USA Getting Specially Competitive On 6G

May 24, 2023

Written by Alex Lawrence

The Special Competitive Studies Project or SCSP, a policy group founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, has released a “National Action Plan for U.S. Leadership in Advanced Networks.” 

The 25-page document calls for a fairly comprehensive set of policies directed towards regaining a leading global position in advanced 5G and beyond. This is far from a straightforward pitch. As the document points out, the USA “lacks major producers of end-to-end telecom solutions for domestic networks and export, and has no national-level strategy to harness networks to achieve the nation’s economic, social, and national security aspirations.”

However, the document underlines the country’s strength in other areas which are increasingly relevant to telecoms systems, such as cloud, software and satellite.

“U.S. leaders must think beyond the recent policy focus on 5G networks to encompass other elements of the connectivity stack, including low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites, data centers, and potential leapfrog technologies, like free space optical communications and networks (FSONs),” the document notes.

Some of this might sound familiar – concerns that the USA has lost a leading place and, in particular, might be strategically vulnerable to other countries’ technology developments have led to some sizeable realignments in, for example, the desirability of Chinese equipment vendors’ materials in various countries. However, there are some novel proposals that are worth investigating in the document, particularly as the SCSP seems to have good access to policymakers on Capitol Hill.

Shooting the Moon

The Action Plan proposes four ‘moonshot’ activities, hard-to-reach but achievable goals.

– Pervasive, interoperable connectivity,

– Global Leadership in Free Space Optical Communication and Networks (FSONs),

– Building an Open Network Ecosystem and

– Win the 6G Race.

These are all supported by a raft of recommendations, but they are striking insofar as they are largely interrelated.

For example, ATIS Next G Alliance’s research priorities include a strong focus on delivering ‘digital equity’ in response to government calls to overcome digital divides within the country. This includes, and largely consists of, “extending reliable broadband connections and services to all individuals and communities to deliver outcomes that can be enabled by 6G innovation and services.”

While there are new technology KPIs for 6G, coverage is emerging as an important emphasis. At April’s 6GSymposium in the UK, speakers highlighted the challenges with not delivering properly ubiquitous services. “Ambulance services experimented with 5G services,” pointed out the UK’s Dritan Kaleshi, “but decided against them because they lose 5G connection in too many places.” Unsurprisingly, the geographical ‘network effect’ is important for a wide variety of industries and services, such as construction, defence, farming, mining, logistics, financial services, remote healthcare, distance learning and transportation. Arguably any country that wants to ‘Win the 6G race’ and generate significant economic and societal change with it will need to deliver that pervasive connectivity.

FSONs, services using optical frequencies to connect devices point-to-point without fibre, may well be a contributory factor to delivering that pervasive connectivity. Companies such as Axiom Optics and Google X’s Taara project are developing services for all kinds of use cases, from interconnecting satellites to backhaul applications and last-mile service delivery. There are definite challenges for FSONs which have limited their uptake to date, including atmospheric disturbances and fog which can drive up error rates or decrease effective ranges drastically, but further research may well be able to make FSONs more capable – for example, using semantic communications to increase tolerance for error.

Meanwhile, building an open network ecosystem may not directly enable 6G, but an open ecosystem opens up the opportunity for US companies to compete alongside the likes of Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei, both in existing networks and future ones. Clearly, those companies might be startups but might also be companies making a lateral move from related areas in applications, space or datacentres.

Services, Not Only Technology

The latter might seem particularly striking given the SCSP’s suggestion that the USA should “Export complete, cost-effective digital infrastructure packages to developing and emerging economies.”

This idea of complete infrastructure packages is an important one, whether for exporting overseas or for domestic production. The gap between technology capabilities and actual services can be a large one, as has been observed already in 5G. The Action Plan notes,

“Expanding broadband connectivity is not enough to allow enterprises to make use of new, 5G-enabled capabilities. Enterprise and industrial uses need basic levels of digital readiness — and the United States should seek to increase digitization and digital skills of strategic industries in parallel with expansion of private 5G networks.”

A skills base in potential customers is not enough, though. There needs to be a proper service creation, all the way through from ideation to commercial readiness. The Action Plan suggests that, in the USA,

“NTIA, FCC, and sector-specific agencies should create challenge grants for the high-value networked applications coupled with a high-level public-private steering committee. This program and funding should move beyond small grants currently available for technical advances to incentivize large-scale applications in priority sectors such as advanced manufacturing, logistics, agriculture, and autonomy with clear commercial and security applications.”

