Thinking about 6G.

In a blog we posted in April of this year; we bemoaned just how long it is taking to roll out 5GSA to all the population of the UK. Well, to those people lucky enough to be in an MNO coverage area anyway. So, you may wonder, why are we even considering matters relating to what follows 5G, which for now, we’ll call 6G. 

The answer is that there is a lot of thinking to be done and so the sooner we start the better. The ITU-R has already fired its starting gun, in fact it did that in March 2021 and it’s called the Framework (for IMT2030) phase and, as the name implies, the objective is to come up with an outline of what the next generation may look like. It’s inevitable this is being called 6G. That phase finished last month, and we’ll soon learn the details and that’s why we think it is timely to give some time to our thoughts about 6G now. The next phase is, after all, about requirements and evaluation criteria. This is the crucial pre-standardisation work which will set both the business and technical challenges for 6G. The estimated 6G launch is 2030 and you may be wondering if it isn’t too early to be thinking about requirements for a 6G network today, but when we start to consider the challenges in front of this programme, perhaps it isn’t!

We have decided to devote a bit our own thinking time inside Azenby to what comes next and to start thinking about the opportunities and the challenges that lay ahead. In a series of blogs over the coming months we will shine a light on many of the issues that will be testing the brightest telecom brains on the planet, and a plethora of other brains outside the telecom world as well. Whenever there is a catalyst for change, as 5G to 6G undoubtedly is, the first question to be answered is always ‘do we evolve, or do we disrupt?’ Are we looking on this as an evolution from 5G or as a chance for a revolution for 6G?

Like Antonio in The Tempest, we wonder if we are fated to act by all that has gone before us, “Whereof what’s past is prologue;” suggesting we are slaves to previous generations and evolution is the only option. But then again he follows this with “what to come, in yours and my discharge”  and we can interpret this as that everything up until now has merely set the stage for us to make own destinies. OK, we don’t think Shakespeare was thinking about 6G when he wrote this, but it does seem an apt analogy of where we are today. Can we decide that 6G should have a destiny of its own and not be incumbered by backwards compatibility to previous technology generations? Can we decide on revolution? This is important because the paths ahead between evolution and revolution are vastly different roads indeed.

Convention and past practice have a foothold already. IMT2030 and the framework study initiated by ITU-R is thinking about 6G from the radio ‘in’ as we see it and we have a strong view that, really, 6G should be from the core ‘out’. In fact, we think 6G is more about the seamless management of many access technologies, not just about a new 6G radio interface. This begs the question ‘are we even starting from the right place’? We do understand that a new radio interface to support the aspirational targets for 6G on data speeds, ultra-low latency, and mass device support, will be needed and that it will require many years of research and development. This being so, we have no problem with the work happening now. What we would like to see is a parallel approach to produce a complete rounded new 6G technology that thinks much wider than a new radio interface.

We wonder if we might end up in a different place altogether if network security, resilience, and the adaptability to serve the next decade’s needs was the starting point and then work out whatever  access methods will be required, (6G) radio being but just one of them. Alas the starting gun has sounded and it’s a radiocommunication centric programme – at least for now.

In one way it is exciting to start thinking about what 6G needs to be and to whom. Should it be people focussed or industry focussed? Should it seek to connect the unconnected? How do we make it trusted for all users and make sure it is resilient and reliable for a range of new services and use cases that we haven’t seen thus far in 5G? There are many component parts that will make up a successful network of the future and 6G does need some new and different thinking compared to  what has gone on before. Is 6G the ideal opportunity to create opportunities for new entrants in infrastructure, equipment, devices, and service provision? Or should it be driven by the needs of today’s incumbent players? For many of the previous mobile generations, the emphasis has been on the technology, not the business cases or even user requirements. The next generation presents a challenge, as we need to predict the future: What will the effect be of climate change, of Artificial Intelligence, the state of the World economy, and security and the risks from those with malevolent capability?

Over the coming weeks and months, we will be publishing a series of blogs to cover the topics and subjects that we think need to be considered and resolved if we are to end up with a new generation of telecommunications for the next decade and beyond.

We are going to take a look and form a view on the following topics and maybe more.

The Benchmark

What are the aims and goals for 6G? They are many and varied and some are aspirational. What we see currently is a focus on the conventional three performance indications we have become familiar with in 4G and 5G. Speed, latency, and density. It is worth just taking a look on where we are today on these three PIs.

Data Throughput1Gpbs*20Gpbs*xTpbs
MMTC (density)100k*1 million*xxx milliondevices/km2
*Not achieved yet

There are of course many other targets for 6G to aim at but the three KPIs will always figure large in most people’s thinking inside the industry.

Intelligent core / network of networks. As mentioned before , we think that this is the better starting point for determining the telecommunications strategy and standard for the next decade.

Geopolitics Probably the single biggest barrier to a successful new global standard. Does it even matter that we may not end up with a single globally adopted standard? Is the need for global roaming now being met outside of the 4G/5G domain? Can a trusted environment be created allowing OEMs from all markets to serve all markets?

Services and Use cases. We have been thinking a lot about this. When 3GPP was formed, the decision was taken to leave services out and focus entirely on bearer technologies. Develop the technology and then worry about the services and use cases. Various possible use cases have always been touted for each new generation by equipment manufacturers and to be honest, very few have ever come to fruition. Is this because we do things the wrong way round? We believe that 6G definition should start with the ‘Purpose’ rather than being a bigger and faster version of 5G. That is a long-standing trait of the telecom’s world, but it does make us wonder if the development of 6G needs to be more user focussed than has happened previously. We also see that needs and requirements will vary greatly and ask, ‘can a single global standard be optimal for the vastly differing needs of markets worldwide?’

