Based on a webinar entitled “Towards 6G – Why and how?“ earlier this week, Europe is well-positioned to lead the roll-out of the next generation of mobile technology. That is, if they’re not already in the lead.
Leading 6G Out of Europe
Volker Ziegler, who holds a 6G Leadership role at Nokia Bell Labs, said he believes Europe is starting from the “pole position,” during the Renew Europe event. Answering an audience question about whether he believes Europe can keep up with the United States, which is home to the Next G Alliance, Ziegler said he believes Europe is already doing so. He said Europe is fairly well off when it comes to partnerships between the private and public sectors and joint research and collaboration, citing initiatives like Hexa-X and Smart Networks and Services Public-Private Partnership (SNS-PPP).
“I think in Europe we have a good starting point. We will now move swiftly to really exploit this and develop this even more, which is looking at complementary innovation across sectors,” he said. “So 6G very clearly is not ICT anymore. It’s truly enabling industries and sectors and society at large…. Let’s make sure we build on that and keep working with partners, the United States of course, but with the ambition to lead out of Europe.”
However, one recurring theme over the course of the webinar was the need for stakeholders to keep momentum going and address current European weaknesses so that they may become strengths. Bart Smolders, the Dean of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Eindhoven University, pointed out that European semiconductor companies may design complex chips, but they get them manufactured by the Taiwanese company TSMC.
“The market share is low and we rely on external partners. In manufacturing equipment, the equipment that is needed by TSMC to manufacture [Complementary metal-oxide-semiconductors; CMOS], we do a good job [primarily care of ASML],” he conceded. “In more emerging technologies like photonics and quantum, we have a very good position from an academic point of view, but in order to scale up with real industrial products and have economical benefit we really need to have a strong long-term strategy. It’s not going to happen by itself.”
Going All in on Semiconductors?
Smolders went on to propose building complete ecosystems and value chains to maximise the economic benefit for Europe. With that in mind, he proposed a joint “living” lab initiative.
“We should scale up emerging special technologies, not only on the research level, but also going towards innovation and products and we should also consider EU-based manufacturing of advanced CMOS,” he said. “We need one or two places or maybe more places in Europe where technology needs applications.”
Speaking on behalf of the European Commission, Deputy Director-General Khalil Rouhana agreed with Smolders in terms of the weaknesses he had mentioned. Rouhana seconded the sentiment that Europe cannot afford to sit on its hands. On top of the €900 million the EC put forward for SNS-PPP, he floated the idea that an additional investment could be coming, potentially to address the aforementioned semiconductor issue.
“It could cover next-generation [radio frequency] components, quantum computing, edge, AI, but also CMOS and More-than-Moore [technologies]. We want to have a big initiative. We want to make sure that we conduct CMOS with manufacturing capacities in Europe. That’s really what we think is important. We need to come back to that and we think an investment close to €30-40 billion will be needed for that. That’s why we’re putting that type of project as a priority for the recovery plans, where we would have ~€135 billion to invest on digital,” he said, calling it an exceptional opportunity in the roll-out of 5G and preparation for 6G.
“There’s a lot of work on the digital transformation of our health sector, the digital transformation of our mobility sector, transport, smart cities. That’s very important,” he continued. “We encourage the member states to use the latest technology and to make sure they support the development of an industrial ecosystem in Europe.”
6G Next-Generation Needs
Ari Pouttu of the University of Oulu also participated. Pouttu also serves as Collaborative Projects Leader of 6G Flagship, the world’s first 6G research program. Addressing the potential need for a living lab himself, he said there is progress being made, pointing to the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI).
“There is now a proposal looking into ESFRI, where we try to connect the 5G-6G next-generation needs and facilities in Europe into what we call slices of research infrastructure, and this proposal is now in evaluation,” he relayed. “There are more than 40 partners currently. So, this may be one step towards this 6G or ICT living lab in more generic terms.”
Separately Pouttu, coming from a wireless background, brought up the potential for spectrum sharing. He said he sees “some light at the end of the tunnel,” looking at countries like Germany and Japan who have released spectrum to different vertical industries.
“This is something that needs to be[…] included in the frequency regulation throughout Europe, throughout the world so that sharing-based access can be part of the regulatory process so that different players can enter the market,” he said.
Ziegler mentioned in passing that Nokia Bell Labs are currently working on prototype transceiver units at 140 GHz. He suggested solutions such as these would enable terabit-per-second throughput. He made a point of clarifying those speeds would only be attainable in specialised-network settings, not nationwide. Nevertheless, as one of the event’s final remarks he made it clear how, even though he sees Europe as being a leader in 6G so far, progress extends well past regional borders.
“It’s about collaborating. It’s about new and agile ways[…] of developing and reinvigorating the policy framework, but I think the one ambition we do have is indeed to lead 6G out of Europe in the right way in a collaborative fashion, thereby creating value for society and mankind not just in Europe, but worldwide,” he said.
Feature image courtesy of Guillaume Périgois (via Unsplash).