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The global race toward 6G

Countries across the world, including India are exploring the possibilities with 6G and spending huge amounts of money on 6G technology research.

Expected to debut in the 2030s, 6G is envisioned as more than 10 times faster than the fifth-generation wireless in use now, enabling services like fully automated driving and remote surgery that require rapid, high-volume data transmission with minimal lag. Data speeds in the tens of gigabits per second – more than 10 times what 5G provides – will be sought as a prerequisite for remote surgery. Entertainment applications, such as virtual metaverses are seen requiring networks that can handle tens to hundreds of gigabits of data per second at peak times.

The traditional pursuit of coverage, bandwidth, delay, and other single technical indicators is not suitable for 6G. 6G must explore and develop technical performance, cost input, energy consumption, safety, reliability, sustainable efficiency, and other multi-objective sustainable and coordinated development.

6G will be the integration of the medium- and low-orbit satellite network and the ground 5G network for truly comprehensive connectivity.

6G not only relies on ground base stations but also does not rely on low-orbit satellites to transmit network signals. It combines the two to achieve technology, cost, energy consumption, and security. In the part of signal transmission and performance enhancement, it relies more on the development and combination of the existing technologies.

Various countries are spending huge amounts of money on 6G technology research. China leads the pack with 40.3 percent of global 6G patent filings. USA has 35.2-percent share in global 6G patent filings, Japan 9.9 percent, Europe 8.9 percent, and South Korea 4.2 percent.

China’s 6G patent applications are mostly related to mobile infrastructure technology. Many of the latest patents have been filed by Huawei, while other key Chinese patent holders include state-run companies, including State Grid Corporation of China and China Aerospace Science and Technology.

Chinese government-backed institute Purple Mountain Laboratories claims that its research team achieved a 6G-level wireless transmission up to a speed of 206.25 gigabits per second (Gbps) for the first time in a lab environment.

According to its report, the test was supported by a special government project on as-yet-unstandardized 6G systems, and achieved in collaboration with telecoms carrier China Mobile and Fudan University. The speed achieved claims to be a world record for real-time wireless transmission within the terahertz frequency band, which is considered to be the base for future 6G mobile communications.

The laboratory noted that the achievement has a wide range of application prospects, as it can be integrated with existing fiber optical networks to expand 100–1000 Gbps outdoor and indoor ultra-high-speed wireless access, replace the existing mobile network fiber optical networks to achieve rapid deployment, and replace the huge amount of cables in the data center to significantly reduce costs and power consumption.

The Next G Alliance, a US-based industry group that is part of the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) specifications organization, has presented a 6G vision for North America and outlined steps necessary to secure the region’s leadership in wireless technology from the next decade onwards.

The Alliance has come up with what it calls six audacious goals, outlining the main priorities for North America’s leading role in future 6G-related global standards, deployments, products, operations, and services.

  • The first highlighted target is around making sure future networks are fully trusted by people, businesses and governments to be resilient, secure, privacy preserving, safe, reliable and available under all circumstances. Another goal is for an enhanced digital world experience with multi-sensory elements, enabling transformative forms of human collaboration, in addition to human-machine and machine-machine interactions to transform work, education, and entertainment, which the alliance says, will improve the quality of life and bring great economic value.
  • Cost-efficiency across all aspects of the network architecture is another aim outlined in the group’s roadmap manifesto.
  • It also highlights the need for distributed cloud and communications systems build on virtualization technologies. Benefits touted from this are increased flexibility, performance, and resiliency for key use cases, such as mixed reality, interactive gaming, and multi-sensory applications.
  • The Next G Alliance also calls for an AI-native network to improve the robustness and efficiencies of wireless and cloud technologies in scenarios with more diverse traffic type, ultra-dense deployment topologies, and challenging spectrum situations.
  • Last, but far from least, sustainability should be at the forefront of decisions throughout the lifecycle, with advancements to be made in changing how electricity is used in supporting next-gen communications and computer networks, and in addition, strengthening the role technology plays in protecting the environment.

The Alliance also outlined a timeline to promote strategies for R&D, market readiness, and adoption of 6G technologies.

The Next G Alliance consists of 80 members, including big names, such as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon from the telecom operator community, and Apple, Cisco, Google, Intel, Meta, Nokia, Qualcomm, and others from the telecom vendor and broader tech industry.

The US and Japanese governments have agreed jointly to plough USD 4.5 billion to go beyond 5G and attempt to take a lead in the nascent 6G sector. The two governments have signed an accord to cooperate directly in the research, development testing, and deployment of secure networks and advanced information and communications technology, and to work together in numerous other areas that could swing the balance of tech leadership their way.