The benefit is twofold in this case. If the USA can create services with domestic application, they can also be exported relatively straightforwardly. In addition, programmes like this can create a basis for the development of beyond-5G services, insofar as it helps bring the relevant participants within telecoms systems, software development and the end-user communities together and sets up a framework for cooperation. As the SCSP points out,

“Developing sustainable, profitable business models for 5G and beyond is also critical for continued private sector investment in next-generation networks, since mobile operators have thus far struggled to monetize 5G. The U.S. government should accelerate and increase funding and partnerships for R&D of enterprise-scale, private 5G applications and smart city technologies.”

Some of the suggestions for how to go about this are very interesting. The paper suggests doubling the grant to the existing PAWR (Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research) testbeds, which will no doubt have some parts of the industry giving this enthusiastic support. While this is an acceleration of what already exists, the paper also proposes the rollout of “Autonomy Cities”.

These would be locations provided with funding to test out autonomous systems in real-world environments at scale. The paper notes some of the more significant reasons why connectivity has not yet enabled a robotics/drone/autonomous driving revolution by pointing out that “Safety, privacy, and cost concerns… make it difficult to test their use cases in the physical world at scale.”

The answer to this, according to the SCSP, would be for government and industry to “provide significant grants and digital infrastructure upgrades to a small number of U.S. communities willing to serve as technology and regulatory “sandbox” testing grounds for autonomous vehicles, drones, and smart city applications.” These locations would then be able to act as testing-grounds to understand the limitations and ramifications of services before large-scale deployments.

This is certainly an interesting concept, though it might be a hard sell to persuade parents that their community in particular should be a ‘sandbox’ for trying things out in.

Spectrum Play

The Action Plan has a fair bit to say on the topic of spectrum, leaning into an expansion of CBRS as a method to provide low-cost shared spectrum “which policymakers should seek to harness to spur more distributed network and application innovation.”

Not only this, but “U.S. authorities must make more radio spectrum available, not only for telecom networks but also for smaller firms and private and city-scale networks and testbeds. Making more licensed and unlicensed spectrum available to the private sector will be crucial.”

How can this be done, you may well ask, as the run-up to WRC 23 has already highlighted the scramble for available spectrum on a global scale. To the SCSP there is a potential target of interest: government agencies, where a ‘use it or lose it’ approach to spectrum would be impactful. The Action Plan notes:

“Policymakers should improve incentives for government agencies to release more spectrum needed for wireless innovation — both by increasing the costs for holding unused spectrum and improving incentives for optimizing spectrum use. The Department of Defense, the government’s largest spectrum user, should work closely with the FCC and NTIA to assess its spectrum use and develop a spectrum release strategy.”

While the USA has, thanks to CBRS, the world’s foremost example of spectrum sharing technology, this is also an area where the SCSP recommends more research be done. Ultimately a more flexible radio environment may well be an objectively useful thing, but it remains to be seen how for that can be squared with the current licensing and auction rules, the valuation of spectrum as it currently exists, or global alignment on the use of different spectrum bands.

There are many more recommendations in the document, from creating a government-based ‘Tech Export Accelerator’ to ‘flooding’ standards bodies with aligned entities to counter coordinated Chinese influence. It’s certainly worth a read, if only to understand what some of the more hawkish policy ideas are. Overall it reflects quite a stark ideology, in which there is either Chinese or US technology hegemony. It is likely to play well within the USA as a nod to both patriotism and pragmatic security concerns but might be met with bemusement by the likes of the European Union, India and Japan.

There is a phrase which is never mentioned in all this policy advice, a phrase that dare not speak its name in the corridors of US power – ‘industrial strategy.’ It’s an odd quirk of the political system that such a phrase is anathema in the country, though the principles are sound. If the government is going to coordinate research, encourage certain outcomes and support the development of certain industries within the country, that sounds like a… strategy for industry. It sounds eminently sensible as a way to compete against other countries which definitely do have a strategy. And what else should a government do if not protect the interests of its citizens?

After all, as the Action Plan notes, “US leadership in such a critical general purpose technology cannot be left to chance.”

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