6G: Global Standards vs. Fragmented Ecosystems

6G: Global Standards vs. Fragmented Ecosystems

Many companies and governments have already joined research and testing to create the sixth generation of communications

In August 2021, LG demonstrated successful data transmission in the terahertz spectrum. Over the past summer, this is at least the second such demonstration of the use of this spectrum from South Korean companies. In June, Samsung, together with the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), showed the operation of an end-to-end 6G wireless communication system.

The use of the terahertz spectrum (it is considered to be the band from 0.3 THz to 3 THz) is one of the differences of the sixth generation of communication (6G), which is expected to be characterized by a very high data transfer rate (up to 1 Tbit/s versus 1 Gbit/s in 5G), extremely low latency (up to 0.1 ms versus 1 ms in 5G), the versatility of coverage (including in space and in water), connecting a huge number of devices (up to 10 million per sq. km), decentralized network architecture, the use of artificial intelligence for self-sustaining networks, etc.

The implementation of such a concept will require not only a lot of work by scientists and huge investments from businesses and governments but also a revision of the modern foundations of organizing communications, from regulatory to economic.

Joint or standalone 6G exploration

Many companies and governments have already joined research and testing to create the sixth generation of communications, both as part of various alliances (including international) and in isolation (for example, China). In 2021, Analysys Mason experts identified four industry associations dealing with the 6G theme: NGMNNext G AllianceHexa-X and REINDEER.

The NGMN Alliance emerged back in 2006 as an alliance of telecom operators, vendors and research centers to develop a common vision for the future of wireless networks. Its 6G Vision and Drivers project aims to facilitate information exchange between its members and external stakeholders. Another group, the Next G Alliance, aims to "advance North America's leadership in mobile technology over the next decade through private sector efforts." It includes about 40 companies and not only American ones: for example, in addition to Apple, AT&T, Cisco, Facebook, Google, HPE, Intel, Microsoft and Qualcomm, South Korean Samsung, LG, European Ericsson, Nokia, etc. are members of the alliance.

Hexa-X and REINDEER are two initiatives within the EU's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. They received €11.9 million and €4.6 million in funding, respectively. Nokia plays a leading role in Hexa-X, the association which includes its European competitor, Ericsson. The participants of the initiative are also Orange and Telefonica operators, Intel and Siemens companies, as well as several European universities. Ericsson is the leader in REINDEER, the project that brings together various companies and universities in Austria, Belgium, Spain and Sweden. The second project is narrower and focuses on the development of a new type of multi-antenna-based smart connectivity platform for use in 6G networks.

Nokia analysts highlight the peculiarities of the European and American approaches to the research and development of 6G. The EU funds 70% of the research carried out by industrial companies and 100% of academia. The results can be both public and unavailable to third parties. In the United States, academic research is 100% funded, and companies are co-investors and do not receive money from the state, while the results of such research are published openly. Separately in America, there are government contracts for various developments, for example, from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the US Department of Defense. They are 100% funded, but their results remain classified.

“International research groups play an important role in the modern world. They allow combining the strengths of different teams. Unfortunately, we note the process of curtailing international scientific cooperation. This already happened in the USSR in the middle of the last century with disappointing consequences,” says Aleksander Sivolobov, Deputy Head of the NTI Central Committee of Skoltech for wireless technologies and IoT.

At the state level, different countries are increasingly involved in the race to develop future communication standards.

