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.

Trump tweets about 6G

Somebody seems to have told US President Donald Trump there’s a mobile industry trade show coming up so he’s using his favoured medium to get involved.

Trump opened a two-part Tweet by saying “I want 5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible.” This laudable wish was presumably prompted by the imminence of Mobile World Congress 2019 and some kind of need to be seen to be aware of it, but it’s not at all clear what Trump expects them to achieve.

We’re not avid followers of Trump’s Twitter output but he generally seems to use the platform to do one of the following: trumpet his political achievements, defend himself from perceived attacks, insult people he doesn’t like, criticise the media, or just try to wind up as many people as possible. His telecoms tweets don’t seem to fall into any of these categories, however.

In his second Tweet he said “I want the United States to win through competition, not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies.” This is intriguing but again it’s not clear what he’s referring to. On the surface he seems to be berating domestic telcos for lagging behind in the 5G race, but another interpretation could be some kind of olive branch to Huawei, which offers some of the most advanced technologies. Who knows?

Whether that’s his primary intention or not, anything Trump tweets seems to trigger a legion of Twitter obsessives apparently just waiting to take offense. Some of the more ‘liked’ responses are worth paying attention to, if only to get a measure of how the message is being received. Be warned though, the Twitter rabbit-hole can be a very dark place.


Almost one zettabyte of mobile data traffic in 2022 – Cisco

Cisco forecasts that 5G connections will go from nothing in 2017 to 3.4% of the global total in 2022. Over the same period annual mobile data traffic will reach 930 exabytes, a seven-fold growth.

The report provides plenty of valuable data points for the industry, both of records of recent history and predictions of the near future. For example, despite the expected fast growth of 5G, by 2022, 4G will continue to dominate both the number of connections and the data generated. 54% of total connections will be on 4G, which will generate 71% of total mobile data traffic. Mobile data traffic will represent 20% of all IP traffic by 2022.

With regard to data traffic by individual devices, on average a smartphone will generate 11 GB of traffic per month by 2022, up from 2GB in 2017. Mobile video will be responsible for even higher proportion of the total traffic. 59% of the total mobile data was video in 2017. This number will grow up to 79% by 2022, and the absolute data volume of mobile video will increase by nine times.Cisco VNI monthly data volume

The report identifies seven key global mobile networking trends, from Cisco’s perspective.

  1. Evolving toward Smarter Mobile Devices: this largely refers to the high and increasing percentage of smartphones, including phablets, in all the connected devices (from 50% to 54%), as well as the fast growth of M2M connections (from 11% to 31%). Main segment losing out will be non-smartphones (from 34% to 10%).
  2. Defining Cell Network Advances: this trend refers to the accelerated growth of mobile connections on newer technologies (4G and 5G) in contrast to the fast decline of the number of 2G connections and the gradual decline of 3G connections. Another fast-growing segment is M2M on Low-Power Wide-Area (LPWA) networks, increasing from 130 million in 2017 to 1.8 billion by 2022. Cisco VNI connections by technology
  3. Measuring Mobile IoT Adoption: captured in this trend is the continued growth of M2M and wearable connections. Globally, M2M connections will grow from just under 1 billion in 2017 to 3.9 billion by 2022, a CAGR of 32%. Wearables are treated as a subset of M2M connections by Cisco. The report forecasts 1.1 billion wearable devices globally by 2022, more than double the volume of 526 million in 2017, with a CAGR of 16%. Among them, 10% will have embedded cellular connectivity, up from 4% in 2017.
  4. Expanding Role and Coverage of Wi-Fi: the volume of mobile data may be big, but the volume of mobile data going through Wi-Fi offload is even bigger. The report forecasts that 59% of all data from mobile connected devices will be offloaded to Wi-Fi in 2022, amounting to 111.4 exabytes per month, up from 54% offload, or 13.4 exabytes per month in 2017. To enable the fast growth of offload data volume, the report forecasts, there will also need to have much more Wi-Fi hotspots. It estimates that Wi-Fi hotspots (including homespots) will grow from 124 million in 2017 to 549 million by 2022.
  5. Identifying New Mobile Applications and Requirements: in addition to video being the application category that generates the lion’s share of total mobile data traffic, VR, AR and Mixed Reality are also expected to experience a fast growth in the coming years. Globally, augmented and virtual reality traffic will grow from 22 petabytes per month in 2017 to 254 petabytes per month in 2022.
  6. Comparing Mobile Network Speed Improvements: the speed of mobile data is determined by both the networks and devices. In particular with the accelerated 5G rollout in the forecast period, the report expects to see the average speed of mobile network connection to increase from 8.7 Mbps in 2017 to 41.6 Mbps in 2022. The speeds also vary vastly between technologies. While the average 4G speed is expected to grow from 30 Mbps in 2017 to 44 Mbps in 2022, the average 5G speed will increase from 76 Mbps in 2019 to 170 Mbps in 2022. Cisco VNI speed by technology
  7. Reviewing Tiered Pricing, Unlimited Data and Shared Plans: the final trend examines what impact operators’ data packages and tiered pricing schemes will have on customers’ data consumption patterns. One interesting finding is that, a combined effect of all users increasing their data usage and more operators reintroducing data package cap has driven the proportion of data generated by the top 1% of users down from 52% in 2010 to only 6% in 2018.

