverse without investment and support from carriers. In this case content developers and carriers can be symbiotic, but only if the carriers get involved now and build themselves into the commercial structure. Otherwise the carriers will be marginalised or will undermine an opportunity for new business.

In other words, the final 6G may be a while off, but the work which will determine how successful it is for the telecoms community has already started, and the ramifications of what we do – or don’t do – today will echo into the next decade.

As I hope you can see, there are many very real challenges ahead for the industry – meeting the security, societal and sustainability demands for future networks, tackling the anticipated growth in demand for data, dealing with commercial and operational transformations to take advantage of new network capabilities and much more.

Dig down and there’s a need for change in almost every aspect of telecoms to make it future-ready, from testing to silicon to manpower and regulation. This is already in motion as a result of the commercial and technical changes we see today, but the question is what those changes need to lead to. That will drive the solutions that are found, and those in turn will determine whether or not we can deliver a 6G – whatever it ends up being – that is good for customers, the industry and its financial backers.

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