The US is contributing USD 2.5 billion to the effort, while Japan is contributing USD 2 billion. The initiative will “advance secure and open 5G networks, including Open Radio Access Networks (O-RAN), by fostering innovation and by promoting trustworthy vendors and diverse markets.” The partners will also strengthen competitiveness in the digital field by investing in research, development, testing, and deployment of secure networks and advanced ICT including 5G and next-generation mobile networks.

The US and Japan also agree that they should be instrumental in setting new global standards for next-generation comms, and to extend the accord to bring third countries into the development of standards for secure connectivity.

In this regard, the two countries are to launch a Global Digital Connectivity Partnership to promote secure connectivity and a vibrant digital economy while building the cybersecurity capacity of their partners to address shared threats.

Specifically, in telecoms, both the US and Japan are among the most advanced 5G markets in the world and are home to many of the players pushing ahead with O-RAN developments, so it is not hard to see how that combination could be powerful in terms of grabbing a sizeable slice of the action.

Their minds are now set on ensuring that 6G leadership is not ceded to China.

Toyota Motor, NEC, and other Japanese companies will join a government-backed group to propose technological requirements for sixth-generation wireless communications.

The technical proposal to be released soon by the Beyond 5G Promotion Consortium could be the first of its kind. The group includes Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, as well as academic institutions and companies like Panasonic that are expected to use 6G technology.

Seizing the initiative at this stage signals a strong competitive position for Japan, as setting specific benchmarks is difficult without research and development to provide a basis for the figures.

The draft will include specific requirements for individual fields and applications. The consortium will call for common targets to be met by companies worldwide to guarantee that 6G communications are secure and reliable.

The proposal looks to set goals for autonomous-driving technology of limiting lag to about 1 millisecond – less than one-tenth the latency of 5G – and error rates to no more than 1 per million.

It will be submitted to a June meeting of a working group within the International Telecommunication Union. The working group plans to establish technical requirements for 6G networks by June 2023, and will use these as a base to hash out specifications for particular applications.

Japanese operator SoftBank has identified a number of options for the next generation of mobile broadband connectivity. The ultimate vision is for Japan to become an AI-driven digital society. “The Internet will be utilized to build a virtual digital space, with mobile networks connecting base stations and devices,” noted Ryuji Wakikawa, Head of the Advanced Technology Division at SoftBank. “In this way, digital and physical spaces will be connected in real time. What is predicted and judged in the virtual space, using AI, will be fed back to the physical space with ultra-low latency.

Not only will 6G networks serve as communication networks, they will also evolve into computers that support an AI society. Edge computers will be deployed everywhere in Japan, and these computers will be capable of AI and other types of server processing to disperse computing. These computers will establish a high-quality, end-to-end communications environment, connected to networks in highly sophisticated ways. If AI is the trigger for the next Industrial Revolution, 6G will be the telecommunications infrastructure that makes it happen.”

SoftBank plans to invest 2.2 trillion yen (USD 20.13 billion) during the next 10 years on its 5G and 6G networks. And it is hard to imagine that NTT DOCOMO (which issued its 6G white paper in January 2020), KDDI, and Rakuten Mobile will only watch from the side lines.

Europe also has aspirations to be the center of 6G R&D. The European Union (EU), for one, set in motion its first large-scale 6G research and innovation program in December 2021. The Work Program 2021-2022 was allocated €240 million by the European Smart Networks and Services Joint Undertaking (SNS JU) entity, with the aim to support activities including 5G evolution, large-scale trials and pilots with vertical industries, and 6G systems research.

In the meantime, 5G-PPP projects, focused on 6G/beyond 5G with €60 million in funding, have already been set up, with Hexa-X as the flagship initiative.

And of course ETSI is well underway with its 6G efforts, while in the UK, the University of Surrey has already launched its 6G Innovation Centre (6GIC) to help continue the work already underway at the 5GIC.

And Europe is home to the 6G flagship research project at the University of Oulu in Finland. The NGMN Alliance, based in Germany, has also included 6G as part of its new vision.

Germany is putting significant funds behind its own 6G research efforts. The country’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, or BMBF) has allocated €700 million towards 6G R&D during the next five years, with an initial aim (backed with an initial €200 million injection) of creating the basis for an innovation ecosystem for future communication technologies around 6G. “We have to think about the day after tomorrow now and help shape new key technologies and standards in communication technologies right from the start,” according to Germany’s Federal Research Minister Anja Karliczek.

