China joins the race to 6G

Days after 5G was switched on by the three telecom operators in China, the Chinese government officially launched a 6G R&D programme.

Yes, you read it right. 6G is officially on the card. Reported by the Science and Technology Daily today, the official launch meeting was hosted by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) on 3 November, three days after the country’s three incumbent telecom operators started offering 5G commercial services. The government department oversees the country’s long-term strategy in science and technology, and also owns the newspaper.

Two organisations will be set up to drive 6G R&D in China. The 6G R&D Working Group will be composed of government representatives from different departments, and will be responsible for overall promotion and implementation of R&D in 6G. The Experts Group will include 37 scientists and technology experts from academia, research institutes, and businesses, and will be responsible for setting 6G R&D agenda and conducting technology evaluation, as well as advising on important government policies.

The government officials believed this will be a prescient programme, when 6G technology roadmaps and use scenarios are still far from having an industry-wide consensus. Such an early move will help China assume a driving role to define where the technologies are going. Some industry experts have estimated that 6G will start taking a more concrete shape from around 2030.

China is not the first country to officially start research in 6G. The Finnish government endorsed the “6Genesis” programme already last year. The programme, led by the University of Oulu in northern Finland, will run into 2016. The first 6G Wireless Summit was held in March in Levi, a ski resort in Finnish Lapland, and the world’s first 6G whitepaper, “Key drivers and research challenges for 6G ubiquitous wireless intelligence” was published in September.

Shortly before the Finns came onstage at Mobile World Congress to announce their ambitions and plans, the most high-profile advocate for 6G was President Donald Trump, who tweeted at the beginning of the year that he wanted 6G in the United States as soon as possible.

Huawei hasn’t given up on Australia as it plugs 6G smarts

Even though Australia blindly followed the US down the Huawei-accusation rabbit hole, the Chinese vendor hasn’t given up on the country, using the 6G carrot to tempt the Aussies back into the fray.

Speaking at the Emerging Innovation Summit in Melbourne, a Huawei executive suggested Australian decision-makers have been short-sighted in addressing cyber-security concerns.

“The current approach being taken towards cyber-security on 5G mobile networks solves absolutely nothing – and that will be exposed further in 6G,” said Huawei Australia Chief Technology and Cyber Security Officer David Soldani.

This is of course assuming Huawei is an innocent party, though as little (if any) concrete evidence to prove guilt has been presented to date, the fair position would be to maintain this assumption of innocence.

“Blocking companies from certain countries does nothing to make Australia any safer from cyber-security issues – in fact it just makes things worse because they are not addressing the real issues on cyber-security.”

This is a point which has been raised frequently but those who advocate the inclusion of Huawei in communications infrastructure moving forward. Banning a certain company or technology from networks does not tackle the issue. For some, the most sensible route forward would be that of risk mitigation, an approach Vodafone in the UK has been very vocal about.

“Huawei is already way ahead of our rivals on 6G research and we can see that the way in which we will be gathering and consuming data on those 6G networks means the cyber security risks will increase,” Soldani added.

Although it might encourage moans from some corners of the industry, 6G is becoming a very real and increasingly important facet of the connectivity mix. 5G is of course not a reality yet, but for the R&D engineers, the job is complete. Work has moved out of the research labs and into production; for these employees it is onto the next task; 6G.

This is another common message which has come out of the Huawei ranks over the last few months; it is critical to work with us, not ignore us. And many of those on the technology side would agree also.

The reason the prospect of a Huawei ban is such a divisive and persistent topic is relatively simple; Huawei produces excellent products. Not only are these products cheaper, while the field support offered to telco customers is largely unrivalled, the products are genuinely at the top of their field. There are large crowds who would suggest Huawei is market leader on in the radio and transmission segments.

“The communique from the Five Eyes was absolutely clear that countries need to ensure entire supply chains are trusted and reliable to protect our networks from unauthorized access or interference,” Soldani said.

