Guest Interview: Roger Nichols on 6G Impact and More

March 29, 2021

Written by Alex Lawrence

The next generation of cellular technology will make huge improvements in bandwidth utilization, data delivery, and application enablement. Early 6G conversations predict ingenious ways for people to interact with their surroundings, including instantaneous communication, connected robotics and autonomous systems, and wireless artificial intelligent interactions. 

Keysight partners with a community of innovators to conduct cutting edge research such as the 6G Flagship programme and help define 6G standards. This is the first part of an interview with Roger Nichols, Keysight’s 6G program manager, who discussed his perspective of what 6G will be and how to make the vision of 6G a reality.

Note – Roger will be speaking in the 6GSymposium Spring, 4-6 May, alongside more than 70 other experts.

How will 6G impact daily life?

6G is about mobile wireless being an integral part of society. One could argue that this is the case with 4G, but most societies adoption of 4G is constrained to entertainment and advertising. Think of mobile wireless as being a fundamental part of driving to work, making your evening meals, educating your children, gaining access to your health care needs, shopping, banking, mining, manufacturing everything from staples – to paint – to jet aircraft engines, and research in all fields… the list goes on. Think of what it was like in 1905 when Charles Howard could not sell a single car in San Francisco. Now the automobile pervades life.

Some predictions anticipate 6G will be a point solution reserved for business, military and industrial purposes with some consumer uses such as immersive entertainment. Therefore, it won’t be practical to have every device 6G-capable. Do you agree?

6G will not be reserved for business or military or just for a few commercial use cases; this would make investment in the technology unaffordable, because the resulting use will not scale for the payoff. The companies who will benefit from 6G will be a mix of traditional companies – those developing and those using wireless technology all will get a piece of the action.  

What is intriguing, however, is that the expansion of the usage models will benefit businesses in ways that are difficult to predict. Without mobile wireless, companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, Uber, Door-dash, WeChat, TenCent, etc. would either be much smaller or would simply not exist. You can anticipate the 6G equivalent of these entities will exist, but it is difficult to predict what they may look like.

What is the biggest application opportunity for 6G? With a possible latency of 1millisecond (ms), down from 5ms in 5G and 50ms in 4G, will that be a game-changer?

The aggregated vision of 6G resulted from the early work of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), whitepapers from DOCOMO, Samsung and Ericsson; as well as an excellent webinar series championed by the University of Oulu’s 6G Flagship Program. To summarize, 4G gave us the mobile internet and enabled the smartphone. 5G will allow for use-cases that go beyond the smartphone into industrial, health care, transportation and finance. 6G consolidates mobile wireless communications – no longer as a novelty or a special set of use-cases, but as an integral part of society. 

It is a bit early to speculate on the “biggest application opportunity” since that is another word for “killer app” and such a word no longer has meaning. The use-models range from holographic communications that include information beyond sight and sound, to making digital twins far more sophisticated and thorough, to changing the way that we leverage data through machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence. There is also an intent to leverage 6G for sophisticated emergency and disaster management, as well as huge scientific applications.

Much of what is being described today looks like “5G, but better” and some of that will be the case. We will see new use-cases evolve from the advancements of 5G that while being “introductory” in 5G, will become mainstream in 6G. These will have to do with systems that are more flexible, more efficient, and can intelligently handle orders of magnitude data.

Regarding latency, 6G will make two advancements on time-sensitive networking. First, the maximum latency KPI for critical applications for 6G as low as 100 microseconds. This will have a significant impact on new use-cases that are not just about getting information there quickly, but also leveraging for location-based services that are more precise.

Second is the concept of a minimum latency requirement; in other words, precise timing of information transfer even if the latency is long. Some information can arrive too soon to be useful, so time-engineering in networks means knowing that a message may arrive before a certain amount of time passes, as well as the ability to plan exactly when the information will arrive.

Does Keysight foresee any laws or litigation forming that would impact 6G or 5G buildouts for the broader telecoms industry?

The most obvious policy differences for the 6G context is the US government making a significant change in how wireless research funding is allocated. Prior to 5G, the US government, through National Science Foundation (NSF), would allow funds for wireless research, but they were not earmarked for wireless.  A slight change evolved with the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program with modest funding earmarked for wireless. The last two years have seen significant laws passed by congress, with designated funding and economic advantages for wireless entities.

There are other policy decisions relating to the obvious (spectrum, small-cell siting, taxation and support of rural wireless, use of wireless in defense applications, etc). Lastly, more policy will be set up to ensure that 6G does what it is supposed to do for society. As we get to more mission-critical applications, the governments will step in to drive regulation for the sake of safety at the local and national level.

Will O-RAN continue to be a business opportunity under the 6G network?

Whether it is the O-RAN standard itself or something beyond that, the drivers for O-RAN are more pronounced in the 6G context. The vision for 5G is to virtualize as much of the network as possible, to decrease costs and drive flexibility into the system. O-RAN is a natural fallout of that, given that it is specific to virtualizing the parts of the radio access network (RAN) for which such work is practical.

While virtualizing power amplifiers and antennas is perhaps the realm of some future generation, the virtualization of much of the baseband processing is happening now. This drives a disaggregation of the base station and from that is the need for common architectural boundaries and standardized interfaces between them. This trend will accelerate to ensure 6G is flexible.

One other fallout of O-RAN is the development of the RAN Intelligent Controller concept – a necessary control element that sits astride the RAN/Core boundary to ensure optimal use of the virtualized elements of the RAN. 6G is likely to drive the next generation of this architecture, with additional AI-based functionality and AI-based capability.

What frequencies will be chosen or used?

The frequency band issue is an important one to discuss. First, like all previous generations, 6G technology will be applied to frequencies that are used by existing generations. The next phase of modulation techniques, MIMO, channel coding, multiple-access technology, etc. will be applied to the existing bands. This includes what we now call 5G FR2 – the band between 24 and 52 GHz. You can expect significant changes in the technologies applied to this band – because it will be only one generation old when 6G rolls around; there will be many opportunities for enhancing radio capability.

Lastly, the addition of higher bands is getting plenty of attention. I expect practical communications and imaging technology to be developed utilizing bands from 110 to as high as 330 GHz. There is research happening for even higher frequencies, but practical limitations are profound and perhaps we should wait for 7G for these.

Who or what will be the breakthrough driver for 6G?

A few key elements will make a difference in the success of 6G as a technology generation. 

  • First, a single global standard is necessary for scale and consistency. 5G is the first example of a generation developed with no competing standard.  For 6G to be a breakthrough, the industry should not allow geopolitical tensions to create work on a standard that splits into competing technologies. 
  • Second, the research happening now must yield affordable technologies for use during the evolution of 6G from the late ‘20’s to the late ‘30’s. 
  • Lastly, the advancements in security technology must keep up. Without high levels of trust in the system, “an integral part of society” will never manifest.

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