The ITU-R published a document in November called “Future technology trends of terrestrial IMT systems towards 2030 and beyond”. In more than 40 pages it outlines some emerging services and applications; technology trends and enablers; then detailed sections on the RAN and air interface.
Because it has been written by the ITU-R it’s perhaps not surprising that it focuses primarily on the elements that are uniquely mobile-related. It makes striking reading, however, not just because of the breadth of the topics covered, but also how it covers them. There’s a lot to be read between the lines.
All Tech, No Business
Firstly, there are some concepts which are mentioned purely in terms of the technology required to implement them, but which involve fundamental changes in business process and outlook for service providers and, by association, with their suppliers. Whether or not these are appetising to service providers will determine the uptake of those technical solutions. Standalone 5G is very limited in its deployment right now, not because executives think it’s bad technology in principle but because of a host of challenges making viable, profitable services in practice.
One striking example of technology idealism in the report is the concept of ‘simplified user-centric networks’ which the authors describe as “a globally unified access network with the simple architecture and the powerful capabilities of robust signalling control, accurate network services and efficient transmission through the converged communication protocols and access technologies with plug-and-play, on-demand deployment. A user-centric network enabling a fully distributed/decentralized network mitigates a single point of failure as well as to enable the user-controlled data ownership which is critical to the next generation network.”
For two sentences, this paragraph does a good deal of heavy lifting. For a start, it includes within it the following concepts which are taken as read:
User-controlled data ownership. Regulations like GDPR and CCPA were developed on the recognition that businesses who collect data about individuals don’t own that data, and that individuals should be able to understand and control what happens to their data and who it’s shared with. For a description of the current state of play, this blog post from 2021 has a useful overview.
If that seems straightforward – we all just follow GDPR – bear in mind that this is a nascent field which is liable to change as our understanding of risks and challenges does. If we are setting up a network slice to consistently support a particular user or device, can that slice be used to identify that user? What happens when slices operate across multiple networks or countries, carried on third party infrastructure – can or should end users be able to delimit which networks or which territories slices can operate over? In a decentralised environment, how does that control work and how transparent or granular can operators be in practice? Will service providers need new forms of insurance to protect against any liabilities or claims based upon how data is handled and protected at rest or in motion?
Moreover, concepts such as a user’s self-sovereign identity – as opposed to identity residing in a centralised data warehouse – would assist in managing a decentralised network where services are delivered based on the user’s needs rather than a given network’s capability. However, this leads to some technical questions of how authentication and access management should be managed. It also begs the question of whether customers in future will really ‘belong’ to any given service provider, or else draw their service provision from whoever can best supply their needs at any given time. That fundamental change in business relationship should have considerable impacts not just on operations, but on how service providers conceive of and market themselves to end users.
A globally unified access network. We have a long way to go to reach this (see the 6GWorld webinar ‘What Will It Take To Unify Fixed, Mobile and WiFi Access?’ for a hint of the work necessary, which doesn’t even address non-terrestrial and sidelink communications). The coordination required between different standards organisations and stakeholders is phenomenal.
Beyond the purely technical, however, it also begs the question of how competition between service providers would function in an environment where access networks do not determine the quality of the service received. Will we see a new emphasis on customer service, on price competition, or will it require a move to entirely new business models such as acting as B2B2X platforms? None of this is outlined in the ITU’s document but will play a considerable part in how rapidly technology is adopted, if at all.
Access technologies with plug-and-play, on-demand deployment. Once again, this is something that sounds sensible but will be a huge lift. Organisations like O-RAN Alliance and TIP are working towards these from the telco perspective; however, as pointed out in this article there is a long way to go before such elements are available and interoperable.
Moreover, it’s not just access technologies which will need to be considered. Many of the areas where access technologies are currently lacking are also unsupported by fibre deployments. Backhaul would also need to be simple and cost effective to deploy, in all likelihood by the same organisations deploying the access technologies. Alternatives to fibre backhaul might include mmWave point-to-point links or NTN backhaul.
This is just one example from many to highlight that there are a good many assumptions being made in the document. As a wish-list for the final outcome it is fairly comprehensive, but it leaps over questions of what steps go into making that happen, the timelines for them and the likelihood of them taking place.
In & Out of Focus
The other thing to note in this document is that it reflects the particular expertise and interests of the authors. On one level that’s not surprising, but it does also create a certain degree of skew.
To take one example, improvements in security and trust are key elements in the requirements set out for 6G by organisations such as the EU, the US government and others. The 46-page ITU report includes 769 words in total to address these topics, covering physical layer security, location-based security, post-quantum cryptography, anomaly detection, differential privacy, federated learning for security, distributed ledger technologies and resilience.
This compares to 838 words addressing ‘technologies to support ultra-high accuracy positioning’. A casual reader might infer from this that improvements to security and privacy are not significant challenges, or that the solutions are ready to implement.
However, the attack surface for networks is increasing exponentially. As the US military pointed out of 5G in 2020, the introduction of device-to-device communications opens up a swath of vulnerabilities related to identity and authentication, while this research highlights how easily and effectively current machine learning systems can be ‘poisoned’ by ingesting malicious data. Unless security challenges are faced and addressed, there is a significant disincentive for end users – especially governments and enterprises – to adopt the new services.
ITU-R is, of course, limited in its scope due to the very fact that it is ITU-R, the radio portion of ITU. That said, there is a strong mobile-centric bias. Despite articulating a vision for service delivery across any access network, the words ‘Wi-Fi’ or ‘802.11’ appear nowhere in the document, while ‘fixed’ networks or broadband appear four times. Satellite gets some mention, but not much.
None of this is said to criticise the ITU-R authors. They are working with their own perspective and objectives in creating documents such as this. However, it’s important to be aware that, perhaps to a degree not seen in previous generations, no single organisation has the complete picture and everyone involved has their own areas of expertise that they will tend to focus on while being unaware of certain other issues. This is not a question of deliberate malice, but a reflection of the immensely complex reality facing us, in which nobody can be an expert on everything. To develop something successful and usable ‘out of the gate’ we need to be aware of, and addressing, the gaps between creating radio technologies and delivering commercially successful next generation services.
In April the ITU is due to deliver a full vision and recommendations for 6G, and the next 6GSymposium (April 24-26) will bring key movers and shakers together in creating industry unity behind that vision. Let’s just be sure to explore what’s missing as much as what’s addressed.
Alex Lawrence is Managing Editor at 6GWorld. His mission is to bring together stakeholders from across industries, countries and disciplines to make sure that, as technology evolves in the coming decade, it’s meeting the changing demands of society, government and business.
He has been involved as a professional nosy person in the telecoms sphere since 2004, with short detours through industrial O&M and marketing.
If you’d like to talk to Alex about your ideas or projects he’d love to hear from you. @animalawrence or email@example.com.