The Visual Networking Index is produced by combining Cisco’s proprietary data and assumptions with that published by professional research firms as well as by the ITU.

Are you ready to look at 6G?

We can hear the groans already, but we’re going to do it anyway. Let’s have a look at what 6G could possibly contribute to the connected economy.

Such is our desire for progress, we haven’t even launched 5G but the best and brightest around are already considering what 6G will bring to the world. It does kind of make sense though, to avoid the dreaded staggering of download speeds and the horrific appearance of buffering symbols, the industry has to look far beyond the horizon.

If you consider the uphill struggle it has been to get 5G to this point, and we haven’t even launched glorious ‘G’ properly, how long will it take before we get to 6G? Or perhaps a better question is how long before we actually need it?

“5G will not be able to handle the number of ‘things’ which are connected to the network in a couple of years’ time,” said Scott Petty, CTO of Vodafone UK. “We need to start thinking about 6G now and we have people who are participating in the standards groups already.”

This is perhaps the issue which we are facing in the future; the sheer volume of ‘things’ which will be connected to the internet. As Petty points out, 5G is about being bigger, badder and leaner. Download speeds will be faster, reliability will be better, and latency will be almost none existent, but the weight of ‘things’ will almost certainly have an impact. Today’s networks haven’t been built with this in mind.

Trying to find consensus on the growth of IOT is somewhat of a difficult task, such is the variety of predictions. Everyone predicts the same thing, the number of devices will grow in an extra-ordinary fashion, but the figures vary by billions.

Using Ericsson’s latest mobility report, the team is estimating cellular IoT connections will reach 4.1 billion in 2024, of which 2.7 billion will be in North East Asia. This is a huge number and growth will only accelerate year-on-year. But here is thing, we’re basing these judgments on what we know today; the number of IOT devices will be more dependent on new products, services and business models which will appear when the right people have the 5G tools to play around with. Who knows what the growth could actually be?

IOT Growth

Another aspect to consider is the emergence of new devices. As it stands, current IOT devices deliver such a minor slice of the total cellular traffic around the world its not much of a consideration, however with new usecases and products for areas such as traffic safety, automated vehicles, drones and industrial automation, the status quo will change. As IOT becomes more commonplace and complicated, data demands might well increase, adding to network strain.

Petty suggests this will be the massive gamechanger for the communications industry over the next few years and will define the case for 6G. But, who knows what the killer usecase will be for 5G, or what needs will actually push the case for the next evolution of networks. That said, more efficient use of the spectrum is almost certainly going to be one of the parameters. According to Petty, this will help with the tsunami of things but there is a lot of new science which will have to be considered.

Then again, 6G might not be measured under the same requirements as today…

Sooner or later the industry will have to stop selling itself under the ‘bigger, badder, faster’ mantra, as speeds will become irrelevant. If you have a strong and stable 4G connection today, there isn’t much you can’t do. Few applications or videos that are available to the consumer require 5G to function properly, something which telco marketers will have to adapt to in the coming years as they try to convince customers to upgrade to 5G contracts.

4G and arguably todays vision of 5G has always been about making the pipe bigger and faster, because those were the demands of the telcos trying to meet the demands of the consumer. 6G might be measured under different KPIs, for example, energy efficiency.

According to Alan Carlton, Managing Director of InterDigital’s European business, the drive towards more speed and more data is mainly self-imposed. The next ‘G’ can be defined as what the industry wants it to be. The telcos would have to think of other ways to sell connectivity services to the consumer, but they will have to do that sooner or later.

