SK Telecom’s 6G White Paper: Realism And Lessons To Learn, But Reasons To Be Cheerful

August 14, 2023

Written by Alex Lawrence

Last week SK Telecom released a white paper “5G Lesson Learned, 6G Key Requirements, 6G Network Evolution, and 6G Spectrum”.

As the title suggests, the document is quite wide-ranging. At 58 pages, you might expect it to be. However, there is a strong underlying message.

The authors’ concluding remarks are emphatic. “At this point, four years after the world’s first commercialisation of 5G, we first looked back at the light and darkness of 5G. Considering this, 6G key requirements from the mobile operator’s point of view were presented in order to improve in 6G”.

On one level this may not be so surprising. As an NGMN board member SK Telecom contributed to their document earlier this year on “6G Requirements and Design Considerations”, which emphasised the need for “a graceful evolution from 5G” and other elements.

SK Telecom has also jointly released a number of papers with NTT Docomo on different aspects of 6G. This is part of a broader research alignment between the two companies which has been ongoing since 2022 which aims to address the questions of how to advance 5G commercial services as well as collaborating on 6G research projects.

SK Telecom has a reputation as an innovator, but not many operators have published their own white papers. There is a clear concern that mistakes of the past could be repeated in 6G without proper care, and the authors are careful to spell out those mistakes clearly.

Solving 5G Problems

These include touting 5G as the basis for a wide variety of visionary (at the time) services such as autonomous driving, XR, remote surgery, and digital twins. “We should have taken a more objective perspective,” SKT notes. After all, these services are not only reliant on 5G but on whole nascent or non-existent ecosystems of devices and applications, policy and regulatory frameworks and demand from the market.  

“To successfully settle innovative services in the 6G era, all participants in the ecosystem should work together to prepare the environment along with 6G technology,” say the authors. In other words, 6G needs to be an ecosystem play.

Realistically, this is something which organisations like 5G-ACIA have been saying too. 5G-ACIA – the “5G Alliance for Connected Industries and Automation” – was launched in 2018, only a year before 5G’s commercial launch and too late to feed into any standards or specifications, let alone the early concepts.

SK Telecom also highlights the inflated expectations that came along with 5G. The authors note that there were “excessive expectations of 5G performance and innovative services based on it from the beginning of commercialisation. To prevent this misunderstanding from recurring in 6G, it is necessary to consider various usage scenarios of 6G, set achievable goals, and communicate accurately with the public.” (6GWorld’s italics)

This is a perfectly reasonable suggestion, though difficult in practice. 6GWorld was talking to a contact at ETSI earlier this year who commented that the 5G hype “Was a bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes. In the industry we all tend to get excited about new technology and want to be seen at the forefront, so nobody wanted to pour cold water on the ideas that were coming out.”

If we’re going to keep expectations in check then more cautious messaging from operators and the vendor community are going to be needed; however, harking back to the point about the 5G-ACIA above, by a closer collaboration with other industries in defining and preparing 6G it should also mean that realism about what’s happening, its effects and timelines will percolate through those industries in any case.

Inflated expectations are perhaps a fairly obvious target. However, the authors also point out the diversity in 5G architecture as a problem which will need addressing, and this is an area where standards bodies may need to take note in the short term. “3GPP… defined 7 network architecture options in Rel-15, the first 5G standard,” SK Telecom points out. While this was done with the best of intentions, the fragmentation that ensued delayed the development of a workable system.

“In order not to repeat the fragmentation of architecture options, it is necessary to focus on the core options expected with the high demands. To this end, prior coordination and agreements on organizations such as GSMA and NGMN are required.”

In other words, 5G struggled by trying to satisfy everybody at the same time. With the diversity of outcomes desired and visions for what 6G could or should be, simplifying the essential nature and architecture makes sense. The challenge will be to do that without compromising on the essentials of its promise.

Old Mindsets Made New

The document is wide-ranging and includes many technical recommendations. It’s notable that – where most people will talk extensively about spectrum, network-of-networks, and so on, SK Telecom picks out the need to improve “UE heat and power consumption to improve user experience.”

Fundamentally this is consistent with their stated approach which looks at the whole of the market – everything needed end-to-end to create compelling products, services and outcomes for the end user. Ultimately this kind of viewpoint makes a great deal of commercial sense and is a clear effort not to repeat the problems with 5G.

Such a mindset is difficult – it takes time, effort and ultimately investment to collaborate and influence other parts of our industry, let alone potential partners. However, that kind of approach is how GSM first developed, not as a network in isolation but of a piece together with devices and regulation to deliver effective and mass-market mobile voice services. The landscape is much more complex now with many more stakeholders, but the principle is the same.

Like with GSM, if the telecoms community – principally driven by the operators – can unify around a common understanding which goes beyond network standards, then it has the opportunity for a renaissance. It’s not simple, but it might just prevent another case of Emperor’s New Clothes.

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