The spectrum challenges. Wow, this is a biggy. Where is the spectrum we need for optimal and economic services? We can’t find it; we can only see the best of a lot of worst options. Do some low usage systems taking up valuable spectrum (largely for historical reasons) need to be shifted, moved, or closed? That would be radical, but it needs to be on the table. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Let’s throw in today’s archaic spectrum licenses culture and hope for some new out-of-the-box thinking from regulators for 6G where growth is the driver and not filling Government treasury coffers around the world.

Devices. There are two takes on end user devices. One is the handheld smartphone as we know it today and the other is embedded devices inside of all sorts of machines and equipment. Chips with everything will now be radio in everything. 6G needs to deal with a world of sophisticated automation driven on by AI and everything connected to everything. That’s complimentary with our view on truly intelligent network cores. Certainly, it’s the end of the road for physical SIMs. 

Private Networks in the 6G environment. If we are looking for clues on the take up of the non-consumer-based capabilities of 5G and assume that this will be repeated in 6G, then the abundance of private networks does seem to be a crucial part of what 6G needs to support. Where we see MMTC and low latency capabilities being deployed in industrial applications, (mainly in China and the US) three things stand out, private networks, the need for the fully functioning core (SA) and spectrum to support them.

Componentry. What developments and enhancements will we need to see in processors and memory to fulfil the aspirations of 6G? Maybe the semiconductor industry moves so fast anyway that components will be far ahead of the 6G needs come 2030.

Resilience . Amongst the touted industrial use cases, and even on video game console use, we hear that low latency is crucial. Ultra-low latency throws up its own challenges in any radio environment but in some use cases like health and real time robotic machine needs, ultra-low latency is as a must have. Thinking on a bit from this, if we can achieve ultra-low latency we also need highly resilient networks and availability way above today’s base line. Ultra-low latency is no good if network connections are lost! Similarly, when future Emergency Services Networks include 6G, the importance of resilience increases.

Economic Viability. It goes without saying but we’ll say it anyway. Economic viability for all stakeholders in the next generation of network. This does not just mean the existing players in the market, but we must find a way to encourage a generation of new entrants. We will need fresh players in the market, and this can only happen if revolution is in the air. Evolution will be a barrier to entry. We also need to think about whether we really do need to keep building numerous separate networks to service the same markets. We have to consider that those operating a physical network may not even make a ROI from it, but they may be paying all the costs for equipment and licences. 

Perhaps regulators around the world need to review whether they are too focussed on protecting consumer prices and should also be charged with ensuring that the mobile industry, a critical piece of national infrastructure these days, is also protected.

What we don’t want to see is a return of the PTT. We need to make infrastructure sharing a reality but still have competition at the service level. This will also be particularly important to support Net Zero targets and make 6G environmentally sustainable. 

SDOs and Open Source – who wins? Here’s a thought. We think a 6GPP is needed to deliver 6G. That is no criticism of 3GPP who have done an excellent job and finally achieved a truly global standard with 5G. If 5G is ‘just’ a steppingstone towards 6G then probably 3GPP in its current form will do the job. But what if 6G is a dynamic new ‘standard of standards’ bringing computing, satellite and glass access, WLAN, IPvX, together? Then we need a broader confederation of standards bodies all-round the same table working on 6G. Then there is the thought that more open source is crucial if the economics of 6G are to stack up and to avoid the usual IP and patent wars that always surround a new release of technology.

Security. We published a thought provoking  article last month on security and highlighted that we still use security algorithms devolved 40 years ago for GSM. In a world where cyber protection always seems to be one-step behind hostile actors looking to destabilise infrastructure systems and steal personal data for malevolent ends, 6G has to be the standard that is hack proof. Is AI friend or foe? Is it an enabler for better security or a threat?

Coverage. So far, improvement to geographical and indoor coverage seem to be the two elephants in the room. When there are two elephants in the room, we really do need to take notice. If we continue to count coverage on outdoor population coverage alone then we will have missed a wonderful opportunity to serve the unconnected with 6G. We know macro PLMN networks just cannot provide ubiquitous geographical coverage economically and 6G isn’t going to change this without embracing other access technologies and making them core to 6G. The indoor issues are more solvable and certainly need to be solved. I was recently talking to a distinguished veteran of our mobile industry in the IET building in Savoy Place, London, and he was lamenting that after 40 years he still couldn’t get a signal in the centre of one of the biggest cites in the world. If 6G does anything, it must address better coverage. It isn’t good enough for it to be under consideration. It needs to be a priority.

MVNOs and the smaller MNO. 6G seems at the moment to be the reserve of the big players, whether they be OEMs or current mobile network operators. We wonder what 6G will mean for smaller networks. Some small networks are sophisticated, clever, innovative, and economically successful. Many of them are small because their addressable market is small, not because they are unsuccessful. What does 6G need to be for these important service providers around the world? Will the industrial application focus be damaging for them? We also think about MVNOs. In the UK, nearly one-quarter of the market is now supplied by an MNVO. Is the virtual approach the right way to go. Should 6G be a network of networks open to all forms of service providers to provide tailor made services for different market segments?

Well, this is just a few of things we will be considering and bring answers – or at least our views on in the current weeks. We’d like to hear your comments as well. Please use the comments box below and have your say. If you want to be kept up to date and receive or series of blogs on 6G why not let us know also using comments section.

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