287 participants from 28 different countries spanning all inhabited continents took part in the very first 6G Summit at the top of Levi ski resort, in beautiful Lapland. The setting for such an event was very fitting, as the aim for the conference --and, indeed, 6G research --is to keep reaching ever higher.
At the Summit, the participants’ were asked to project themselves into the world in 2030, potentially very different from today. As professor Matti Latva-aho, the director of 6G Flagship at the University of Oulu, and the driving force behind the vision of global 6G, puts it: ”The vision for 2030 is that our society is data-driven, enabled by near-instant, unlimited connectivity. We will be facing a growing and ageing population, demands for increased productivity and the need to connect the billions who are not currently connected. We challenged all of the conference attendants, pressing them to consider this future world beyond 5G and the most essential aspects of 6G research -- a decade in advance.”
Peter Vetter, Head of the Access Research at Nokia Bell Labs and a Bell Labs Fellow, took on Latva-aho’s vision for the future. Vetter says that in the future, the network needs to be thought of as a platform that creates network instances for specific environments.
“I like to call 6G a network with a sixth sense. It will be a network not only enabling connectivity but the infrastructure will be used as a sensor that will infer state and meaning to augment humans and machines. Understanding what is happening in a room, for instance, opens up new applications for things like energy management or health monitoring,” Vetter explains.
Specialized uses can be easily imagined including hospitals, elderly care, traffic and power plants. At the heart of it all is enhancing the human condition, Vetter says.
“This means enhancing our ability to think with augmented intelligence, enhancing our sensing capabilities, deduce meaning, making predictions with artificial intelligence -- in short, enhancing our human existence. To connect the actions in the world beyond human capabilities, you need a nervous system, and the next-generation network will be the nervous system that connects all of these,” Vetter says.
And the timeline? Vetter does not think that this is just around the corner, even if 5G is going to bring forward a lot of innovation.
“6G is still ten years and longer out, and I think that this is a consensus among the 6G Summit participants. However, it is time to start the research right now, because it takes 10-20 years before a new innovation sees a commercial launch,” Vetter says.
Entering A New Paradigm Calls For Fundamental Research
For wireless revolution to happen, there needs to be a revolutionary communication technology, a revolutionary application of that technology and a whole ecosystem for continued innovation, says Dr. Wen Tong, Head of Wireless Research and Head of Communications Technologies Laboratories at Huawei.
“Wireless as a field has plenty of room for innovation. We need a young generation of researchers and an environment that will sustain continued innovation. This is very important, as without the young generation of research leaders the sustainability of the ecosystem will become problematic,” Dr. Tong explains.
As we are entering 5G and intelligent connectivity, we will also stepping into a new paradigm. This requires deep research, not hype, as Dr. Tong sees it.
“The problem is not a lack of visionary imagination, it’s that we don’t have a concrete theoretical path to get to the realization of that vision. And for that we need fundamental research that doesn’t focus just on the very near-term solutions,” Dr. Tong says.
As for the 6G Summit, Dr. Tong was pleased to see people “calibrating their mindset” for future research:
“I did not come here expecting to see a new splash of technology or some breakthrough. Rather, it’s a diverse group of people coming together, sharing ideas and getting a feeling for 6G research.”
We Need To Address The Dreams For The Future
The 6G Summit featured 99 presentations over three days in the snowy environment. A permit for specific radio frequencies had been arranged with the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency, and Nokia brought a 5G base station van for the duration of the event, where VR demos were run over the world’s northernmost 5G network.
In considering 6G, 5G was a stepping stone for many speakers.
“We need to address both the problems from the real world and the dreams for the future,” says Takehiro Nakamura, SVP and General Manager of the 5G Laboratories in NTT DoCoMo. In his talk, Nakamura brought up the requirements for many future use cases, such as low latency, reliability, massive connectivity etc. and made a point that most of these will be met with 5G.
“Then, there will be new combinations of extreme requirements for specific use cases. We need to provide extreme high reliability for a guaranteed quality of service for industry, peak data rates of over 100 Gbps, gigabyte-rate coverage everywhere, and to have everything run at extreme low energy consumption and cost,” Nakamura says.
