Is 6G going to break the technology-focus standards mould?

  • Mention 6G in polite company today, as the dust from 5G continues to swirl about, and you’ll very likely encounter a chorus of groans
  • If you’re in impolite company the response may be even harsher
  • But ready or not, here it comes

So what is 6G? How will it differ from 5G? And since there is a perception that 5G has yet to meet its lofty goals, do we need to be starting on that journey already? 

Needless to say, those questions don’t have answers yet. But we’re arguably at the most important ‘stage one’ of the ‘G’ 10 year cycle process which is now firmly embedded in the industry psyche. This is where a huge range of technical goals and potential market targets are hoisted onto the table. Then the task is to discuss, winnow those down, and fasten on to a much smaller number of the reasonably achievable.

As a veteran of all the previous Gs (the first two weren’t called Gs) I think it’s safe to say that the first analogue phase (early 1980s in the UK) passed off with very little fanfare. The PR people for the two licensed operators had to drum up interest rather than fend it off, 2G (GSM) excited much more interest, but it was still a select affair. It was 3G that really changed things by properly introducing the data element and kicking off the excitement around the potential for a ‘mobile ‘ internet (the immobile internet was already in full swing). 

So here we are in the excitement phase of 6G and there are a huge number of potential technical avenues available, many of them promising vast increases in data throughput. According to researchers, Cambridge-based IDTechEx, data speed and capacity is likely to be ramped up from 5G’s multi-GHz level. 6G will start at a few hundred GHz, then employ 1 terahertz (1THz), and it will likely be aimed at ‘thing-to-thing’ applications rather than people. 

So the first issue to be faced, it says, is that “Terahertz is the Wild West of physics and electronics: little understood, even less demonstrated.” 

An allied problem is that “Massively-deployed Reconfigurable Intelligent Surfaces RIS will be essential for 6G to boost, redirect, collimate, polarise and otherwise manipulate those feeble THz beams using metamaterials embedding new active devices.” Much development in other words, will be required. 

IDTechEx says that, even at this early stage there are already myths that need lancing.

First: 6G won’t be everywhere. Such is its likely cost that it can’t be justified, much less required, on a universal basis. And it claims the idea that LEO satellites lofted by the thousand will overcome the access demand problem is also not going to happen for many reasons - LEOs may, however, fill coverage gaps. 

The idea that 6G might enable affordable 6G IoT everywhere in tens of billions is unlikely too. And the old autonomous vehicle application won’t come alive from 6G either - the clue is in the term ‘autonomous’: a radio connection should not necessary.

But having dampened over-enthusiasm IDTechEx maintains that those arguing ‘Beyond 5G’ means there’s no need for 6G are wrong. "We’ll need it."

New demands?

This time around there appears to be a greater appetite for a more socially and environmentally aware approach that can and should be reflected in the way the standards are set and applied. But if there is an expectation that an evolved, socially- and environmentally-focused 6G will simply emerge fully formed after a year or two of constructive discussion, those urging it are probably in for disappointment, according to consultant and long-time ‘G’ watcher William Webb. 

“I know it’s early days,” he says, “but so far and from what I can see currently, the 6G thing is not on a promising trajectory. Most of the talk is along the lines of ‘5G is amazing and wonderful, so let’s build on it’, there are very few voices saying let’s step back and consider what we want the next generation to actually aim at achieving. Rather it seems to be about the best way to accelerate mobile cellular along the existing 5G track.”

Many in the industry might say, that’s exactly what it is, and a good thing too. For InterDigital’s Vice President of Europe R&D Alan Carlton, 6 is another ‘G’ and the 10 year cycle of discussion, technology scoping, standards setting and relentless marketing (but not necessarily in that order) is simply what’s required to advance the industry. “It’s not true that we don’t take social and environmental considerations into account,” he says and he maintains real progress has been made on energy reduction, for instance. 

“6G is a story of regeneration and it follows the usual cycle,” he says. The standardisation of the 6G solution will start in 2025/6 and will follow the exact same cycle as Gs 4 and 5. 

“We’re at the industrial research and consensus building phase now. There are at least a dozen 6G programmes around the world in different forums trying to drive consensus as to what is required. 

“As far as what’s driving 6G is concerned, there are many roadmaps for various verticals and at this stage they’re all starting to articulate truly extreme requirements.” But, he implies, this too is part of the process.

“If you remember one 5G promise was 100 MB down and 50 MB up, predicated against the assumption that we could get millimeter wave deployed and it’s still not happening. But now 6G is going to finish the job that 5G started. 5G will open the door to a lot of capabilities, one of which was the much touted evolution of private networking.”

Power consumption a real problem

On the other side, William Webb was an early critic of 5G, which he thought had been badly conceived, had cast its net too wide, and was therefore likely to fail against its own objectives. Webb says that even with today’s obsession with mobile technology power consumption, and despite much fanfare and back-slapping, 5G has fallen well short of the 10 times reduction promised. It’s actually improved only 1.3 times on the amount of energy required to shift one bit through the airwaves, according to Webb’s calculations. There’s still time to improve the 5G metrics but it doesn’t look that promising.

However it’s the social goals which Webb maintains have assumed most importance now  rather than the usual harvesting of even more speed and improved technical capability framed by a focus on national competitive advantage. And he’s certainly not alone on this, with support coming from some slightly surprising quarters

The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) for instance, says its goal is to support technology innovation to meet the needs of society (yes, many mission statements say something like that as part of a social responsibility box ticking exercise), but the IET says it’s time for a change of approach. It urges a move away from deregulation, claiming that the most impactful benefit of 6G to consumers, and national economies, will come from regulation and 6G technology innovation developing in sync.

Just cranking up the speed with each mobile generation, it claims, is no longer sustainable. It wants 6G to be “outcome-led, rather than predominantly technology-led” and says “a high ambition should be set for 6G, inspired by societal challenges such as sustainable economic growth, pandemics and climate change. To this end, 6G needs an adequate pre-standardisation research phase.” 

So is this any different to the scene-setting that preludes every ‘G’ standards setting process, as outlined by Alan Carlton above? Carlton is right  to say a soul-searching component is part of the early cycle, but this time around that social responsibility input seems much more urgent than in the past.

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