“This means there is absolutely no point in simply banning companies from certain countries – it actually makes Australia less secure because it means we have to then increase our reliance on just one or two other vendors – neither of whom are having their equipment tested.”

This is another point which, once again, has been thrown around quite often by Huawei, but is also valid; no-one is 100% free of cybersecurity risk. By reducing the number of attack points for cyber-criminals, arguably it becomes more difficult to defend and the chances of a breach increase.

These are all perfectly valid points, but Huawei is trying to prove a negative here. Nothing which can be said or presented to the world would completely exonerate the firm of suspicion, especially with the US Government constantly hinting there is evidence of wrong-doing. The fact that no-one outside the White House or the Foreign Department has seen this evidence does appear to be irrelevant to some, though that is not to say it does not exist.

This issue is quite frankly becoming tiresome. Of course, governments around the world have a duty to ensure companies are acting responsibly through the sourcing and deployment of secure and resilient products, but the issue is become tedious to discuss week on week. Unfortunately, as the UK Government continues to kick the can down the road, the debate is likely to continue.

Although the UK is finding it difficult to maintain friendships with its peers inside and outside of the European Union, it is still an incredibly influential voice. The Supply Chain Review has attracted interest from numerous parties around the world, and the decision will be carefully scrutinised. It might be rubbing nations up the wrong way with Brexit, but its opinion still matters.

Some nations of course benefit from the on-going stand-still and some don’t. The UK doesn’t benefit as telcos are still no wiser whether supply chains will be in tatters and numerous other countries that rely on Huawei, Germany, Spain or Italy for example, are in the same boat. Australia is in a tricky position as banning Huawei limits the options which are out there. This present complications from a resilience and competition perspective.

The US appears to be one of the few nations which is not going to be impacted. Deployment might be a bit more expensive due to decreased competition, but the telcos have never had the opportunity to include Huawei in plans so there is no disruption from this on-going saga. The US might well be a lost cause, but it does appear Huawei believes it can charm Australia back on-side.

Huawei might not have given up on Australia, but as long as the White House is singing from this hymn sheet, it is likely to be nothing more than a Sisyphean task.

What’s next for 5G? (and what is 6G?)

It may still be the early days of 5G, with commercial services switched on only in a limited number of markets, but the industry is already looking further ahead. Through discussions with industry experts and academics as well as through our own research, the Telecoms.com Intelligence team has put together a briefing to explore the possible next steps for 5G, the shape the next generation mobile communication technologies might take, and what they would mean for industry stakeholders.

Here we are sharing the opening section of the briefing, which is available for free to download here.

Why it matters

5G finally went live in 2018 and the rollout of commercial networks has been accelerating since. By the beginning of July, commercial 5G services were being offered by nearly 20 operators in a dozen countries in North America, Asia Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East. Here is the (now likely incomplete) list:

  • North America: US (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint)
  • Asia Pacific: South Korea (SK Telecom, KT, LG Uplus)
  • Europe: Finland (Elisa), Estonia (Elisa Estonia), Switzerland (Sunrise, Swisscom), UK (EE, Vodafone), Italy (Vodafone Italia, TIM), Spain (Vodafone Spain), Germany (Deutsche Telekom), Romania (RCS&RDS, Vodafone Romania), Monaco (Monaco Telecom)
  • Middle East: UAE (Etisalat), Saudi Arabia (STC), Qatar (Ooredoo), Kuwait (Zain)

Running alongside the commercial rollout, 5G trials continue to be conducted in different markets, and spectrum is being auctioned by multiple authorities. Viewed as one of the strongest contributors to the 5G market worldwide, China, the country with the largest mobile subscriber base, has awarded four 5G licences, well ahead of what the market has expected.

At the same time, however, some in the industry cannot help but feeling underwhelmed by the 5G services on offer. Despite the promises of advanced use cases such as industrial IoT and driverless cars, all the commercial services currently have to offer is enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), meaning service providers have relied on fast internet access and high data speed as the key selling points. This has led purists to claim what we have now is not real 5G.

