Guest Post: Cluster Competitiveness in 6G Ecosystems

February 14, 2024

Written by 6GWorld Contributor

By Ken Figueredo, More With Mobile

3GPPS’s December 2023 announcement, committing to develop the specifications for 6G, resolved one market uncertainty about 6G. 3GPP offers a proven governance framework for open, consensual and international technical standardisation. It is also a globally recognized institution due to its track record and regional standardisation partners.

There are, however, other technical and socio-technical aspects of 6G that are likely to alter 3GPP standardisation. For example, there will be new frontiers to address as the scope of mobile networks extends to distributed communications and computing systems. In the socio-economic arena too, new expectations are taking shape. These touch on resource sustainability, capabilities to ensure resilience and trust, and socio-technical issues arising from digital world applications that go beyond purely human and machine communications.

Beyond the 3GPP community, other 6G drivers to consider include industry strategy and technology sovereignty, both of which have acquired greater geo-politically significance. Governments are ambitious to foster home industries, research power houses, business networks and start-up formation. In parallel, industry players are looking ahead to 6G commercialisation with an eye to how government intervention can help. These dynamics set up a fertile context for communities to form around public-private partnerships and market development efforts, as is evident from pioneering initiatives.

Flagging a Start for 6G

In 2018, Finland got the 6G ball rolling through the 6G Flagship program. Building on the trajectory established by 5G, it sought to anticipate research issues arising from the next generation of communications systems. Over time, the pioneering work seeded initiatives across Finland across a matrix of academic, business, government and research participants working in local, national, and international arenas.

In 2019, under the guidance of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), China established its IMT-2030 (6G) Promotion Group. It set out to promote 6G research and create a platform that would support international exchanges. Participants include local and international organizations.

A little later, Europe and North America launched their own initiatives, taking different approaches. North America’s NextG Alliance (NGA) assembled a group of primarily commercial firms and academic institutions to represent the region’s interests. In Europe, a portion of the bloc’s research funding addressed 6G via the Hexa-X program. Hexa-X then seeded a follow-on program, Hexa-X 2. These initiatives sit within the wider context of the European Smart Networks and Services Joint Undertaking (SNS JU) which aims to ensure industrial leadership for Europe in 5G and 6G.

Figure 1 Timeline of International 6G Initiatives (source: More-with-Mobile analysis)

Individual countries proceeded to launch regional, national, and sub-national programs across Europe. The French government issued a €750 million funding call for 6G projects. In Germany, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) supports a program of 6G industrial research projects, an example of which is the 6G-TakeOff project led by Deutsche Telekom and involving twenty-two research and industry partners with the aim of developing a uniform 6G architecture for communications networks comprising ground stations, flying infrastructure platforms and satellites. Mimicking Finland’s local market development initiatives, the Bavarian Ministry of Economic Affairs launched Thinknet 6G with the goal of creating an agile ecosystem of industry players, research institutions, associations, innovators, start-ups, and incubators for 6G development in Bavaria.

Among UK initiatives, 6G Futures aims to be the UK’s Centre of Excellence for 6G research. Elsewhere, twelve founding partners launched the Realising Enabling Architectures and Solutions for Open Networks (REASON) project with UK government funding to develop and industrialise 6G mobile network technologies and solutions.

Other parts of the world also began to mobilise. In Japan, Toyota Motor, NEC Panasonic, NTT Docomo, KDDI, SoftBank Group and Rakuten Mobile joined other Japanese companies and academic institutions to propose technological requirements for future 6G wireless communications via the Beyond 5G Promotion Consortium.

South Korea, which has a national goal to launch 6G systems earlier than the internationally accepted 2030 target contains examples of private and public-private initiatives. LG Electronics, for example, demonstrated a 6G radio frequency front-end module in collaboration with Keysight Technologies at the 2021 Korea Science and Technology Exhibition. South Korea’s academic and research institutions ramped up their 6G activities and established international connections such as those connecting to the Finnish cluster as described earlier. At the national level, South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT established a 6G R&D implementation plan in 2021, calling for an investment approaching $194 million by 2025.

