What external force will push 6G beyond an improved version of 5G?
Professor Henning Schulzrinne has a long-running relationship with the northern University and was a member of the original 6G Flagship Scientific Board. Having made fundamental and pioneering contributions to key protocols used in Internet multimedia applications in a career that spans several decades, the Internet Hall-Of-Famer is well poised to outline what he sees as the future for research in next generation communications.
Schulzrinne has a background in electrical engineering and he got his PhD in the subject at the University of Massachusetts in 1992. He worked on signal processing and participated in research and development that was concerned with how to better carry voice and video across the Internet. Developing communications is a throughline in Schulzrinne’s work to this day, as he has been working with public safety systems, evaluating how public health measures such as lockdowns impact Internet usage and performance, and how very large, real-time Internet of Things systems work with millions of devices online.
6G: Two perspectives
Schulzrinne has also been an integral part of 6G research at the University of Oulu. In 2019, the 6G Flagship stated its vision for the next generation of telecommunications as such: “The vision for 2030 is that our society is data-driven, enabled by near-instant, unlimited connectivity.” How does Schulzrinne feel about this statement in 2022?
“I think there is still no grand convergence in terms of what 6G is going to be. Instead, there are two broad and different perspectives on what it might be”, Schulzrinne says.
“The first perspective maintains that 6G is going to be an architecture with behaviour very similar to 5G. It will be a relatively modest transformation with some additions, maybe a set of releases that will at some point be called 6G. You will see large, typically nationwide carriers operating networks that are maybe supplemented with some local enterprise solutions, much like what has happened with 5G. In other words, if you were to time travel, things would look pretty much the same–only a little faster.”
The second perspective is one that changes the current models and ecosystems, says Schulzrinne.
“This extends the concept of semi-private, semi-public IoT systems where people put up base stations not just for personal use or for corporate use but also available to third parties. These are systems that can by design be used by any device that happens to be in a certain area. I wonder if the 6G model will try to be more cognizant of the fact that there are at least three ecosystems, from large network providers to the enterprise, home, and public-private models and whether they can be better integrated architecturally”, Schulzrinne muses.
The easiest path forward is more of the same: current businesses are not invested in disrupting themselves. Usually for major change to occur, there has to be some external force setting it in motion. Schulzrinne brings up GSM as one such example: there was a strong political desire for a trans-European standard in mobile telephony, even though network carriers and vendors didn’t mind having national cellular markets as it provided some protection as well. And 4G happened because the Internet became a must-have service and telephones had become pocket computers.
“So, what is going to be the equivalent disruptive element for 6G to make it more than gradual improvement of 5G technology?” Schulzrinne asks. “Is it virtual reality? Is it this expectation that people will want to do things that require a hundred per cent of their attention all the time? VR gaming and entertainment are great immersive experiences people can do for a couple of hours a day maybe, but most people don’t have the luxury of spending all day every day in the metaverse and are unlikely to do this while walking or driving,” Schulzrinne says. And considering the way things are in the world today, do we need more escapism?
Connectivity alone will not be the solution
To take 6G to another level means embracing a variety of business and technology models which will allow for more flexibility. As Schulzrinne sees it, there will be combinations of operator and private enterprise models as well as hybrid models. Also there might be less emphasis on connectivity, moving forward. For sure, there are many areas where adding connectivity can bring more value, such as energy management, traffic safety or wildlife monitoring. But many of our concerns today and in the future are not about enabling just connectivity in and of itself, Schulzrinne argues.
“For many of the issues that we grapple with today, such as infectious diseases, global warming and degradations of political systems, what will more connectivity mean? The technology that helped us during the pandemic was pretty basic. It was Zoom, emails, data management. It wasn’t super fancy connectivity,” Schulzrinne says, his video image and voice carried over the Internet from the U.S. to Finland for our interview in a scene that would have been deemed science fiction only 30 years ago, instead of just another day at the office, as it is today.
Even if technology helps us communicate across borders smoothly, research is becoming more regional, says Schulzrinne. For a place like Finland, this can be a major opportunity.
“I think 4G research was the peak of ‘internationality’ in the sense that we had a global standard that everybody used and everybody developed. The next generation alliances seem to be more regional, aligned geopolitically. Another factor is that the number of organisations in communications research is relatively small, which is a real incentive to reach across borders internationally. There are major opportunities for collaboration and small countries like Finland can have a large impact. The U.S. Europe and Finland are well aligned, they share similar values, they have similar ideas on things like privacy, who should run things and so on,” Schulzrinne says.
Listen podcast episode: An interview with Honorary Doctor Henning Schulzrinne from this link.
Text: Janne-Pekka Manninen