There are reasons for this discrepancy. All the commercial networks so far have been deployed in non-standalone (NSA) mode, for which the specifications have already been agreed and locked down by the 3GPP. This has helped accelerate the commercial rollout, but also limits what the networks can do. This is not all bad, as high-speed internet access is the easiest feature to communicate and the most accessible business case to consumers.

But launching 5G services in NSA mode, where the 5G radio access network connects with the 4G core platform, also limits the value proposition to industrial verticals: For example, NSA mode enables network slicing (a long-heralded feature of 5G) only in the core. However, an end-to-end standalone (SA) mode 5G network, comprising the RAN and next-generation 5G packet core capabilities, enables slicing in the RAN as well as the core, opening up more options and business cases for mobile operators.

Timing is the key factor, because work on the SA mode specifications is still ongoing.  Some operators, not wanting to go through the potential pain of migrating from NSA to SA mode 5G and wanting to launch with a broader range of new services beyond just enhanced mobile broadband, may choose to wait for technologies that are based on the SA mode specifications, which are due to be available from 2020. That set of specifications will include better support for Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC) and massive IoT services, though the specifications for Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC) for new radio (NR) will not be frozen until Release 17. The 3GPP schedule is still open though it is likely that R17 will be completed in the first half of 2021.

All this means that, in mid-2019, we are only seeing the very beginning of 5G, and there is still much to look forward to in the years to come, not only to unleash the full potential of the “real” 5G, but also for the communications industry to have a better grasp of what new value propositions it can create for the enterprise users in many verticals, even beyond what 5G can deliver. This leads some sections of the industry to already start thinking about “beyond 5G”, or more specifically, 6G.

The rest of the briefing includes sections on:

  • The current state of play
  • What is 6G, and who is doing what?
  • Next steps
  • An interview with Professor Ari Pouttu, University of Oulu, Finland

To access the full briefing please click here

What’s Next for 5G? (and What is 6G?)

Welcome to the latest Telecoms.com Intelligence Monthly Briefing, which focuses on what’s next for 5G, including 6G.

This is the first of a regular series of telecoms deep-dives from the Telecoms.com Intelligence team, which will bring you up to speed on the key topics and issues affecting the industry. While 5G is still in its infancy as a commercial proposition, many are already looking further ahead and wondering what’s next.

Through discussions with industry experts and academics as well as through our own research, this briefing explores the possible next steps for 5G, the shape the next generation mobile communication technologies might take, and what they would mean for industry stakeholders. It also provides some early insight into the form 6G might take.

Telecoms.com Intelligence Monthly Briefings are a must-read for anyone with an interest in the telecoms industry, who wants to ensure they’re fully briefed on its trending and emerging issues.

Please complete the short form below to access this briefing.

 

SK Telecom talks 6G with Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung

South Korean operator SK Telecom is hoping to take the lead in the development of 5G towards 6G in partnership with most of the big kit vendors.

Specifically SKT has signed those memorandum of understanding things with each of Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung Electronics. The mutual understanding reached between SKT and the vendors is that they promise to cooperate with each other when it comes to research and development of 5G and 6G technologies.

The 5G stuff is as expected: ultra-reliable and low-latency communications, enhanced MIMO, millimetre wave and standalone 5G. Despite banging on about 6G in the press release, SKT didn’t feel confident enough to specifiy the nature of the 6G R&D, just committing to draft technical requirements and new business models for the next generation of mobile tech.

“Through strengthened cooperation with Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung Electronics, SK Telecom will be able to secure the world’s best 5G quality and lead the way towards 6G mobile network communications,” said Park Jin-hyo, Chief Technology Officer and Head of ICT R&D Center of SK Telecom.

Conspicuously absent from this happy band are Huawei and ZTE. South Korea, of course, has long had a complicated relationship with China, but with the current trade tensions between the US and China currently focusing on Huawei as a proxy, many US allies are moving to distance themselves from it and ZTE just to make sure they stay out of trouble. With Huawei making it clear it’s investing heavily in technological autonomy, there is a real possibility of 6G R&D becoming balkanised.