  • In Germany, the Federal Minister of Research has ordered the allocation of 250 million euros for research on 6G networks. In total, the country's government plans to invest 700 million euros in the development of sixth-generation communications by 2025.
  • The Japanese government decided at the beginning of the year to spend 50 billion yen ($482 million) on the development of the next generation of communications. The Japanese expect to develop key technologies for 6G by 2025, in order to begin commercial use in 2030.
  • In July 2021, the Singaporean authorities announced the launch of the first Future Communications Research & Development program and an investment of $70 million.
  • In 2021, the five-year program of the Republic of Korea started. The country's government has allocated 200 billion won (approximately $190 million) with the goal of launching pilot 6G services by 2026. This strategy, adopted in August 2020, implies not only the creation of new technologies and their patenting but also the development of appropriate standards. Commercial use of 6G should begin between 2028 and 2030. 
  • The Chinese government has officially announced the development of 6G in 2019. The planned volume of public investment was not disclosed. The Chinese satellite, launched in 2020, is the first spacecraft designed for sixth-generation communications. The country's efforts are evidenced by the fact that it accounts for up to a third of all applications filed (which, however, does not necessarily reflect real advances in technology development). In June 2021, the Chinese Academy of Information and Communication Technology presented the 6G White Paper.

In addition to the listed associations of the line participants and government initiatives, there are a large number of research centers around the world, created by educational institutions or individual companies. For example, this includes the 6G Flagship project of the University of Oulu (Finland), the 6GIC center at the University of Surrey (UK), the NYU WIRELESS Center at New York University (USA).

Russia's efforts and the importance of associations

Russia is also starting the race for the sixth generation of communications. On behalf of the Ministry of Digital Development, the Radio Research & Development Institute (NIIR) created a roadmap for the development of 6G networks in the country in 2020. In August 2021, the Moscow Technical University of Communications and Informatics (MTUCI), a subordinate to the Ministry, began searching for a contractor to research promising wireless communication technologies, intelligent antenna systems, and quantum communication technologies (although some experts pay attention to the short time allotted for this work, which is less than three months).

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Ministry of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov, Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for Digital and Technological Development Dmitry Peskov, among others, said that such a connection would appear in Russia within 10 years. In Russia, 6G is viewed, among other things, as an opportunity to recoup missed 5G opportunities.

When does the world expect commercial 6G?

Nokia predicts that commercial use of 6G will begin in 2030. Most of the ICT professionals believe that this will happen sooner: 44% of respondents to the Telecoms.com and IEEE survey believe that the first commercial 6G service will be launched by 2028, which means it will take eight years to change communication generations. 39% of respondents predict a 10-year cycle, expecting the first commercial service to be launched by 2030. ABI Research analysts also expect the first commercial use of 6G technologies to begin in 2028 and 2029, with the first standard being adopted around 2026.

NIIR actively advocates the need to create 6G as part of industry associations, both within Russia and on a global scale. The enterprise has been working on a draft interdepartmental order, which should allow Russian companies (equipment manufacturers and operators) to join international organizations that develop and promote wireless technologies. Moreover, many such foreign alliances are themselves waiting for participants from Russia. For example, representatives of 3GPPEuropean Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), NGMN Alliance5G Alliance for Connected Industries and Automation (5G-ACIA) recently invited Russian colleagues to work with them.

Fundamental and applied research, work in international and regional organizations, such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), ETSI and 3GPP, are needed to borrow experience and promote domestic developments in sixth-generation communication systems, NIIR explains. Skoltech also notes the importance of international cooperation.

The development of a 6G communication system is a complex multifactorial task that requires a lot of cooperation, says Evgeny Devyatkin, director of the Research Center for Advanced Wireless Communication Technologies of NIIR. For this, a consortium for the study of 6G can be created in Russia, the scientific and technical center of which could become the Radio Institute itself. The expert believes that the institute will be able to determine the development of the 6G ecosystem and be a representative of Russia in international research organizations. The Russian consortium should also include other research organizations (for example, Skoltech), equipment manufacturers (including Rostec) and telecom operators. Such an alliance will allow favorable conditions for domestic producers from the commercial standpoint, form a unified scientific and technical policy and coordinate work to create 6G networks.

