Talking about the next generation
Years ahead of the target date for 6G to go into service, telecoms engineer Anita Döhler is leading the industry’s efforts to specify what operators want from it. Interview by Alan Burkitt-Gray
Sustainability will be one of the key goals of the sixth generation of mobile networks, which is likely to be developed over the next few years for implementation at the end of the decade.
Hold on, we’re only into the second or third year of 5G, and roll-out is going well, so what’s all this talk of 6G? Isn’t it a bit early?
Well, no. It isn’t. The industry has been installing 5G since 2019 or so, but the development of the technology has been going on for years. Capacity has mentioned 5G a total of 2,301 times so far; and I first spoke about it to an industry executive in March 2013, when I met Huawei’s Wen Tong, head of wireless research. At that time, Wen told me, the industry’s ideas were already advanced. And you can also find a YouTube video recorded later that year, in which he foresaw commercial deployment of 5G starting in 2020. That forecast was just about bang on.
It’s accepted that there’s one new mobile generation every decade; that means the clock is ticking for commercial deployment of 6G in 2030. One of the key organisations in planning what the next generation will actually do is the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance, which represents operators across the world.
Last year it marked its arrival into the sixth generation by appointing a new CEO, Anita Döhler, a telecoms engineer who has worked for vendors, operators and consultants. She recalls the work NGMN did in the 5G era: “We produced our first 5G white paper in 2015, and that was used by 3GPP as one of its important input documents.” 3GPP is a global standards body, set up at the start of the 3G era – the clue’s in the name – and still running three generations later.
Last year, just before she joined NGMN from Accenture, there was a second white paper that listed 5G achievements and what was still open – “what the industry needs to work on”.
But now it’s time to really move on. A new white paper, published in April, sets out “the imperative to safeguard the three fundamental needs facing the society at large” as high in its list. “With our future vision of 6G and the related NGMN work programme, we are committed to setting the global footprint and providing impactful guidance to the industry in developing 6G,” says Döhler.
The people who wrote the white paper come from China Mobile, US Cellular and Vodafone, with further contributions from Bell Canada, BT, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo, Orange, PLDT Smart, TIM and Telus.
“We enable a unique collaboration among the NGMN partnership including operators, vendors and research organisations and external stakeholders,” says Döhler. Now, “the entire NGMN Alliance will work on use cases and end-to-end requirements. We invite interested industry players to join our endeavour for the benefit of the global ecosystem.”
Top of the list is societal goals, says the organisation: “Future technologies should contribute further to the success of a number of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, such as environmental sustainability, efficient delivery of healthcare, reduction in poverty and inequality, improvements in public safety and privacy, support for ageing populations and managing expanding urbanisation.”
But at the same time, “there is a strong need to make the planning, deployment, operations, management and performance of the mobile operators’ networks more efficient.”
In addition, “customer requirements need to be satisfied by offering new services and capabilities, supported by evolving technologies in a cost-effective manner.”
First, a bit about Döhler herself. She grew up in the East German city of Jena, when East Germany and the rest of eastern Europe were still divided from the west by barbed wire, minefields and machine guns.
As the daughter of a Russian mother and a German father, “I grew up with different cultures,” she says. A uniting factor was that both parents had university degrees and Döhler, interested in physics and maths, went to study telecommunications in Novosibirsk in Russia – 5,200km east of Berlin.
“The Berlin Wall came down [in November 1989] as I was finishing my studies, and I finished university in 1990,” says Döhler. “All the companies in East Germany started to close down, and I went to work for Philips as a software developer for fixed networks.”
She started in January 1991, three months after East and West Germany were united on October 3 1990.
Döhler began her next job, with E-Plus, before it was owned by KPN, “at the very early stage of the mobile industry”, she recalls. “We launched the first prepaid product. It was a time when I learned a lot about end-to-end services in a network. We started with blank sheets of paper and took it to a million customers, when I moved to digital customer care.”
Since then, Döhler has been at the heart of many of the industry’s innovations: machine-to-machine (M2M), near-field communications, mobile money and mobile wallets – “and then I went to Spain to replace the head of mobile commerce,” who was on maternity leave. Over the years “I learned a lot about manufacturing and process-based production,” she says.
Back in Germany, she worked for Accenture’s innovation centre, “with clients from the industry interested in digital transformation. We brought together different units from the client companies, including production management and HR. Innovation that is only technology-driven can’t be successful. It has to be user-driven and technology-driven.”
What interested her in NGMN? “What triggered me? It was clear that we needed to undergo a change. We needed to reflect the speed of change and to be more agile,” she says.
It is not just on the staff side that NGMN has changed. In October a new board chairman took over: Arash Ashouriha, Deutsche Telekom’s senior VP for technology innovation. He replaced Emmanuel Lugagne Delpon, group CTO of Orange, who had seen the organisation’s 5G work come to fruition. Now, Ashouriha and Döhler can steer NGMN into the 6G era.
There will be an intermediary stage, which 3GPP is calling 5G-Advanced, just as there was LTE-Advanced announced 10 years ago as a development of the original 4G (alternatively called LTE).
All flavours of 5G from Release 18, due later this year, will be officially named 5G-Advanced. The work to specify Release 18 will start at the end of 2021 and will be frozen by the end of 2023, says 3GPP. “The new term ‘5G- Advanced’ is intended to mark the point in time where the 5G system will be significantly enhanced to improve efficiency as well as adding capabilities.”
NGMN will be working hard on 6G. “Our members are mobile network operators, and we really strive to be a global organisation,” says Döhler. Vendors and service providers – companies such as Apple and Nokia, Facebook, Ericsson and Huawei – are involved. “We reflect the entire industry value chain,” she adds.
Network operator CTOs
But the operators are in the driving seat. “Our board is formed of 22 of the most powerful network operators. We have only mobile network operators on the board,” stresses Döhler. Other companies can suggest projects to NGMN, “but they need approval by the board. We are an operator-driven organisation.”
There is a close partnership with 3GPP, of course, and in May NGMN signed a memorandum of understanding with the Linux Foundation for formal collaboration regarding end-to-end 5G and beyond to 6G. “We need to change to reflect open source,” says Döhler.
“Open source is gaining increasing relevance for the strategic topics of our work programmes – such as mastering the route to disaggregation, green future networks and 6G. We are delighted to partner with the Linux Foundation to jointly drive our mission for the benefit of the global ecosystem.”
NGMN’s mission is to achieve innovative and affordable mobile telecommunication services for the end user. The organisation said this mission “is complementary to the efforts of the Linux Foundation’s LF Networking and LF Edge umbrella projects, as well as others like LF Energy operating within the telecom, IoT and networking spaces”.
The aim, says Döhler, is to create “open, scalable building blocks for operators and service providers” that are “critical to the industry adoption of 5G and beyond”.