By Ken Figueredo, Founder, More With Mobile. You can see Ken at the upcoming 6GSymposium Fall 2023
Politics, societal values, and technology sovereignty are among the new factors shaping emerging technologies such as 6G. Over the past few months, politicians and industrialists across the world have expressed national ambition and thought leadership claims about 6G. These range from the Prime Minister of India to Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO and spokesperson for the US Congress’ Special Competitive Studies Project. The development of prior ‘Gs’ was largely a technology innovation and standardization matter. So why are non-technical actors and discussions materialising now? And what will that mean practically for ‘6G leadership’?
This is the first of a three-part exploration of these questions. It begins by examining the scope of 6G, how that shapes the application landscape and the ways in which an evolving ecosystem of actors and coalitions seek to influence 6G’s development. The next two articles delve into the leadership challenge and the contribution of different ecosystem participants with an emphasis on the role for government agencies.
6G’s Wider Scope: New Requirements and New Motivations
Prior generations of mobile communications networks focused on raising the performance bar for technical aspects such as connectivity, coverage, throughput, and latency. The scope of 6G differs in two key dimensions. On the technical front, while performance targets will continue along more demanding lines, other developments will focus on 6G systems as distinct from 6G networks. This is because the envelope traditionally drawn around networks will expand. In the future, it will include distributed cloud and computing infrastructure. It will also embrace multi-access solutions involving satellite communications and unlicensed-spectrum networks. 6G communications systems will also interface with complementary systems technologies. Two such examples are AI/ML and communications integrated with sensing.
Non-technical communications goals are the second important change dimension. The scene is set for technologists to address societal aims and values in areas related to digital equity, sustainability, and trustworthiness. In national and political spheres, 6G has become an important industrial strategy topic. Many countries and economic blocs are vying for market leadership.
While expressing solidarity for global standardisation, some countries want to race ahead of the standardisation cycle and be the first to deploy. South Korea, for example, aims to demonstrate its 6G capabilities around 2028, a good two years ahead of the 2030 expectation for commercial 6G systems.
Concerns about national interests, technology sovereignty and component sourcing are additional considerations that are emerging in the debate about 6G. These will have an impact on requirements specification, standardisation, trade-policy, and coalition forming activities.
Initial Steps in Forming the 6G Ecosystem
The cadence for creating a new ‘G’ happens every ten years. The ITU is central to coordinating international input and providing a framework for global consensus. It published IMT-2020, a set of requirements for 5G networks, in 2015 and the corresponding technical standard in 2021. In the case of 6G, work is under way on IMT-2030, with a significant milestone achieved in June 2023 with the approval of a 6G Vision Framework. Preparatory work and market positioning activities began considerably earlier, with a variety of approaches starting to coalesce within national agencies and industry bodies.
In 2018, the University of Oulu’s 6G Flagship Program set the ball rolling with an 8-year research program aiming to define 6G-enabled digital worlds aligned with UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). Since then, the number of interested parties and 6G-focused initiatives has multiplied, covering a range of approaches and participant types. Government agencies are launching task forces to gather information and rally local participants in forming their national plans. There are several industry alliances and public-private partnerships aiming at collaboration to secure research fundings, apply for consortium projects and facilitate cross-disciplinary collaboration with academia.
There is also a life-cycle aspect to the different 6G initiatives. White Paper and academic publications are common ways to express thought leadership, disseminate research findings and formulate a vocabulary that will shape the definition and parameters for specifying and implementing 6G. Other initiatives deal with the next steps of pre-standardisation and standardisation activities. Demonstrators, proofs-of-concept, and test beds are other vehicles to implement foundational research and establish pools of expertise or future centres of excellence.
While many initiatives are organised on geographic terms, bi-lateral and international links are common. For example, while the NextG Alliance was established to represents North American, it has also formalised multiple international links.
Geographic initiatives tend to be of assorted flavours. While the NextG Alliance and O-RAN Alliance’s nGRG research group are predominantly from the private sector, there is a mix of government funding and direction-setting approaches in other regions of the world. In the EU, for example, the HEXA-X project began life as part of the bloc’s HORIZON-2020 ICT program. Lessons learned from this program inspired a joint undertaking on Smart Networks and Services (SNS JU) with a multi-year budget of 1.8 billion euros, split across public and private sectors. Elsewhere, the UK government launched its Future Open Networks Research Challenge and later targeted a £110m telecoms R&D package for 5G and 6G technologies. Japan is planning a $450m Japan 6G Fund and Spain approved public funding for Unico I+D, a program to boost implementation of 5G+ and 6G services.
China launched an IMT 2030 (6G) Promotion Group against a backdrop of a national, strategic plan that aims to increase the number of China-based global standards. Most recently, India committed to having a voice in the future direction of 6G by launching the Bharat 6G Alliance.
The next article of this series explores the topic of ‘leadership’, its different facets and levers in economies and industry structures to exercise influence.
Long time reader, first time contributor. Love technology and the great outdoors. Looking forward to discussing everything beyond 5G and the future of wireless technology!