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Heading into 2022, telecom companies have an even larger role to play as the fifth generation of wireless technology begins to gain traction among enterprises and consumers alike. 5G deployment has been on the fast track with nationwide efforts done to achieve mainstream adoption. In fact, in four-year time, 4.41 billion people will be able to use 5G services. This represents 53% of the world population, according to an analysis by Bankr.

Every 10 years or so, we are seeing a new generation (G) of communications technologies. Within this period of time, defining the concept, verifying the feasibility, and standardizing the selected technology are performed.

As early as now, the evolution of 5G networks to the next frontier which is 6G is already underway. Global players involved in preparation for the sixth-generation technology include China, Japan, Finland, Europe, Korea, and the US.

Targeted to be launched by 2030, interest in 6G technology is growing and many pundits believe that the first commercial 6G deployments could be done as early as 2028, with the first standard technology to be released around 2026.

Trials and interest

As 5G gradually spreads around the world, tech giants are already preparing for the next G wave. Asians seem to be at the forefront with LG, Samsung, and Huawei hitting the headlines with their 6G initiatives. 

The world’s first, LG transmitted 6G terahertz (THz) signals over 100 meters in an outdoor setting in collaboration with Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Europe’s largest applied research lab. Hence, in August 2021, the data efficiently traveled between Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute (HHI) and the Berlin Institute of Technology in Germany.

“The success of this test demonstrates that we are ever closer to the successful application of terahertz radio communication spectrum in the upcoming 6G era,” said Dr. I.P. Park, president and CTO of LG Electronics.

Two months earlier, Samsung also demonstrated the 6G THz prototype in collaboration with the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). In the over-the-air (OTA) test conducted over a 15-meter distance, the wireless communication prototype system achieved real-time throughput of 6.2 Gbps.

“Working together with UCSB, we have been able to overcome many technological challenges and develop this new THz proof-of-concept system to explore 6G use cases and deployment scenarios,” said SVP Charlie Zhang, an IEEE fellow and head of the standards and mobility innovations team at Samsung Research America.

With these successful tests, it is worthy to note that the first recognizable 6G trial came in November 2020 when China launched the world’s first 6G satellite into space to conduct communications tests.

In Huawei’s case, executives have spoken about their commitment towards 6G, with research initiated way back in 2017. In April, Huawei's rotating chairman Eric Xu announced their plan to launch 6G networks in 2030. These networks are expected to be 50 times faster than 5G. Accordingly, Xu noted that 6G has a more complicated technology environment than 5G. Thus, it can greatly impact multiple ICT technologies like cloud computing, blockchain, and big data.

"Huawei will define 5.5G and research 6G at the same time in the next few years, and it is a test of the whole industry's imagination and creativity whether 6G can surpass (5G and 5.5G technologies)," Xu wrote.

The advanced technological stance of the company is affirmed by its Founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei, stating that Huawei will push ahead with developing 6G wireless technology despite its current US crackdown. “Our research into 6G is preparation against a rainy day, and we aim to seize the ground of 6G patents," Ren said at a gathering of in-house scientists, researchers, and interns in August.

According to a survey, out of around 20,000 patent applications for core 6G technologies (e.g communications, quantum technology, base stations, and artificial intelligence), China emerged on top with 40.3% of 6G patent filings. The US comes close second with 35.2%. Huawei is known to have filed the majority of the latest patents. This is not shocking as the company controlled 30% of the world's base stations in 2020.

In the Middle East, Etisalat has unveiled its ambitious 6G plans. “We are committed to bringing the latest technologies to UAE market to enable digital societies. As part of our vision and future technology planning, 6G is going beyond earth networks into space to enable new era of services and usage scenarios with terabyte data traffic resulting in extraordinary human-to-machine interaction. Etisalat is upgrading tools and capabilities of its R&D center to enhance the contribution towards 6G global standardization within the international fora and alliances”, said Haitham Abdulazzak, chief technology officer, Etisalat.

Abdulazzak said the excellent achievements done by the company with the fastest mobile network in the world for two consecutive years is a result of the long-term strategy paving the way towards 6G. These include 5G coverage, cloud-native, slicing, multi-access edge computing (MEC) development, AI and automation platforms, as well as high-fiber penetration.

Battle on 6G domination

The society at large still needs time to experience the full benefits of 5G. Nevertheless, the geopolitical race for the next wave of wireless technology has already started. For companies and governments globally, the first one to develop and patent 6G will be superiors in the next so-called Industry 5.0.

Though still roughly a decade away from becoming reality, 6G is expected to deliver the kind of technology that would bring the digital and physical worlds together –from real-time holograms to flying taxis and internet-connected smart machines.

As 6G research moves further along, experts from the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) urge city leaders to make their stance towards shaping the next G. Professor Will Stewart, chair of the IET’s Digital Communications group, called the organization’s ‘6G for Policy Makers’ guide a “wake-up call” for stakeholders.

In this document, they tackled a new approach to 6G including its association to societal and global challenges, the scope of 6G, new 6G services within the fusion of virtual, physical and non-physical worlds, infrastructure priorities, and net-zero carbon emission goal.

“This endeavor is so important that it’s become an arms race to some extent,” said Peter Vetter, head of access and devices at Nokia Oyj’s research arm Bell Labs. “It will require an army of researchers on it to remain competitive.”

Primarily, China is set to play a key role in the formulation of new 6G standards. This is given the fact that the country has made great leaps in technology and industry development in 5G. Han Xia, chief engineer for the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), noted that in seeking to create a unified standard, "China will strengthen exchanges and cooperation among global 6G promotion organizations, enterprises, universities and research institutions to create a favorable environment for 6G worldwide".

No wonder that China has become the main source country for patent applications in the field of 6G. On the other hand, in the US, the Next G Alliance initiative, which counts Nokia, Verizon, and Qualcomm among its members, has announced its outlook for the 6G era wherein communications will likely be integrated with AI as well as VR/AR technologies.

Also competing for supremacy in 6G are Europe and South Korea. In March 2021, ITU-R’s 6G Vision Group was launched, with Samsung Research’s principal engineer as chair. The unit plans to develop technical requirements and recommendations through industry standards organizations like 3GPP to complete the 6G vision by 2023. Following this, around 2030, the global 6G standards will be approved based on the technologies that pass ITU-R’s evaluation.

Additionally, the University of Oulu in Finland, under its 6G Flagship research program, has published the world’s first 6G whitepaper. This document claims to open the floor for defining the 2030 wireless era. Moreover, the European Union has played a key role in standardization, including the establishment of a research group by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). In South Korea, Samsung and LG have already set up 6G development centers, while the government is expected to spend approximately KRW 200 billion ($169 million) for five years (until 2026) to develop, secure patents, and form industry foundations for 6G.

In India as well, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) calls for a collaborative model to work towards 6G spectrum studies. “There is a need to collaborate and work together for establishing infrastructure and organization for 5G and 6G spectrum studies, including jointly collaborating for technology implementation in the country,” said A.K. Tiwari, member technology of DoT’s Digital Communications Commission (DCC).

In a document TSDSI submitted in line with ITU-R’s 6G vision, the body said that they will "steer research in India” to serve the IMT 2030 goals and continuously engage with “global standard bodies for harmonization of efforts".

 

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