The great thing about 5G is that we are barely scratching the surface of what is capable. “We’re not even at 5.0G yet,” said Carlton. “And this is part of the confusion.”

What 5G is nowadays is essentially LTE-A Pro. We’re talking about 256-QAM and Massive MIMO but that is not really a different conversation. With Release 16 on the horizon and future standards groups working on topics such virtualisation, MMwave and total cost of ownership, future phases of 5G will promise so much more.

The next step for Carlton is not necessarily making everything faster, or more reliable or lower latency, but the next ‘G’ could be all about ditching the wires. Fibre is an inflexible commodity, and while it might be fantastic, why do we need it? Why shouldn’t the next vision of connectivity be one where we don’t have any wires at all?

Carlton’s approach to the future of connectivity is somewhat different to the norm. This is an industry which is fascinated by the pipes themselves and delivering services faster, but these working groups and standards bodies are driving change for the benefit of the industry. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about making something faster, so you can charge more, just a change to the status quo which benefits the industry.

Coming back to the energy efficiency idea, this is certainly something which has been suggested elsewhere. IEEE has been running a series of conferences in California addressing this very issue, as delivering 1000X more data is naturally going to consume more energy to start with. It probably won’t be 1000X more expensive, but it is incredibly difficult to predict what future energy consumption needs will be. Small cells do not consume as much energy as traditional sites, but there will need to be a lot more of them to meet demand. There are a lot of different elements to consider here (for example environment or spectrum frequency), but again, this is a bit of an unknown.

Perhaps this is an area where governments will start to wade in? Especially in the European and North American markets which are more sensitive to environmental impacts (excluding the seemingly blind Trump).

Echoing Petty’s point from earlier, we don’t necessarily know the specifics of how the telco industry is going to be stressed and strained in six- or seven-years’ time. These changes will form the catalyst for change, evolving from 5G to 6G, and it might well be a desire for more energy efficient solutions or it might well be a world free of wires.

Moving across the North Sea, 6G has already captured the attention of those in the Nordics.

Back in April 2018, the Academy of Finland announced the launch of ‘6Genesis’, an eight-year research programme to drive the industry towards 6G. Here, the study groups will start to explore technologies and services which are impossible to deliver in today’s world, and much of this will revolve around artificial intelligence.

Just across the border in Sweden, these new technologies are capturing the attention of Ericsson. According to Magnus Frodigh, Head of Ericsson Research, areas like Quantum computing, artificial intelligence and edge computing are all making huge leaps forward, something which will only be increased with improved connectivity. These are the areas which will define the next generation, and what can be achieved in the long-run.

“One of the new things to think about is the combination of unlimited connectivity as a resource, combined with low latency, more powerful computing,” said Frodigh. “No-one really knows how this is going to play out, but this might help define the next generation of mobile.”

Of course, predicting 6G might be pretty simple. In a couple of years’ time, perhaps we will all be walking around with augmented reality glasses on while holographic pods replace our TVs. If such usecases exist, perhaps the old ‘bigger, badder, faster’ mantra of the telco industry will be called upon once again. One group which is counting on this is EU-funded Terranova, which is currently working on solutions to allow network connection in the terahertz range, providing speeds of up to 400 Gbps.

Another area to consider is the idea of edge computing and the pervasiveness of artificial intelligence. According to Carlton (InterDigital), AI will be every in the future with intelligence embedded in almost every device. This is the vision of the intelligent economy, but for AI to work as promised, latency will have to be so much lower than we can even consider delivering today. This is another demand of future connectivity, but without it the intelligent economy will be nothing more than a shade of what has been promised.

And of course, the more intelligence you put on or in devices, the greater the strain on the components. Eventually more processing power will be moved off the devices and into the cloud, building the case for distributed computing and self-learning algorithms hosted on the edge. It is another aspect which will have to be considered, and arguably 5G could satisfy some of these demands, but who knows how quickly and broadly this field will accelerate.

Artificial intelligence and the intelligent economy have the potential to become a catalyst for change, forcing us to completely rethink how networks are designed, built and upgraded. We don’t know for sure yet, but most would assume the AI demands of the next couple of years will strain the network in the same way video has stressed 4G.

Who knows what 6G has in store for us, but here’s to hoping 5G isn’t an over-hyped dud.