Officially speaking, Europe’s Hexa-X project launched under its 5G Public-Private Partnership (5G-PPP). Don’t let the 5G in the name fool you, though. It’s leading the European Commission’s research efforts as its flagship project on the uncharted path towards the next generation, 6G.
European 6G Research Opportunities
If the six-sided, hexagon-inspired name wasn’t enough to convince you, the main research challenges, which non-coincidentally total six, very well may: Connecting intelligence, network of networks, sustainability, global service coverage, extreme experience, and trustworthiness. Talking to 6GWorldTM, Volker Ziegler, who holds a 6G leadership role at Nokia Bell Labs, suggested the challenges are more so opportunities than obstacles. Nokia is coordinating the project, with an official total of 25 partners.
“It’s about making sure we focus on keeping the value right – not just the sense of business value and growth, but also in terms of sustainability aspects,” Ziegler, who works with the Hexa-X Project Management Team, said. He also contributes to the end-to-end vision, architecture, and system aspects of the project.
“When you look at the connected intelligence, AI/[Machine Learning]’s relevance and importance as a key part of Hexa-X, as a key part of our research efforts at Nokia, there’s this whole thing about making sure what we do is human-centric,” he continued. “The AI guys call this value-alignment. Especially out of Europe, you have a very clear belief in free speech, civil liberties[…] and all this is linked into how we shape technology, making sure that whatever we do it goes beyond technology.”
Further regarding value, Ziegler pointed to a Hexa-X deliverable that covers use cases and key value indicators (instead of key performance indicators).
“In previous Gs, we talked performance indicators. Now, we continue to talk performance indicators. It’s important; but we’ve added this notion of value indicators, making sure that we really focus on some value as we create for society, mankind, and the various stakeholders we serve, including consumers and enterprise,” he said.
Ziegler proceeded to list potential use cases: New radio technologies, localisation and sensing, AI-driven communications, architectural transformation, subnetworks, and special-purpose requirements. However, he added that dissemination of the information is also key, with Hexa-X being about “framing research.”
From 5G-PPP to SNS
As Hexa-X is positioned as the lead European 6G project, a lot hinges on its progress. Speaking to 6GWorld about the Smart Networks and Services (SNS) partnership, which is taking over from 5G-PPP, Colin Willcock, Chairman of the 5G Infrastructure Association, which manages the private side of the public-private partnership, confirmed that the idea is for Hexa-X to help etch out a 6G roadmap.
“It’s meant to be a bridging project,” Willcock explained. “If you look at the timeline, we have Hexa-X, which has just started in January this year. It will be going [2.5] years. So, it’s going to be finishing sort of 2023. We will be expecting the first Smart Networks and Services projects to be starting towards the end of 2022. So there’s going to be maybe a year’s overlap. So, hopefully[…] we can then leverage that knowledge into the first phase of [SNS] and really try to drive the 6G technology forward.”
Ziegler said he expects the beginnings of 6G standardisation to occur by 2024-25, with commercialisation projected by 2030 following the “typical 8 to 10-year cycle between generations.” Asked how he feels about European ambitions for 6G compared to those in earlier generations at around the same early point in their respective trajectories, Ziegler said the difference is there’s more of a solid foundation now thanks to all the work that has come beforehand.
“I think the one key element of success out of the European context is this excellent base to build upon like from 5G-PPP. When you think about why this has been successful, I think it’s not just the ICT innovation and exploration. It’s truly also the complementary innovation to all the vertical sectors. That’s also something we at Nokia are passionate about, especially when you go all the way to 6G vision, where we see so much more potential to explore exciting use cases and basically find ways to implement performance and value and go beyond what 5G can do,” Ziegler said.
Hexa-X Looks Toward 6G
Ziegler referred to the private-public partnership aspect as a European tradition, “an invitation for everyone to contribute.” On the public side, European Commission Deputy Director-General Khalil Rouhana spoke on the topic at a recent webinar on the subject of 6G.
“On R&D, we have just announced the joint undertaking for SNS. It will be [€900 million] of investment, but we expect that industry will bring in the three or four or five times more, as we did in the current PPP of 5G,” Rouhana said. “At the same time we launched, Hexa-X was one of the projects. So we were first movers to engage in R&D[…] but we’re also engaged now with the stakeholders, with the member states to ensure the full roll-out of 5G.”
In his interview with 6GWorld, Ziegler also wanted to highlight that there’s still many years before the start of 6G. Many of the innovations to come will still be considered part of 5G as result, while 6G is now “on” in terms of research. Speaking during the same webinar as Rouhana, Ziegler called the Hexa-X project a wonderful platform to frame that research for Europe moving forward.
“This is the ambition to be a stepping stone into SNS, into [research and innovation framework] Horizon Europe,” he had said. “So, we really look forward to this to jointly frame what the next G should be so as to help unlock the full potential.”
Feature image courtesy of Studio ProX (via Shutterstock).