As Nakamura sees it, the future will have high-quality, real-time VR and AR. Massive IoT for anything and anywhere, like satellites in space. Broadband for flying mobility, which will need high coverage and high reliability.
“These evolutions will be triggered by the 5G era and beyond. That’s why researchers should focus on future wireless technologies for around the year 2025 and further,” Nakamura says.
Qi Bi, President of China Telecom Technology Innovation Center and CTO of China Telecom Research Institute thinks that 6G could be a turning point and a real revolution from 5G also in other terms besides technological.
“So far, we have been concerned with the data rate, and while it is important, we need to pay attention to more than just the data rate. ISPs complain that incomes are staying flat and have been saturated. Well, if we turn to personalized services and build intelligent 6G networks that can think and perceive specialized needs automatically, we will find that we really are at a turning point,” Dr. Bi explains.
Even if we don’t yet know what 6G will be, it is going to be based on past generations and some traits will be there, Dr. Bi says. As far as gauging 6G research today, Dr. Bi says that the Summit was a great event for percolating a lot of ideas.
“There was a lot of insight into the fundamentals and many excellent talks. We are very interested in new ideas to ascertain the future of 6G research.”
What About AI?
Some of the hot topics in 5G and in 6G are machine learning and artificial intelligence. Head of Ericsson Research Magnus Frodigh is a big believer in the coming 5G evolution.
“5G really will bring about an intelligent, sustainable, connected world. I expect to see a very strong 5G evolution. There is a lot of very good research being done and most of that will fit into the 5G development,” Frodigh says.
As networks are Ericsson’s strong point, Frodigh says it will be very interesting to see what distributed AI is going to bring to the game.
“AI that is embedded in the network and can work on real-time data is going to be a key factor. Connectivity, the ability to collect more data, Edge computing, closed loop control systems--all of these will bring us to the next world. Computational needs in the device will grow, but the battery and energy consumption will be a limiting factor. There will be strong value to offloading computing from the device”, Frodigh says.
Frodigh was impressed with what was on display at the 6G Summit.
“A significant crowd participated and the program was very interesting. Fundamentally, I do think that nine out of ten things will be absorbed in the 5G evolution. Maybe the tenth thing will happen in the 6G evolution? In any case, the 6G research will be exciting to follow, and we really welcome it,” Frodigh concludes.
Getting Ready For A New Socioeconomic Reality
Bernard Barani, Deputy Head of Unit in the CONNECT Directorate of the European Commission looks at next generation development and research as a chance to consolidate the industry.
“Europe has an edge and we want to keep it. In the future, we need to take a more integrated perspective with regards to IoT, cloud and services. We will try to develop a model where we support not only research, but connectivity, services and so on, integrating everything in continuation to the 5G story,” Barani says.
However, Barani points out, telecommunication is a global business.
“We want to promote European businesses, of course, but precompetitive research is very useful to the industry at large. At the research level we need global co-operation. When the products are finalized, that is another story, but for research, there is definite value in cross-regional collaboration.”
Barani says that the 6G Summit was an important event as we are looking forward to something that will become an economic reality in the not-too-distant future.
“Even if it’s not easy to foresee, this puzzle, it’s very important for us to get an understanding of what the industry is considering to be promising avenues in the future. The questions we ask are how do we justify investments in the technology, what are the socioeconomic implications, what shape will networks take in the future, and so on.”
With plenty of Arctic attitude around in Levi, the 6G Summit was a roaring success. As the world is preparing for the commercial release of 5G, the expert speakers’ and the roughly 300 participants’ view from the mountaintop expanded to the future, which is coming faster than we think.
One of the concrete outcomes of the Summit will be a 6G whitepaper which will describe the goals of 6G, the use-cases anticipated in 2030 and the associated technical requirements. This will provide a focus for the major research challenges and help set the research agenda for the coming decade.
Text&photos: Janne-Pekka Manninen
Last updated: 11.4.2019