The 5G experience record shows that market participants’ engagement alone is not enough for success. According to Evgeny Novikov, the Advisor to the Deputy Head of the Moscow Department of Information Technology (DIT), for the full implementation of 5G in Russia, a number of serious problems still need to be resolved, such as: preparing the necessary regulations, dealing with the requirements for domestic equipment, resolving the issue with the frequencies of the «golden range» ( 3.4-3.8 GHz), which in Russia is occupied busy with military satellite communications.

“Moscow, being an innovative city, has always been among the pioneers of technological development, and we hope that the problems will be solved and the speed of the mobile Internet of our operators will be at the level of leading metropolises such as Beijing, Madrid, and New York”, Evgeny Novikov, for Adviser to the Deputy Head of Moscow Department of Information Technologies.

In the case of the next generation, history may repeat itself, since the terahertz range can be used for defense technologies, for example, for new locators. Such tests have already been carried out in the past. Similar developments were also conducted by China, while the USA is studying the possibility of using the terahertz spectrum for various detection systems.

The increasingly stringent requirements for working with personal data in the Russian Federation seem to be complexly compatible with the vision of a decentralized architecture of the 6G network. The requirements for the use of SORM equipment (systems of technical means for operational-search measures) in their current form also seem impracticable if the devices in the 6G network interact, including directly with each other.

Could the 6G race lead to fragmented ecosystems?

Developers of the next generation of communications are striving not only to quickly commercialize the revolutionary technology but also to make significant contributions to 6G standards, as well as to develop and patent specific technologies. Those who do not have their own patents for technologies are forced to pay annual royalties to their owners, as is the case with 5G, ComNews editor-in-chief Leonid Konik reminded (for example, Russia does not have a single patent for 5G technologies, despite the fact that there are about 90 thousand of them in the world).

This problem is understood, for example, in the EU with an intention to define standards in 6G and related fields in Europe. This view was expressed by Peter Stuckmann, head of the European Commission's Future Connectivity Systems, a competence center for telecommunications. According to him, European players need to shape the next generation network architecture in order to maintain the competitiveness of European suppliers.

Already now, when building fifth-generation networks, many countries are abandoning vendors from individual governments. Börje Ekholm, the CEO of Ericsson, fears that the West may lose in the global race for mobile standards. He considers it possible to form two separate 6G ecosystems, Chinese and Western, which will negatively affect users. The head of the Swedish company also doubts that the countries of the western ecosystem will be able to maintain the same high level of investment in R&D compared to Asian countries.

The creation of disparate ecosystems is “unlikely since this means an increase in the cost of equipment, which a few states decide to go for," disagrees Alexander Sivolobov, the Deputy Head of the Skoltech-based NTI Competence Center. 6G is being standardized on one site – 3GPP, where Chinese, Americans, Indians, and many others meet, the expert recalls. According to him, China is more than other countries interested in establishing uniform world standards, since it is the manufacturer of 80% of all smartphones, has manufactured and installed more than 70% of all 5G base stations in the world, and in addition, for most of the countries, it is the number one or number two trading partner.

“The only player to throw a monkey wrench in the works of normal technological cooperation is the United States. They not only impose sanctions but also insist on their extraterritoriality. Most likely, the maximum result of these actions is the emergence of some "sub-versions" of 6G, which will be 95% similar to the global standard. It is possible that they will find application in the US military or in the Indian market,” says Aleksander Sivolobov, Deputy Head of the NTI Central Committee of Skoltech for wireless technologies and IoT.

Evgeny Devyatkin, the Director of the Center for Research of Advanced Wireless Communication Technologies of NIIR, believes that global standardization makes it possible, through technological harmonization, to smooth out the severity of competition between the leaders of the world economy.

“The global standardization of technologies, including mobile communications, is the basis for their harmonious development, allowing them to overcome technological and market barriers, develop competition and form leaders among technological standards” (Evgeny DevyatkinDirector of the Research Center for Advanced Wireless Communication Technologies, NIIR).

