Softly Softly Towards A New Generation: SoftBank’s Perspective

April 3, 2024

Written by Alex Lawrence

SoftBank R&D recently outlined their concept for how to build a “Digital Society Infrastructure With 6G”. While it draws on a variety of ideas, its approach sets it apart from other conceptions about the future.

One refreshing element in the paper is the refusal to define 6G as a cellular technology, or even a communication technology. Instead, the authors note that:

“6G goes beyond simply enabling faster and more efficient communication. It is one of the necessary elements to push the boundaries of possibilities and deliver experiences tailored to a new lifestyle.”

6G is, then, one part of a wider shift containing three key elements:

  • Communication infrastructure. In a digital society, a foundation for exchanging information is crucial.
  • Data, or information itself. The management, transfer, and use of data is increasingly significant, both as a set of challenges (such as managing privacy) and to enable other services.
  • The computational infrastructure to process the data.

While people tend to focus on the first part of this, telecoms service providers have been trying to play a role in these other elements; indeed, edge computing has been discussed for years now as a possibility.

“So, what will differentiate the infrastructure of the future digital society from that of today?” Say the report authors.

“We believe that the answer lies in the significant improvement in the quality of component technologies and the level of coordination of realized functionalities.” (Italics are 6GWorld’s)

The thing that stands out is that, whereas many companies will then flag up particular technologies or issues which they plan or require to improve, SoftBank is vaguer and, probably, a bit more realistic in taking more of a holistic approach.

The authors say:

“While innovation in individual component technologies is certainly necessary, unlike before the advancement of any single component technology is becoming less likely to directly lead to the realization of new services.”

So, for example, while developing a new generation of communication technology is useful and arguably necessary, it is not sufficient by itself.  “We have reached a complex domain where simply improving communication quality alone does not resolve the issue,” they comment.

This is perhaps stating the obvious when taken by itself, but it’s surprising how many people get a bit of tunnel vision about the telecoms environment and just take the development of, for example, better computing capabilities, new materials science or other technologies as inevitabilities happening in the background. Stating that clearly is quite a rejection of an approach that boils down to “Yes, but we can do thisthing, so we’ll focus on that.”

As a result, some of the proposals in the rest of the text make for unremarkable reading, as they tie in with movements and technologies already in process. However, it’s the coordination and synergy between them that, in SoftBank’s view, creates a step-change. This is very much the approach that Formula One racing has taken to improving performance: not looking for one big leap forward but a thousand tiny improvements.

Those areas for progress include:

  • Decentralised computing. This seems to tie in with some of the work of the IOWN Global Forum, although it’s not explicitly stated. Decentralised computing also links to decentralising power generation, as SoftBank points out. It might also provide a stronger argument for, or a more suitable background environment for, decentralising functions such as identity and authentication, though this is not mentioned explicitly.  
  • New spectrum. However, the common cry of “we need more spectrum!” in this case  seems to go hand in hand with a request for new ways to use the available spectrum better, for example with different kinds of licensing or sharing.
  • Creating three-dimensional networks through the integration and use of non-terrestrial networks. “Ground base stations must now accommodate devices including those in the air, and by utilizing HAPS (High Altitude Platform Stations) and satellite communications, it’s necessary to extend services widely to currently unreachable mountainous and maritime areas. This effort is crucial for creating a world where people and objects can be connected at all times. The deployment of a three-dimensional network will also contribute to the improvement of fault tolerance.”
  • The report also highlights new approaches necessary for creating and authorising the use of data, especially as it pertains to individuals. “We need a foundation that allows individuals to manage the circulation and processing of their own information according to their own preferences,” they note. This cannot purely be a technology solution, but of necessity will involve social and regulatory involvement.
  • The creation of new techniques or protocols to manage and exchange data – for example, from a weather station to a real-time game or to coordinate drone flights. SoftBank notes that “At the current stage, there is no infrastructure to safely utilize this data. Services will be created where each data circulates within an appropriate range, and various industries will emerge, interrelating the data to create new value. To handle data correctly, secure communication technologies to ensure data safety, authentication technologies to guarantee data reliability, and authorization technologies to control data usage are necessary.”

Other operators, and most notably groups such as the NGMN, have spoken out against the idea that 6G should be another cellular technology requiring a hardware refresh; and justifiably so, given the up-front costs and the risks of a research cycle prioritising exactly that if left unchecked. However, SoftBank offers a nuanced set of ideas that does not contradict any of the basic requirements set out by operators or the societal goals set by governments and the ITU, but which still leaves room for innovation throughout the telecoms supply chain.

One note of caution – this is still a concept driven by a technology-first approach; that is, it focuses on technology which will give rise to new services and, in some way, enrich the operator. In this sense there is still a gap to fill which has not properly been addressed.

That said, this is still a more realistic approach than many techno-utopian visions out there. Improvement by a thousand increments might be a better way to address a complex set of problems than betting on one solution – and the R&D team definitely see a complex set of problems before them, as outlined in the illustration below.

 Where might it lead? We’ll leave it to Softbank to comment:

“Advancements in technology occur in stages, gradually transforming our daily lives. However, one thing that can be said with certainty is that the services available ten years from now will be beyond what we can currently imagine. To bring this vision to life, we firmly believe in the need for further advancement and enhanced collaboration between computing resources, communication infrastructures, and data management.”

Challenges as laid out by SoftBank R&D

Recent Posts

Guest Post: Navigating the IoT security landscape

Guest Post: Navigating the IoT security landscape

By Iain Davidson, senior product manager, Wireless Logic According to IDC, spend on the internet of things (IoT) could reach almost $345 billion by 2027. The fastest adoption will be in applications such as irrigation and fleet management, with prominent use cases in...

Key Value Indicators – Making Good Business

Key Value Indicators – Making Good Business

One of the most original and most overlooked features of 6G is the involvement of Key Value Indicators [KVIs] in its development. However, KVIs may hold the key to revamping the fortunes of the telecoms industry. Key Value Indicators were introduced as a concept into...

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This