‘We don’t want to lose out on 6G,’ Bell Labs Core Research President Says

March 22, 2023

Written by Caio Castro
CATEGORY: Exclusives

Nokia was one of the companies that made the most buzz at this year’s MWC. It started weeks before with an announcement about 6G solutions, continued in Barcelona with CEO Pekka Lundmark revealing their new logo and plans, and finished in the booth with the 6G demos.

6GWorld had the chance to catch up with Thierry Klein, President of Nokia Bell Labs Solutions Research, and Peter Vetter, President of Nokia Bell Labs Core Research, and talk about the company’s goals and challenges for the future, specifically regarding 6G plans.

In this conversation, the executives detailed some actions and areas Nokia will turn its focus to in the next years.

Thierry: First, an overview of Nokia Bell Labs’ research. We are focused on research and innovation that looks to expand the portfolio of the company. We are looking at several new technologies focused on AI, for example, but also a lot of industrial enterprise applications and we’re looking at what’s beyond connectivity.

Nokia has made a strategic decision to go into the enterprise industrial space. There’s a huge need for communication, networking, and edge computing capabilities for future industrial enterprise applications as we’re building towards the industrial metaverse over the next decade.

But then the question is what happens beyond connectivity? What else can Nokia lead from a technology perspective as we’re building the industrial metaverse?

The first thing is connecting all the assets in an industrial enterprise environment, but then what are the additional capabilities? How do you actually enable the industrial metaverse to achieve productivity, efficiency, safety, and sustainability in these enterprise industrial applications?

So that’s the research we’re doing. It’s heavily focused on software, data systems, AI, machine learning, technologies like sensing, localisation, positioning, data analytics, and also robotics and drones.

We’re also addressing security and trust quite a bit. Privacy-preserving AI data models, and Web3 technologies. The real question is: what are the underlying technologies for the metaverse, the industrial metaverse? And how does the industrial metaverse get built? How do different entities collaborate in an efficient, safe, trustworthy way?

6GWorld: Pekka Lundmark, Nokia’s CEO, said that the company is focused on six areas for the next decade, with 6G being one of them. What’s the role 6G will play in this Nokia journey throughout the years and towards this enterprise, industrial-driven new perspective?

Peter: The vision of 6G is indeed that fusion of digital and physical worlds as an application space, the industrial metaverse. To make that happen at scale, you need a 6G network that can connect these many sensors that give access to these AI capabilities in an intuitive way, so that you can build these future applications for the industrial metaverse.

And as a company, we very much bet on 6G. I mean, it’s the core of our business. We have 5G, but let’s admit it: we were late with the 5G. We caught up well, and we are now ahead in several performance angles. But we don’t want to lose out on 6G. So already now, our research is in sync with the business group, and the business group is already working with us, ten years ahead.

6GWorld: We saw sensing and the AI-native air interface demos at MWC23. And Peter mentioned Nokia Bell Labs has established six challenges for 6G. What are the next 6G challenges the company is focussing on?

Peter: Well, we are active on all six of them, and we have made good progress. Also, we have chosen these two because they show how 6G is going to really be different from 5G. But we have active research on the new spectral band. As I explained earlier, we bet a lot on the band just above the current mid-band and how to build such large 1,000-antenna elements. We have the first proof-of-concept in our labs, and hopefully next year we will see more of that.

Another important challenge is how to do all that in an energy-efficient way. What is a good SoC [system-on-a-chip] architecture for that? What are the future power amplifiers? Then there’s a lot of talk about new spectrum technologies in this sub-terahertz range. We are careful because in 5G everybody talked about mmWave. There’s not a lot of mmWave deployed, so let’s not make that same mistake [with 6G].

We love terahertz but it might not be the right frequency band for large-scale deployments because the range is even more limited than in 5G. But we do have investments in RF and ASICS because it’s a band that is also very good for backhaul. And then there’s security, I mean that’s very big on our research agenda.

Thierry: Peter mentioned [our research on] how to build energy-efficient networks. How to make sure that the future network consumes less power while they’re handling a lot more traffic. How do we use, for example, AI techniques to improve the energy profile and optimize the networks for maximum performance at the lowest energy per bit?

That’s certainly key. But the other part of sustainability is also how we use the technologies that we’re developing for reducing climate impact and meeting ESG. One of our projects is environmental monitoring.

How can we use the technologies we have inside the company from a sensing, AI, connectivity, cloud and analytics perspective to understand the environment around us and do early detection and prevention of wildfires? Ocean monitoring?

Thierry Klein, President of Nokia Bell Labs Solutions Research/Credit: Nokia

6GWorld: I have a question that is a little bit off-topic. I want to go to the Moon. What are the connections we can make or what can we learn from this experience on the Moon that we could use in the future for Earth communications?

Thierry: Let’s start with what we’re learning on Earth that is beneficial to the Lunar economy and deployment. I think the main objective for us is to take all the technologies that we’ve developed on Earth and adapt them to communications in space and on the lunar surface – as well as the Martian surface – in the future so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

We don’t have to go back and start from scratch and build a proprietary system, but we can leverage all the investments that we’ve already made in the 3GPP technologies.

But then it’s clear that you can’t take a network and deploy it in a factory today and just take it as-is and deploy it on the Moon. There are obviously the environmental conditions we need to consider.

Size, weight, and power are premium requirements for any deployment in space because you pay a premium for size, weight, and power when you deploy or deliver payload into space. So, we are working very hard on optimising that footprint of the network and making it as compact as possible.

And that’s certainly something that will also be beneficial when you look at terrestrial industrial networks in mines, oil rigs, or remote areas. The ability to integrate your hardware, software, and functionalities in a very compact form factor is key.

Another really important lesson: our mission with NASA and intuitive machines and Lunar outputs is an uncrewed mission. As much as everybody would want to go, it’s uncrewed. So we need to be able to build this network and deploy it completely autonomously, right? There is unfortunately no technician that we can send to the Moon and turn the network on, configure it, change it.

Everything has to be done completely autonomously and remotely. And that will be an important lesson that we bring back for how we design, build and deploy networks in such a way they’re completely standalone, completely autonomous. And I don’t mean standalone as in 5GSA, but really from an operational perspective.

6GWorld: And I imagine this experience could help with the making of antennas and equipment?

Peter: Yes. The researchers in my team, for instance, helped with the modelling of radio propagation on the Moon and the design of the antennas.

Thierry: We think the Lunar deployment as an extreme example of an enterprise, industrial deployment on Earth. So, there are lots of lessons learned that will help us bring that knowledge back to the industrial environment.

And I think the Bell Lab’s DNA is that if you can build it in an extreme environment, you can build it anywhere. If we can build a network that we can deploy and operate autonomously on the Moon, we can build it anywhere on Earth.

Featured image by Nokia

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