Nevertheless, Russian experts remind us about the importance of intellectual property in 6G technologies. "Leading Russian manufacturers of electronics and communications, as well as branch-wise universities should pay more attention to the creation of intellectual property in the field of new communication technologies," a group of authors from NIIR, Concern Constellation, NIITS, and Rostelecom noted on the pages of the scientific and technical journal Electrosvyaz.

The role of a particular country in the work of 3GPP or other associations in fact reflects the current research and industrial potential of the state, says Alexander Sivolobov. Both he and Evgeny Devyatkin remind that in 2021 the 3GPP consortium for the first time adopted a Russian technical proposal – a new version of the ECIES + 5G-AKA authentication protocol developed by the Kryptonite company.

“Standardization is one of the vectors of technology transfer from research to production. Unfortunately, now Russia produces less than 3% of all scientific production in the world, so our participation in international standardization is still quite selective,” says Sivolobov.

Nevertheless, the creation of 6G remains a race, especially in the context of the confrontation between the United States and China in the field of telecommunications equipment. Russia is also striving for certain independence from foreign vendors and the use of its own hardware. For example, the decision by the Russian State Commission for Radio Frequencies (SCRF) on November 23, 2020, stipulates the requirement to use only Russian equipment for 5G networks in the frequency range 24.25-27.5 GHz, and Rostec has already established the Spectr company, which will have to deal with the production of domestic telecom equipment. “No matter how difficult it is to create our own production of domestic equipment for 5G networks, all this will pay off in the transition to 6G,” says Alexander Sivolobov from the NTI Competence Center of Skoltech. “But if there is a rollback to the "re-sticking of nameplates", then the outlined growth of their own competencies will be ruined in the bud. It will cost ten times more to try a new start.”

New network architecture will change existing business models

One of the key differences of the sixth generation of communication from the previous ones is the transition from centralized network architecture to a distributed, decentralized intelligent network. As noted by a group of authors from the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and the Vienna Technical University, such a network should not only serve as a means of communication, but also provide the functions of computing, measurement, positioning, and so on, be a service running environment. Moreover, in it, the devices themselves will interact with each other offline.

This means moving away from the current client-server principle, where the client interacts with certain centralized application and database servers to fulfill a user request. Accordingly, the implementation of such an architecture could disrupt all existing business models and seriously affect the interests of industry giants. Infrastructure and subscriber base may cease to be the main values ​​and competitive advantages, while now there is no understanding of what will take their place and what new business models might be.

Evgeny Devyatkin from NIIR draws attention to another difference of the 6G network, its versatility regardless of the environment. “In 6G networks, a new approach to network architecture is proposed, involving the interconnection of terrestrial and satellite segments. They will also use artificial intelligence technologies to determine the optimal location of base stations, reduce power consumption, detect and eliminate abnormal malfunctions, etc.”   

The expert argues that "6G mobile networks will significantly change our lives and business models." He recalls that already in 5G networks, communication for controlling devices of the Internet of Things becomes the main service, and the transfer of content for an ordinary user will make up only 30% of services.

Work on the formation of the conceptual outline of 6G capabilities is just underway, but it is already clear that the organization of communication in cities will be fundamentally different, agrees Evgeny Novikov from the Moscow Department of Information Technologies. “The challenge for Moscow is to make sure that the city's infrastructure is ready so that the deployment of new networks does not stumble over administrative barriers and the citizens are confident that new technologies are safe and reliable,” he adds. “I am positive that, taking into account the new opportunities of 6G and the specifics of the frequency spectrum, new serious players will appear with their own ecosystem, especially in the sectors of the automotive industry, industrial and satellite Internet, as well as medicine. Most likely, the concept of "telecom operator" will disappear as an anachronism. We welcome the emergence of new players, as healthy competition increases the quality and variability of services, restrains the rise in prices.”

