North America’s journey to 6G
The Next G Alliance wants to shape 6G’s development to meet the ‘unique needs’ of the US. Ken Wieland investigates how it can do this while being committed to a single global standard.
Politicians like to talk about technological leadership and vision. It is one reason why 6G is getting lots of attention from political leaders around the world and attracting increasing amounts of public funding in the process, even though it is not expected to be formalised by the International Telecommunications Union until the end of the decade, as part of IMT 2030.
Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, recently launched a 6G roadmap for the sub-continent. After Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow in March, China and Russia both proclaimed they will be leaders in 6G. South Korea is gunning to launch 6G as early as 2028. The UK and European Union have not been shy about voicing their 6G leadership ambitions.
Similarly, the Biden administration in the US is keen to show 6G leadership. Not by being first out of the 6G traps, but by shaping development of the technology.
Flavours of American 6G
Mike Nawrocki, managing director of Next G Alliance, a private sector-led group that includes major US and Canadian operators and academia and international Tier 1 infrastructure vendors as members, but no Chinese companies, flags that the US has “unique” needs and the group, in alignment with the US government, aims to influence development of the technology.
While acknowledging there are high-level commonalities in 6G visions between many countries, Nawrocki highlights “national imperatives” and what he sees as key variances between the US and other geographical regions when you dig a little bit more into the detail.
“At a North American level, there are differences in the level of importance and the application drivers for industries, such as smart agriculture, entertainment and gaming, education, eHealth, smart cities and other sectors,” says Nawrocki. “Similarly, there are evolving differences at a policy level in areas such as digital equity, trustworthiness, ethical use of artificial intelligence, security and others. Even at a technological level, the use of distributed cloud and computing as a foundation for 6G development has a North American focus.”
The Next G Alliance has mapped out six “audacious goals” as part its Roadmap to 6G, each of which Nawrocki believes the US can put its stamp on:
• trust, security, and resilience;
• cost efficiency;
• enhanced digital world;
• AI-native future network;
• distributed cloud and communications systems; and
• energy efficiency and the environment.
Nawrocki stresses that the goal is not to develop divergent 6G standards, despite highlighting differences in approaches to security compared with China.
“There will be security built into the 6G standards,” he says. “The question is what additional requirement might be built in top of that, either from government, enterprise or from private industry.”
Roger Nichols, 6G program manager at Keysight Technologies, which holds Federal Communications Commission (FCC) experimental licences in sub-1THz frequencies does not rule out the possibility of 6G standards diverging. The FCC’s “rip and replace” programme, which is designed to remove Huawei and ZTE equipment from US networks and strip China Mobile and China Telecoms of their US operational licences, have all added to what Nichols calls a “bifurcation of the standard”.
“All large commercial entities and even governments want to have influence in the 6G standard, and most are posturing to do so,” says Nichols. “The increased geopolitical tension — now in some cases being directed at private commercial entities – adds to the risk of less cooperation in the standards bodies.”
The FCC, as part of its Spectrum Horizons First Report and Order issued in 2019, has taken steps to encourage wireless communications research and development in frequencies between 95GHz and 3THz. A total of 21.2GHz of spectrum is available for use by unlicensed devices within this range of very high spectrum, which is unchartered territory for communications connectivity. By creating a new category of experimental 10-year licences between 95GHz and 3THz, the FCC hopes to spur innovation in “new services and technologies”. The broad industry consensus is that 6G will start to emerge in 2030, around the time when the experimental licences expire.
Keysight Technologies, a US test and measurement company, claims to have been the first company to get its hands on the FCC’s experimental licences, allowing it to carry out research in airwaves “above 246GHz and 275.5GHz”.
Innovation in sub-THz spectrum, reckons Keysight, should enable support for a variety of use-cases, such as immersive telepresence, digital twins and extended reality, as well as human-machine interactions generated by computer technology and wearables.
A lot of work left
Dean Brenner, chairman of FCC’s Technology Advisory Council (TAC), believes the crucial period for 6G will be a few years before the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) begins active consideration of 6G standardisation – most likely 2026-2027. Lots of preparatory work is required, he says, to feed into standardisation processes and make sure that the 6G that eventually emerges addresses the needs identified by the US government and other governments around the world.
“It is a gigantic task,” he says. “It’s not like turning on a light switch and all of a sudden an entire ecosystem moves from one G to the next.”
Conscious of the need to get cracking on groundwork for 6G, the FCC developed a new charter for the TAC in early 2022. The FCC has been issuing charters, which usually have a two-year period, to the TAC since it was formed in 2010.
“Our job is to provide the FCC with the best possible advice and input to make sure that it is fully advised on important technological developments, insofar as they would drive federal policy,” says Brenner.
Contributing to the advisory council are more than 40 industry experts from the private and public sectors, trade associations, and academia. Brenner himself is a former senior Qualcomm executive, leading global spectrum strategy, tech policy and government affairs.
