In May 2020, the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), an organization dedicated to the development of standards and solutions for the ICT industry, published a call-to-action urging the United States to take a global leadership role in promoting research on 6G, the next-generation wireless technology. This leadership should go from early research to early adoption, from policymaking to innovation.
The call-to-action argues that, even though 5G technology is still being rolled out, now is the time for the U.S. to kick off efforts towards 6G. “By working now to align government and industry on a set of core principles and actions, the U.S. will be at the forefront of 6G development and deployment,” the document reads.
While ATIS publicly encouraged the U.S. government and industry to engage more seriously in a generation of technology beyond 5G, China, South Korea, Japan, and Finland have already launched or announced research on a roadmap to 6G. In October, ATIS announced the birth of the Next G Alliance, a group that will, among other tasks, propose a strategy for 6G in North America.
But why are governments in such a hurry to develop a roadmap for an ecosystem that will only be fully operational around 2030?
The answer often lies in the green
“[The first and more obvious impact is that] The sooner you roll out the technology, the sooner the National Treasury will cash in money from the telecom operators,” summarizes Alain Mourad, Director Engineering R&D at InterDigital. “That means significant capital that a country can spend the way they prefer.”
Another significant reason governments are eager to promote new network development and deployment is the downstream benefits it brings to other national sectors. “If we can do our work better because of the new technology, if we can get better entertainment, better education, we will be able to take leadership in these areas as well,” added Mourad.
These assessments are backed by studies indicating that 5G and the Beyond 5G technologies will add billions of dollars to the economy. While some projections lack a level of accuracy for long term predictions, they do offer helpful insight into how the new networks will impact the world.
For example, Japan’s strategy for Beyond 5G development, presented in June 2020, projects 6G technology will generate US$ 400 billion in value for the country by 2030.
Separately, a 2019 study released by British bank Barclays projects that the 5G rollout will boost business revenues by up to £15.7 billion (US$ 20.8 billion) by 2025.
The Role of Government
Not many people think of government bureaucrats or decisionmakers when envisioning cutting edge technological innovation or killer app. However, many governments are responsible for managing and overseeing the necessary resources and assets to fuel the innovative explorations of the future.
Every mobile signal travels through radio spectrum, and the government considers that spectrum a national asset, managed and protected by the public administration. In other words, operators like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon can only use the network if officially authorised and allocated spectrum from their home government.
But the importance of government support goes beyond overseeing resources and the market, and back to the green. “The most critical role a government plays is to invest money in the innovation value chain in the country. For example, in universities for research or in public and private companies,” explains Alain Mourad.
The first step is to launch programs with significant funding and provide all contributors – universities, operators, industry, government bodies – a strong base from which they can start researching and generating value.
As an example, Japan’s plans for Beyond 5G technologies feature and require government participation from the first step until the last phase. More than the monetary investments, the public plays a role in easing taxation throughout the chain, allowing spectrum experimentation and providing the framework for deployment.
This is also true for the U.S. government. “We felt it was critical that North American industries step forward to create a roadmap to the next decade of strong global mobile technology leadership,” said Susan Miller, president and CEO of ATIS. “Ultimately, although it is not by a long shot, our [Next G Alliance’s] objective will be to influence the U.S. government funding priorities and actions that will incentivise the industry.”
Security and policymaking are also its competencies, and the 5G rollout is showcasing that value. “The government’s role in developing and deploying secure and reliable network infrastructure has become ever more important in the 5G era compared to 4G,” stated Yuka Koshino, a Research Fellow for Japanese Security and Defence Policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, during a webinar organised by the Center for a New American Security.
“5G is fundamentally different from previous generations because it will connect basically everything from smartphones, automobiles, factories, nuclear plants, or military technologies, and will be the backbone of our everyday economic and social activities,” she concluded.
Roadmap to success
Typically, it can take roughly a decade for a cutting-edge idea or technology to become a standardised mainstay in consumers’ everyday lives. Standards development helps drive innovation across the ecosystem and eliminates barriers to entry for different players, but it begins with exploratory research and technology generation, often led by leading academic institutions and universities and cutting-edge private companies. Academic researchers try to identify what kind of new technologies will be promising, while their private company counterparts often work to develop and implement the new solutions.
The next stage is the creation of industry established and recognised technology standards that enable and ensure devices and networks are compatible. The International Telecommunications Union, a specialised agency of the United Nations responsible for helping to establish technology roadmaps, takes into consideration technology proposals developed by countries and global associations.
As standards are developed, tested, approved, and deployed, many governments engage in the process of auctioning spectrum resources to researchers and operators to initiate trials and explore deployment of the technology before the standard is finalized. While this cycle is completed, and the most recent generation of technologies are entered into the mainstream for consumers and industries to enjoy, engineers and governments return to the process of pioneering the next generation of wireless communication.