Using higher frequencies for 6G will require a much denser installation of base stations (BS), including inside buildings, as walls will interfere with signal propagation. This raises another question related to the ownership of future networks and new business models: who will install and pay for BS inside buildings. For example, Micro Operators (uOs) may emerge to provide coverage and services (such as edge computing) inside buildings. Unlike virtual operators (MVNO), they will not have their own customer base but will have their own infrastructure. In this case, new payment models will be required, since the subscription fee or simple traffic billing will not work here.

Full compatibility as a prerequisite

Samsung points out in its white paper that new 6G use cases, such as immersive XR or mobile holograms, will require more computing power. That being said, increasingly miniaturized consumer devices (like AR headsets) are likely to be unable to deliver that kind of performance. To solve this problem, the company is considering split computing, which will be used by mobile devices, base stations, mobile edge computing, as well as cloud servers.

However, to implement such a concept, it is necessary to ensure full compatibility of all devices, equipment and software from different manufacturers. The South Korean company believes that for this it is necessary to develop an open-source shared computing platform or fix it as a standard. This raises the question of whether the various manufacturers will agree to this. Vendors are still critical about the Open RAN concept, which presupposes common uniform standards for telecom equipment since this approach will allow operators to freely change manufacturers, which will intensify competition and may force them to reconsider prices.

A similar approach in 6G will probably not find a positive response from manufacturers either. Nevertheless, the NTI Competence Center of Skoltech actively participates in the work of the international O-RAN Alliance. “Our OpenRAN laboratory is a platform for testing hardware and software developed in different parts of the world for compliance with the Alliance specifications,” says Alexander Sivolobov. “In addition, we are engaged in the localization of international OpenRAN standards. So the process is underway.

Trust is key 

Connectivity is increasingly used in mission-critical applications, and 6G will continue this trend. According to experts, one of the fundamental properties of the sixth generation is its trustworthiness. For example, the participants in the European Hexa-X project are convinced that "6G shall ensure the confidentiality and integrity of end-to-end communications, and guarantee data privacy, operation resilience and security."

Given the decentralized nature of 6G networks, there will be a question of compliance with current protection regulations, cross-border transfer and processing of personal data, or a radical update of these rules. The close attention of the US and EU authorities to the Internet giants Google and Facebook suggests that this aspect will require a lot of development in the future and may become another obstacle to the large-scale deployment of 6G.

It is assumed that 6G technologies will provide an opportunity to combine communication and sensing. For example, the use of the terahertz range will allow us to determine the geolocation with great accuracy or, as the Director of NYU WIRELESS Tom Marzetta notes, even recognize the heartbeat from a distance. This, on one hand, opens up opportunities for new business models, and on the other hand, all this additional data may also require new forms of regulation, which may become another brake on the development of 6G.

Fear and optimism

Sixth-generation communication promises to be an almost fantastic tool in its properties, but it requires the well-coordinated and collaborative work of many players, as well as a willingness to rethink established business models. The global and end-to-end nature of 6G, in a sense, runs counter to the ideas of competition and national digital sovereignty. In fact, the main question is whether corporations, governments and society will be able to agree and find compromises, without which it is impossible to unleash the full potential of the next generation of communications

There will be no global 6G unless we address the issue of sovereignty in the governance of 5G,” says former Director of Cybersecurity at the European Commission, Professor Paul Timmers. He notes that governments around the world have underestimated the importance of 5G during its development and standardization phase, and fears that future technologies will be "geopolitically fragmented." This can be prevented only with the help of global standards, for the adoption of which the author calls for uniting the efforts of industry consortia, the global technology community and civil society.

“An example of the successful global standardization of mobile communications is the 3GPP partner project, which has been creating and standardizing 3G, 4G and 5G technologies for over 20 years. It allows for the successful harmonization of the technological ambitions of the American, European and Asian technology zones. As part of the standardization of each technology, 3GPP has the ability to create national options within each of the standards, taking into account the peculiarities of the national allocation of radio frequency bands and network requirements,” Devyatkin ends.

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