Samsung is already planning for 6G leadership – report

Samsung has reportedly announced the formation of the Advanced Communications Research Centre, which will have the mission of creating a 6G leadership position for Samsung.

5G is barely with us and we’re already talking about 6G. This should come as little surprise, such is the length of time it will take to bring the technology to fruition. According to the Korea Herald, Samsung has begun it’s 6G mission as part of the wider Samsung Research business unit.

A currently un-named official announced the news, stating “the current team on telecommunications technology standards has been expanded to start leading research on the 6G network.”

What 6G actually is remains to be seen, but such are the rewards in leading each generation of mobile technology, it would appear it is never too early to cast an eye on the horizon.

Unfortunately for Samsung, it is not the first to the party. In January, LG Electronics and KAIST announced a joint 6G Research Centre in Daejeon. LG has said it wants to use the research centre to pre-emptively secure technology for 6G.

Work has already started for 6G standards. In March, a small group of scientists gathered in Levi, Finland, to host one of the first global summits on the 6G Wireless standard. This was not the most of complex of meetings, though it was aiming to start work on the most important questions; why does the world need 6G?

The answer is relatively simple for the moment; we don’t know.

The technological and business case for 6G will emerge eventually as 5G gains more traction around the world. As with 5G in the 4G era, forward-thinking engineers predicted the demand for increased speed, more efficient spectrum use and efficiencies to drive profitability. 5G does of course offer more, but you only need a framework to build on to start with.

This is what the initial 6G forays will be based upon, but it is important to understand what the short-comings of 5G are. The problem needs to be understood before a solution can be crafted, otherwise, what’s the point?

FCC casts an eye north of 95 GHz

The FCC has unveiled plans to create a new regulatory framework for spectrum above 95 GHz.

While these bands have largely been considered outside the realms of usable spectrum, progress in radio tech has made the prospects much more realistic. And, dare we say it, such a regulatory framework could begin to set the foundations for 6G…

“Today, we take big steps towards making productive use of this spectrum,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “We allocate a massive 21 gigahertz for unlicensed use and we create a new category of experimental licenses. This will give innovators strong incentives to develop new technologies using these airwaves while also protecting existing uses.”

The Spectrum Horizons First Report and Order creates a new category of experimental licenses for use of frequencies between 95 GHz and 3 THz, valid for 10 years. 21.2 GHz of spectrum will also be made available for use by unlicensed devices. The team envision usecases such as data-intensive, high bandwidth applications as well as imaging and sensing operations.

With this spectrum now on the table, the line between science fiction and reality could begin to blur. Data throughput rates will become almost unimaginably fast, meaning computational power in the wireless world could start to replicate the kind of performance only seen in human brains.

“One reason the US leads the world in wireless is that we’ve moved quickly to open-up new spectrum bands for innovative uses,” said Commissioner Brendan Carr. “We don’t wait around for technologies to develop fully before unlocking spectrum so that entrepreneurs have the incentives to invest and experiment.”

While such a statement suggests the FCC is doing a wonderful job, flooded with foresight, the industry tends to disagree.

In 2017, the mmWave Coalition was born. Although this is a relatively small lobby group for the moment, it does have some notable members already including Nokia and Keysight Technologies. This group has been calling for a regulatory framework above 95 GHz for 18 months, pointing to developments around the world and stating the US risks falling behind without amendments.

A good example of other initiatives is over in Europe, where the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ESTI) has created the ISG mWT working group which is looking at how to make the 50 GHz – 300 GHz band work. This group has already been running trials with a broad range of members including BT, Deutsche Telekom, Intel, InterDigital and Qualcomm.

While the US is certainly taking a step in the right direction, it would be worth noting it is by no-means the first to get moving beyond the 95 GHz milestone. Europe is leading the charge at the moment.

However, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel believes the FCC is being too conservative in its approach.

