Standards Towards 6G: “Everything Is At An Inflection”

February 23, 2022

Written by Alex Lawrence

“This is a transformational moment for the Telecoms industry,” David Boswarthick enthused.

The ETSI Director of New Technologies has a role at the cutting edge of standards-driven innovation, working on the front line with both ETSI and 3GPP. Although he is a little perplexed by how quickly the conversation has turned to 6G, at a time when 5G operator deployments are announced daily, Boswarthick is keen to engage with what 6G might mean for the industry.

“With the competition between regions to be first on 6G and with several new next-gen initiatives already hatched, this is the right moment to reflect upon what connectivity, spectrum, regulation and standardisation may look like in the 2030s,” he noted.

Building Value

Boswarthick pointed to a certain degree of scepticism that is emerging as to whether there need be another “G” every decade, and, if so, how might the next generation be radically different from 5G?

“Many are saying ‘6G must not just be 5G with THz and more AI’, and this is where we see the emergence of other objectives and KVIs (Key Value Indicators) for future mobile networks including energy efficiency, global coverage, inclusiveness, trustworthiness and more.”

These KVIs differ from the traditional Key Performance Indicators, insofar as they are not exclusively an engineering challenge. For example, the industry could address the coverage problem by throwing money into massive network builds and/or more efficient use of existing spectrum, while trust is fundamentally a question of relationship dynamics. There are areas which organisations like ETSI can and do contribute to, however.

“ETSI itself is already working on areas that support energy efficiency, sustainability of telco equipment and materials, optimisation of limited resources including spectrum with groups looking at reconfigurable radio technologies and several others – so the building blocks are there,” he pointed out.  

“As we move towards 6G we need to build upon those fundamental blocks, cooperate with other industries and relevant standards bodies and together ensure that future networks improve both connectivity and productivity.”

The implications for ETSI are considerable, and not least from a process standpoint. Despite the shift towards software, “the standards we make for 5G are quite similar to the way things were done for 3G,” Boswarthick pointed out. “Now is a good time to consider the type of standards that will be required for the technologies that will be deployed in the next decade.”

The emergence of AI has the potential to change the process. Boswarthick sees AI not only as something that needs to be standardised in some way, but “also as a tool that can help creating framework standards. We really get to an interesting conversation about how global standards could look in 2030 and beyond.”

Global Standards?

Alert readers may have already noticed the focus Boswarthick has on cooperation with other bodies. This is deliberate and front-and-centre of his thinking.  “The success of 3GPP in providing a single mobile standard that is available and applicable across the globe is something to be celebrated, cherished and protected as we move forward to 6G,” he noted.

That said, 6GWorld could not help but explore how that cooperation might look, given that different regions have produced rather different visions of what their future societies might look like, the values they advocate, and how to get there. Boswarthick is pragmatic.

“For technologies to be deployable across the planet, and soon beyond, some level of globally developed, adopted and deployed standardisation is essential,” he argued. “As we move forward with 5G Advanced and 6G, providing connectivity and services to more and more vertical industries and different types of end users across the globe, the need for a single global standards set for mobile networks is essential.”

That flexibility – the set of options – is key. “You can have a standardised set with some options. For example, you can have different interfaces standardised, and then you can pick and mix from them, but if the user device is roaming, you’re probably going to need most of those air interfaces and options integrated.”

Boswarthick is aware of the tension that having multiple options creates. “Even within 3GPP today there are some options on the standards, but the point of standardisation is to reducethe number of options to a minimum, because it’s not a standard if you can do anything and everything.”

Computing Comes Within Communications’ Orbit

It is likely, and possibly inevitable, that communications and computing will collide at some point (as pointed out in this white paper for 6GWorld).

That would imply that ETSI is going to need to work with other digital industries to coordinate on standards… and also that standards will apply increasingly to software. Boswarthick has been thinking about what this means, not least because applications often receive software updates weekly, while organisations such as 3GPP update every quarter. This is, of course, inevitable to some degree – an individual app is a very different thing from a standard – but it does create a dichotomy.   

“It’s not necessarily going to be a problem, so as long as you’re standardising the right things – things that aren’t going to need to be changed with every update,” he noted.

“It’s a hard one because you’ve always got the balance between flexibility and reliability so, if something’s wrong, you can update it and then deploy it; but then also you’ve got the question of what happens if you deploy it and it creates 17 additional problems, which brings your network down and could mean a break down in critical communications services and/or massive service outages.”

The tension between these demands is problematic. One potential avenue to reconcile these demands will require a new way of thinking from the industry, one which unites the telco standardisation position with the software cycle.

“You need to harmonise or standardise the approach to updates. How often do you update, how do you validate the updates, how you avoid security hacks and risks coming in via the software update to networks and to equipment? Operators are different to Facebook and Google because they have the regulators watching them saying ‘You must provide this essential service, this needs to be available all the time.’”

More broadly, Boswarthick sees the only reasonable way forward being one that unites and educates people from different backgrounds.

“It is evolving. You get classic telco plus classic IT guys, and we bring them together in this sort of cosmic crash. However both sides understand the need to listen and adapt: the telcos wishing to adopt ‘agile’ standards processes, as opposed to the old waterfall processes; and then the IT community, if they want to get access to the telco connectivity and the user base. There’s a convergence, an education to be had and we all need to learn and adapt.”

Beyond Boundaries

The convergence goes beyond the unification of telecoms and IT. As digital transformation hits different industries at very different rates, their unique demands need to be considered too. The shift has already started with 5G, where the involvement of organisations representing other industries was, in Boswarthick’s words, “already very significant.”

“At ETSI we often work on standardisation for vertical industries such as health, automotive, rail, aeronautical, maritime; and for each of those communities we reach out to the most significant association or group of organisations that represent the end-user community and can provide their own specific requirements for the connectivity solution that will be developed.”

While ETSI is engaging with such industry bodies, it also keeps itself open to act as an expert on standards when individual companies proactively approach it, almost in a consultative way.

“They’ll come to us and say, ‘We’ve got this standards-based problem to solve. We believe this is the technology direction, it’s come out of these research projects, European or national, and we’d like you to help us’.”

“We just try and say ‘Come in and we’ll help you solve your problem’.”

The reason for this is quite simple – it’s about learning as much as possible, spreading that knowledge to a wider community, and ultimately getting the right outcomes for as many people as possible. While some groups, such as 5G-ACIA, have felt they were late to the party with 5G’s initial specifications, the benefits of being able to bring in their viewpoints and expertise should have long-lasting effects.

“There are different regulation regimes in telecoms, in health – in aeronautical, as we’ve seen with recent concerns about 5G – and we need to learn from each other. And if telecoms are being used to support air transport, we need to understand about their regulation as well when it comes down to standards.”

A Body in Motion

While standardisation may seem like a process that is slow to change, Boswarthick is keenly aware that this is only the case compared with the daily ups and downs of the news cycle. Along with the rest of the industry, he can feel the tidal pull of drastic, but more gradual change.

“When the first 6G services roll out in, say, 2030, how will things look?” he asked. “What will standardisation look like? What will regulation look like? How will governments sell off their 6G spectrum? Are they going to do it the same way as they did for 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G?”

“We’re seeing different sorts of standards being used that move away from the traditional model of operators and vendors’ initiatives, such as O-RAN, looking at open interfaces to respond to a certain need. Everything is at an inflection point right now. Add in the different sorts of AI and ML, which will be omnipresent in networks, services and devices. We are living a very interesting moment.”

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