India, a sizeable market with ambitions to lead in the 6G arena launched its national initiative, the Bharat 6G Alliance (B6GA). Backed by government grants, India’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) assembled seventy-five companies under the B6GA to drive the country’s next-generation ambitions across the private sector, academia, research institutions and standards organizations. B6GA’s primary aims are to understand the business and societal needs of 6G beyond technology requirements, to promote open R&D initiatives and to accelerate standards-related patent creation.

In addition to national ambitions and initiatives, there is a growing movement in favour of international collaboration on common interest policies. As an example, the Global Coalition on Telecommunications (GCOT) focuses on security, resilience, and innovation of telecommunications networks. Its founding members comprise the UK’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology; Australia’s Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts; Canada’s Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Canada; Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications; and the USA’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. GCOT members want to foster diverse supply chains, secure and interoperable standards, and innovation of future telecommunications technologies such as 6G. At present, this is an information sharing initiative that seeks to build international consensus as a means of ensuring complementary national approaches.

Another example of cross-bloc collaboration involves the EU and North America. They published the EU-US Beyond 5G/6G Roadmap report which aligns common societal, technical and commercial market development interests. There are many other international examples.

Eventually, these national and international initiatives will need to evolve beyond information exchanges. There will be a need for dedicated resources and on-the-ground initiatives that bring together public and private sectors across research, standardisation, and commercialisation communities. How they succeed will depend on the extent to which they are interconnected and self-reinforcing.

Ecosystem Formation Example

Being the first to launch a formal and substantial 6G initiative, Finland provides a reference for how the nation and 6G forerunners are setting about developing competitive advantage via a world-recognised cluster. In the strategy area, the concept of ‘clusters’ deals with geographic concentrations of interconnected companies, specialized suppliers, service providers, and associated institutions in a particular field that are present in a nation or region. According to Harvard Business School’s Professor Michael Porter, clusters affect competition in three broad ways. Firstly, they increase the productivity of companies based in a given area. Secondly, they drive the direction and pace of innovation. And thirdly, they stimulate the formation of new businesses within the cluster.

In the case of Finland, Oulu University made the early running with the 6G Flagship initiative. Other universities and research institutes across Finland then followed. Participation extended to the private sector, with example initiatives involving Nokia and the SME sector. Industry strategy took the form of coordination, funding, and inward investment efforts at the local (Business Oulu) and national (Business Finland) levels.

International outreach adds another layer to these Finland-centric activities. These involve Finnish organisations participating in international bodies, such as ETSI and the NGMN Alliance. There are also links to other emerging clusters, South Korea featuring recently through MoUs that the University of Oulu signed with Yonsei University, KAIST and ETRI. In the spirit of collaborating internationally with like-minded nations on technology sovereignty, Finland issued a joint statement about shared aspirations for 6G with the US government.

Figure 2 Finland’s Multi-faceted 6G Ecosystem (source: More-with-Mobile analysis)

Finland’s spider web of connections is a source of inspiration for other 6G clusters. For example, recent initiatives illustrate efforts to branch out beyond communications topics. A case in point is the University of Oulu’s 6G Visible project which it launched with the Finnish Meteorological Institute and funding from Business Finland’s 6G Bridge program. This is an example of exploring a vertical sector requirement by researching how to combine 6G technology and autonomous cars. A second initiative, 6G-SatMTC, focuses on solutions for critical communications and the role that satellite communications might play.

Cluster Expansion Challenges

Finland’s sector-specific initiatives illustrate an important challenge for the core 6G Community to reach out to the sectors that will drive demand for 6G systems and innovation. A related challenge stems from the way that the envelope around 6G is expanding to include cloud and computing capabilities. How will representatives from these sectors join the research, standardisation and supply chains that have solidified around the 3GPP community and operating model?

A second set of challenges applies to the layering of societal values on 6G systems. Equity, sustainability, and trustworthiness, for example, call for capabilities and solution concepts that will stretch the technology stack. That brings into discussion what kinds of commercial, technical, and societal communities need to latch on to the national and international 6G clusters that are beginning to take shape.

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