“I believe that with these way-up-there frequencies, where the potential for interference is so low, we should flip the script,” said Rosenworcel. “The burden should be on those seeking exclusive licenses to demonstrate the interference case and justify why we should carve up an otherwise open space for innovation and experimentation.”

Rosenworcel points to the incredibly short-distance this spectrum will offer, as well as the creation of new antenna designs, like quasi-optical antennas, to ensure efficiency. With the shorter distance and better control of the direction of signals, interference does not pose a threat and therefore an unlicensed approach to spectrum should be prioritised.

Commissioner Michael O’Reilly is another who also supports this position.

“While I strenuously advocate for both licensed and unlicensed spectrum opportunities, I understand that it may be a bit premature to establish exclusive-use licenses above 95 GHz when there is great uncertainty about what technologies will be introduced, what spectrum would be ideal, or what size channel blocks are needed,” said O’Reilly.

Both of these messages effectively make the same point; don’t make assumptions. Taking the same approach to spectrum allocation will not work. The traditional approach of licensed spectrum allocation is perhaps unnecessarily rigid. It might be necessary in the future but granting innovators freedom in the first instance would provide more insight. Perhaps it would be better to react to future developments than to try and guess.

“Better that than being forced to undo a mess later,” said O’Reilly.

While it is of course encouraging the FCC is taking such a long-term view on industry developments, the team needs to ensure it does not over-complicate the landscape right now with unnecessary red-tape. Future regulation needs to protect innovation and grant the freedoms to experiment; a light-touch regulatory environment needs to blossom.

President Trump’s unexpected ally: Finland kick-starts 6G

A few days after Donald Trump tweeted about 6G, when he was roundly ridiculed, Finland’s scientists proved that he had a point by announcing their plan at MWC 2019 to embark on the journey towards 6G.

The researchers in Finland expect 6G to take shape in about 2030. To gain the leadership by that time, the so-called “6Genesis” has been selected as the country’s flagship high-tech project for an eight-year period 2018-2026. The project is hosted by the University of Oulu, ranked a top 3 university globally in radio access engineering.

Professor Ari Pouttu, who leads the project, introduced the vision and key technology streams at the event. 6G will satisfy the expectations not yet met by 5G as well as new expectations fusing AI inspired applications with ubiquitous wireless connectivity, Professor Pouttu said. Specifically, he foresaw four technology trends that are fundamentally different from earlier generations.

“Wireless Connectivity” in 6G means disruptive radio access deployed on 5G core networks, enabling Tbps speed and deliver unmanned process. “Devices & Circuits” means that the current semiconductors will not be able to operate on super high-frequencies. When communication takes place on frequencies above 500GHz or even at terahertz level, new materials will be needed to replace silicon. “Distributed Computing” refers to moving the computing power to the extreme edge. For example, instead of conducting computing from the “brain” of the robot, in 6G environment computing will need to be moved to every limp tip of the robot to enable time critical and trusted apps. “Service & Applications” refers to the disruptive value networks enabled by multidisciplinary research across industry verticals, in contrast to the siloed approach to research and development now.

The Finnish government has already granted 6Genesis €25 million through the Academy of Finland. Five co-founders have signed up, including Nokia, VTT (Finland’s technology research centre), Aalto University, Oulu University of Applied Sciences, and BusinessOulu (local business promotional agency). The total funding of the project so far, including contribution from these partners, other national and EU grants, plus the Academy of Finland grant, amounted to €251 million. Professor Pouttu quipped, while speaking to Telecoms.com, that this amount is for science fiction, not science. He may be on the conservative side with his estimation for science fiction though. “Avengers: Infinity War”, a recent sci-fi blockbuster, cost nearly $400 million (€350 million) to make.

Improving funding is clearly one of the reasons why the project was calling for more companies and institutions to sign up. The fact that the announcement was made during MWC could only mean that global partners are also being sought after. Professor Pouttu could consider pushing a tweet to President Trump directly.

The world’s first 6G Wireless Summit will be held in March in Levi, a ski resort in Finnish Lapland.