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Spain gets EU cash to test next gen network, and US 'scrum for 6G' already under way

How much better do mobile networks really have to be by 2030-ish?

Another European project aims to kick start 6G telecoms technology and help define the scope of this future standard, even as 5G has yet to really deliver on its promise.

The ENABLE-6G project is a collaboration between the IMDEA Networks Institute of the Spanish government, Telefónica, NEC, and BluSpecs, a local IT consultancy. It is backed by the European Union's NextGenerationEU pandemic recovery fund and Spain's Ministry of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation.

Like many of these projects, the aim of ENABLE-6G is to identify and meet the challenges that the participants believe future networks will face, such as demands for increased connectivity and higher performance requirements.

According to Telefónica, one of the chief objectives is to ensure sufficient privacy protections are built into the architecture, because of more precise mapping and sensing capabilities.

Another priority is the design and implementation of software-defined networks capable of handling time-critical services and geographically distributed network orchestration, the company said.

"It's necessary for 6G networks to become more adaptable and intelligent to enable the realization of a future vision that will contend with greater levels of complexity, contextualization, and data traffic while consuming less energy and offering stronger security and privacy measures," Telefónica said of its involvement in the ENABLE-6G project.

In particular, it will be a challenge to reduce the energy footprint per device in order to avoid a large overall increase in network power consumption if many more devices are connected.

Just seven years to go

If all this sounds a bit vague, it's because nobody really has any idea what 6G networks are going to look like at this stage, although they are tentatively penciled in to start appearing in about a 2030 time frame.

The Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance last year published a provisional list of use cases it had identified, including enhanced human communications such as such as immersive experiences or telepresence; enhanced machine communications to enable robots to communicate with each other; enabling services such as high accuracy location, mapping, or body sensing data; and network evolution, meaning the evolution of core technologies such as energy efficiency and delivering ubiquitous coverage.

The UK's newly formed Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) also recently announced £100 million ($124 million) of funding for early research into 6G networks, also with the aim of influencing global standards and ensuring that "the UK is at the forefront of both adopting and developing 6G."

These will be delivered via a series of Future Telecoms Research Hubs, coordinated through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) via the Technology Missions Fund (TMF), DSIT said.

Last year, it was disclosed that Nokia is leading 6G-ANNA, a German-funded project intended to drive research and standardization efforts into 6G network technology.

It isn't just Europe that is getting in on the act. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has established a working group focused on 6G.

'Much like in the early days of 5G, the scrum for 6G is already intensifying'

"If you are still thinking it is too early to start planning for 6G, think again. Much like in the early days of 5G, the scrum for 6G is already intensifying," said FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel, speaking to a recent meeting of the National Science Foundation.

Rosenworcel said the FCC is already "imagining and defining what 6G will be" and working to free up spectrum to "serve as a launching pad" for the technology.

"We have already identified the 7-16 GHz band as prime mid-band airwaves for the 6G era. That is why we have started an inquiry into making 550 megahertz of spectrum in the 12.7-13.25 GHz band available for new commercial mobile use," she said.

Telecoms analyst Kester Mann of CCS Insight told us that all these disparate 6G efforts are an area of concern because of the potential fragmentation of standards.

"The current heightened level of geopolitical tension is fueling worries that the industry will not move forward in unison. This would be a concern, as the telecoms industry has been most successful when it has worked together to leverage the greatest possible benefits of scale," he said.

However, it is still very early days for 6G, with no definition yet for the technology and little understanding as to which problems it intends to solve and much it will cost, Mann said. Commercial networks won't be launched much before the end of the decade, he predicted.

But it is important for the industry to be thinking ahead and planning for the next generation, Mann told us. "In that sense, an initiative such as Enable-6G is valuable to identify opportunities and challenges by harnessing input from across the telecoms and technology sector," he said. ®

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