The latest FCC Charter includes a 6G remit, alongside AI and machine learning, advanced spectrum sharing and other emerging technologies.
“We’re really the only part of the US government that’s specifically focused on 6G so far,” says Brenner. The TAC set up a 6G working group that held its first meeting in February 2022. In 2022, the full TAC held four quarterly meetings during which the 6G working group, and the other working groups, provided reports. At the last meeting in December 2022, the 6G working group’s report included recommendations to the FCC and suggestions for future work in 2023. “I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made,” he says.
The 6G working group splits its efforts into five areas:
• timelines for commercial adoption;
• open RAN;
• identifying appropriate frequency bands;
• evaluating how much spectrum is needed in those frequency bands to deliver what might be called 6G experiences; and
• envisioning 6G use cases.
Open RAN might seem a bit of surprise since it is already in development with 5G. Not so for Brenner. “Open RAN will have an important relationship with 6G,” he says. “It will be the first G to be open RAN ready from the get-go.”
On frequency bands the FCC charter asked the TAC to specifically look at millimetre wave and sub-THz airwaves, which can offer high capacity at short distances, although the 6G working group has broadened its scope of enquiry into mid-band (between 7GHz and 24GHz). In each frequency band the TAC is looking at the technical challenges associated with delivery of comms services – “considerable,” says Brenner, in very high frequencies – and to assess how much spectrum is needed. The answer to the latter turns out to be lot.
“To get one 1TB/s speed, 50GHz or more of spectrum would probably be required in the 300GHz-1THz range,” says Brenner. “We’ve also advised the FCC on the importance of allocating at least 500MHz in the mid-band.”
The TAC, along with other parts of the FCC, is also looking at how lower-cost 6G architecture might be developed to close digital divides in the US, which, as Brenner points out, are not restricted to rural versus urban areas. Digital divides are also present within urban and suburban environments, and closing them, adds Brenner, is a key priority of FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.
“It’s a 50-state problem,” Brenner says. “It’s 2023 and we have a terrible situation, as in many other parts of the world, where people are still not connected. There is a currently a core technology problem that, on an end-to-end basis, it costs too much to deliver connectivity. The question, then, is what can be done at this stage, as 6G is designed and developed from the ground up, to advance the crucial public policy goal of closing the digital divide. It’s important to think about that now when the technology is on the drawing board because it’ll be too late to change anything when it is finalised.”
Unlike politicians, there is some reticence among US operators to talk openly about 6G. When Capacity Magazine requested one of the largest mobile players in the country to share its 6G visions and perspectives, we received a terse email response. “It’s way too early to talk about 6G in public settings. The world has only scratched the surface of 5G capabilities and solutions, and it’s this technology that will continue to drive innovation for years to come.”
The sentiment is perhaps understandable. After investing heavily in 5G, the incentive to talk up in public a better technology in the future may not have much appeal.
Michael Irizarry, chief technology officer of Engineering and Information Services at UScellular, the fourth largest wireless carrier in the US, does not fall into this category. He is far from coy about discussing 6G, implying that it is too early to talk about notions of national or regional 6G leadership as the technology does not exist yet.
Speaking at the Next Generation Mobile Network Alliance (NGMN) press conference at MWC Barcelona 2023, he said: “You’re probably wondering why we’re talking about 6G when we’ve not extracted all the value out of 5G. I get that question from my boss all the time, so I’m going to tell you three things: we don’t know what it is; we don’t know how much it’s going to cost; and we don’t know yet what problems it’s solving.
“But here’s what I can tell you. Usage is continuing to grow at a rapid pace, with services like [fixed wireless access] and autonomous vehicles. We need to be prepared to support that.”
UScellular is a member of NGMN, an operator-led grouping, and Irizarry sits on its board. It differs from the Next G Alliance as it takes an avowedly non-regional approach to 6G, which, along with green future networks and operating disaggregated networks, make up the NGMN’s three “strategic pillars”. To underline the point of cross-border collaboration, the NGMN’s latest 6G publication, 6G Requirements and Design Considerations, has “leadership” input from China Mobile, Bell Canada, UScellular and Vodafone.
“[The 6G paper] is not just a US or a European view, it is an end-to-end view which reflects the input and ambitions of the entire community [in different regions],” said Luke Ibbetson, head of group R&D at Vodafone, speaking alongside Irizarry at MWC Barcelona 2023. Ibbetson is also a board member of NGMN.
John Strand, chief executive at Strand Consult, thinks no region will have legitimate claim to 6G leadership. He argues it will be the multinationals which secure patents that will be the true 6G winners.
“Standards created in 3GPP are not created in North America, Europe or Asia,” says Strand. “When it comes to that type of work, there is no country that is the leader. Standards work is driven by companies.”