“The digital transformation has accelerated and underscored the need for a strong network infrastructure. With 4G, we had wireless broadband internet for the first time and simpler machine applications became possible. 5G is already setting important standards here and will take digital networking to the next level. 6G, however, will be the mobile data technology of the future and will determine and even revolutionize our communication in the next decade. With 6G, data is transmitted more than 100 times faster than with 5G – with great advantages for mobile communication for not only every single person but also for our industry and agriculture,” she added.

The initial step, underpinned by the initial €200-million funding, is to create 6G research hubs that can “prepare the next generation of mobile communication and the fiber optic networks required for it,” and to develop an umbrella project dubbed the “platform for future communication technologies and 6G” to coordinate activities, define and drive additional projects and liaise with other international bodies to address issues of regulation and standardization.

The potential of 6G, as explained by the BMBF, sounds exactly like the claims made for 5G – enabling high-res augmented reality, self-driving vehicles, remote medical procedures, and so on.

But it is not about the use cases, it is about having the capabilities developed at home – the tech wars of the past few years, the resulting mistrust, and the regionalization of developments means the driving force behind investments in 6G and, indeed, many other technology developments (including O-RAN) is intellectual property ownership.

The key passage in the BMBF’s positioning statement is very clear about this: “We now have to invest massively in 6G research. Only in this way, can we strengthen the technological sovereignty of Germany and Europe in the long term. We don’t want to be dependent on others in the future. For this we need a decade of new beginnings and massive investments in the technologies of tomorrow and the day after.”

But the world is changing: This isn’t just about China, Europe and the US.

South Korea is certain to play a significant role in 6G, with Samsung having already laid out its vision in a white paper published in July 2020 and the South Korean government aiming to have pre-standards 6G network up and running in the country by 2026.

South Korea unveiled a five-year state project to spend some 220 billion won (USD 193 million) on the development of core technologies for 6G telecommunication while stepping up joint research and cooperation with the United States. South Korea aims to achieve the world’s first commercialization of 6G mobile telecommunication in 2028.

The investment was presented on June 23 at a 6G strategy meeting attended by policymakers, company officials, and experts. “As the next-generation mobile network is the foundation of digital innovation, we should play a bold and challenging role together to lead the international market in the 6th-generation era, based on our experience and know-how in the network field,” Science and ICT Minister Lim Hye-sook said in a statement.

In India, scientists and engineers are working on the development of 6G technology. The telecom and communication minister Ashwini Vaishnaw is confident that India will be able to roll out 6G technology by 2023-end or early 2024. 6G technology in India will be rolled out using indigenously developed hardware and software and also be exported to other countries, says the minister. When 5G spectrum auction has not taken place, how the minister expects 6G in 2024 is not understood. 2030 or later seems to be a more plausible timeline.

International Telecommunication Union has been considering India’s vision and views on implementing technologies for sixth-generation or 6G and might even make a decision on it by mid-2022. The views proposed by the national standard body, if accepted, would help India lead the path of ground-breaking 6G technology.

TSDSI, the National Telecom Standards Development Organization (SDO), last year submitted a vision document and suggestions to the forum responsible for enabling the sixth-gen technologies – ITU. Since 2020, TSDSI has been deliberating on 6G in working groups and has been able to consolidate the vision from India as well as the set of technologies that will act as an enabler.

TSDSI, with the support of private telecom operators, technology vendors, and chipset makers aim at enabling the next-gen technology that can help bridge the digital divide in the country as well as form a ubiquitous mobile-connected society.

The complete vision of the country on enabling 6G, and what it should be, has been incorporated in the ITU documents. ITU is most likely going to give a verdict based on its views by the July of 2022 as a part of International Mobile Telecommunications or IMT-2030 requirements. On the other hand, the Geneva-based union is targeting 2030 for deliberating on 6G, after which 3GPP or the third-generation partnership project, can work on creating standards.

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has recently created a 6G technology innovation group, which is dedicated to creating a plan of action for research and development (R&D), and also for the technology. This innovation group is also a source through which DoT is asking for stakeholders and partners to identify technologies that are under development in India and can become a part of 6G. These will be further pushed for R&D grants.

Some early industry players in the 6G space include Nokia, who heads project Hexa-X, the European Commission’s flagship 6G research initiative, and Ericsson, who will manage the technical aspects of the program. Other partners include Siemens, Intel, Telefonica, TIM, and Orange.

Bottom line, 6G technology will have a big impact on devices, the market, and on communications and while we are a ways away from the realities of 6G, it is exciting to think about what is ahead, and great to see many leaders in Big Tech already making progress and getting involved.

6G technology is still technically just a concept, as it would not be widely available until about 2030. But it is still exciting to explore!

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