Nicolas Chuberre Shares His Views on 6G, Satellites and More

April 2, 2024

Written by Caio Castro
Network Satellite Data Exchange Earth Space
CATEGORY: Exclusives

Nicolas Chuberre’s head is in the clouds—actually, above them. The 5G/6G Solution Line Manager at Thales leads international research on non-terrestrial networks (NTN) and the intersection between satellites and 6G.

He also has some strong opinions. “I believe 6G is not going to be disruptive compared to 5G,” he said in an interview with 6GWorld at MWC 24. According to him, “evolution” might be more accurate.

Amid several meetings in Barcelona, Chuberre – also chair of the Satellite Communication and Navigation working group at ETSI – found time to talk with 6GWorld about what he envisions for the future of telecommunications as satellites and mobile internet come closer.

Where are we today when it comes to NTN and 5G?

When we introduced NTN in 5G, the industry had the understanding that these two markets – satellites and mobile networks – were disjoined. Different ecosystems, different terminals, different users. And we thought that maybe there was a need to integrate them.

The 5G system was already defined, and what we did was basically add an additional component to an existing 5G system. It means that we have to play with the constraints of these existing systems. But nevertheless, we have achieved the goal of integrating both sides.

How? We developed the standard and defined the radio protocol as part of Release 17. Then, in each following release, we introduced different frequency bands in which this radio protocol could operate. But we also took the opportunity to add some enhancements to the radio protocol.

In summary, the basic features of making the radio protocol compatible with non-terrestrial networks were defined in Release 17. The rest is more optimisation and enhancements.

All this work has been done with 5G in mind. What about 6G?

From an NTN point of view, the challenge with 6G is different. I mean, yes, of course, NTN has to be part of the overall system because everybody understands the role of NTN in two main areas.

One is the extension of coverage, for sure. But the other is something new.

Because the economy of a country is heavily reliant on the digital economy, and this digital economy is reliant on the telecommunication network, you need to do a lot to reinforce the resiliency of the network if you want to have a sustainable economy. And that’s where there is a need for even more interaction between different sets of technologies.

Instead of adding a new network component to a 5G system, the idea would be to define the 6G system so that it supports all these network components natively, including the non-terrestrial network component and fixed cable network components. This way, you will have a variety of network components to play with to achieve resiliency.

The second principle, which at this point can be considered more exploratory, is that resilient connectivity is vital. And indeed, NTN’s contribution will mainly be to ubiquitous and resilient connectivity. Nobody is saying that NTN will alone ensure this; it will be in tandem with the terrestrial network.

All this integration between NTN and terrestrial networks (TN) should likely have an impact on power consumption. How do you envision sustainability in the context of future NTN systems?

People talk about the intrinsic carbon footprint of the network, and the telecom sector as an enablement for other fields to reduce their footprint. For instance, if you have a fleet of taxi drivers, thanks to telecom and AI you can optimise the way the fleet is distributed around the city and maybe reduce the carbon footprint of the taxi driver sector.

As NTN industry stakeholders, we are not that competent to assess how our technology is going to impact other sectors. We believe that the first level of sustainability, the carbon footprint of the overall network, might benefit from the smart combination of NTN and NT. For some cases, it might be more optimised to transfer the traffic or the service over NTN compared to TN, and vice-versa.

That’s an interesting point. When could NTN be more sustainable than TN and vice-versa?

I’m interested in two KPIs here. One is the energy needed to transport one bit of information via a terrestrial network or via NTN. Today, we don’t have the numbers, and we can’t know for sure which is the best for each situation. But it could be for some cases, such as broadcast, where the same bit of information shared by NTN might be more advantageous.

The other KPI is the minimum energy I need to ensure service coverage. We are not talking about traffic. Coverage means that my device is somewhere—so what’s the least energy I need to ensure this device can access the network? Maybe there is some interest in considering NTN rather than TN. This kind of opportunity needs to be explored.

And for 6G, we have a different challenge compared to terrestrial networks, which are more about AI and cloud. Of course, we [the NTN sector] will benefit from that. However, our main challenge is to accelerate the transformation of the satellite communication industry from a service-centric to a user-centric approach.

The telecommunications industry has spent billions of dollars to optimise service delivery. However, with a user-centric approach, the key point is that the user has expectations about how they will use a device, and the characteristics of the end-user device also need to be part of the equation.

What are the challenges for the next years as we start developing 6G?

We did a lot with 5G – for example, direct connectivity to smartphones. But maybe we should do more to consider verticals and the vertical requirements.

What kind of user equipment would they prefer? What kind of user equipment context do they have? That is a challenge we are facing.

So, you see, it’s a little bit different from terrestrial network stakeholders. But of course, we are happy that they are going to develop AI and XR and all kinds of fancy applications. But we are more fundamental, so to speak.

I believe 6G is not going to be disruptive compared to 5G. At least, that’s not our intention. We want to leverage what has been done in 5G and 5G NTN and expand it with additional features.

Maybe there’ll be more flexibility because we have specific deployment scenarios and some constraints to cope with, but no disruption. Evolution.

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