6GFlagship, Matti Latva-aho, wireless communications, 5G, 6G

5G is soon here – the time to get into 6G research is right now

The world is on the verge of entering the fifth generation in cellular networking, or 5G. 2019 will be the year of 5G, with commercial 5G networks rolled out across the globe. 5G is full of promise: driverless cars, smart homes, and virtual reality (VR) for everyone, everywhere. We are headed into the next generation, but no one can still say exactly how 5G will change our lives. Which is why right now is the perfect time to start looking at 6G.

In Oulu, Finland, 6G research has hit the ground running with the launch of 6GFlagship Ecosystem. 6GFlagship is a programme that involves the University of Oulu, Aalto University, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and the Joint Center for Future Connectivity, which is established by Nokia Bell Labs and the University of Oulu. The programme will grow to have five to six strategic partners and 50-100 other collaborators, says Flagship Director, Academy Professor Matti Latva-aho.

“Right now we are focused on bringing in the most important international players in the telecom industry. The main goal for 6G research is to figure out the requirements for the sixth generation and identify the relevant candidate technologies for the future. If 6G is projected to be reality some time in the 2030’s, we really need to start doing this now,” Latva-aho says.

Latva-aho reminds that 5G research began around 2010 and next year we will see major commercial implementations of 5G networks.

“That’s roughly a ten-year period of research. At this pace, we have until 2026 or 2027 to work on 6G,” Latva-aho points out.

The basis for 6G research is laid with 5G, and as such, the 5G Test Network in Oulu provides an excellent environment for companies to work on their 5G technologies. The 5G Test Network is also at the very core of 6G research. The idea of the 6GFlagship Ecosystem is to have major international players (such as Nokia and Keysight) and smaller companies (such as Bittium) as collaborators. Big companies will have their own test networks and resources, but they benefit of seeing what the smaller cutting-edge companies are doing in terms of technological innovation. In turn, smaller, more agile companies get to try out new technologies very cost-effectively.

Janne Kolu, Keysight Ltd.

Keysight, a global technology company that has a long history in the field of electronic measurements is eyeing 6GFlagship as an interesting prospect. Janne Kolu, a director at Keysight, points out that the company has long collaborated with the University of Oulu on research.

“It’s a great way to connect also with other companies locally and, in larger projects, internationally,” Kolu says.

5G is very much a central focal point for Keysight. The company is building some of its major 5G technology around a network emulation solution portfolio.

“Simply put, we are simulating 5G network to test a mobile device, such as a phone. Typically a solution consists of a network emulator and a radio channel emulator. The local Keysight team in Oulu has a long history in developing radio channel emulation technology. The radio channel emulator emulates signal interaction with its environment as signals propagate from the base station and reach the end device,” Kolu explains.

Keysight’s technology is one example of how different companies are approaching 5G from their own specific starting points. 6GFlagship Ecosystem is meant to provide a testing ground for companies which might not have ready access to test networks, says Academy Professor Matti Latva-aho.

“Joining the Ecosystem is very simple and anybody who takes part in it will be able to use the 5GTN to develop their technology without major investments of their own. And companies are a vital part of the Ecosystem because while we as a university do research and study, the practical work is what they do best,” Latva-aho says.

 Flagship Director, Academy Professor Matti Latva-aho

For companies, 5G will be the focus for the next decade or so. And 6G most likely will not appear overnight: there will be gradual improvements, 5.5G, 5G+ or the like. In the meantime, there are many developments that we simply cannot foresee, Latva-aho emphasizes.

“All sorts of use cases will come along, major applications and so on. If everything would be achievable with 5G then that would be it, but I doubt that will be the case. It’s clear that the requirements for telecommunications will only grow if we consider that we will live in highly technologically autonomous societies.”

5G will not change the world, but we need 5G for the world to change

The Finnish telecom giant Nokia is one of the leading companies in the industry with the power to shape the conversation–not to mention standards–around current and future technologies. Which is why it is only natural that the company is taking part in 6G research that’s spearheaded in Oulu.

“We are very happy to see that Finland has taken on 6G research in such a brave manner. These are not matters that can be completed in just a couple of years. The generations of cellular networking require years-long arcs of research. This project means also that Finland wants to maintain its tradition of dedicated, world-class research in mobile technology,” says research director Lauri Oksanen from Nokia Bell Labs.

Lauri Oksanen, Nokia Bell Labs

According to Oksanen, there are also major advantages for Finnish companies in having 6G research in Finland.

“6GFlagship is a great opportunity to see where the cutting edge of research is at any given moment. There are huge benefits to having the research be in Finland. Nokia has traditionally had great collaboration with Finnish universities and this is a continuation of it. We do a considerable amount of research in Finland, and in Oulu. Things are just simpler in physical proximity,” Oksanen says.

What does Nokia expect, then, from 6GFlagship and in 6G in general? As far as the sixth generation goes, Oksanen says the question is kind of tricky.

“We have really tried to go all out with 5G. If 5G happened and we realized that there is an immediate need for a sixth generation, we would have made some serious blunders in designing 5G,” Oksanen laughs.

Giving it serious thought, Oksanen says 6G research is going to start by thinking how 5G can be refined and improved.

“We don’t expect major innovations or the actual sixth generation to take shape immediately. Having said that, there is every reason to expect that 6GFlagship will provide ideas and research that the industry can build on and contribute to. And standardization will be a big part of it: will traditional standardization work with 6G? Or will we need a new approach? This research will likely offer a perspective to that, as well.”

The world is on the cusp of having 5G and it will surely change how we live our lives. 6G will undoubtedly bring even bigger change, although exactly what kind of change, is still unknown. Still, you can make guesses based on what we currently know and expect from 5G.

“5G alone will not change the world, but we need 5G for the world to change. We need the physical world to merge with the digital world. Cars, traffic, tools, buses, trains, industrial processes, communication, they all need efficiency. We are going to get massive amounts of data from the world and we will need to be able to handle it and analyze it,” Oksanen explains.

As Oksanen sees it, the big three components of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution are 5G, cloud computing and machine learning.

“And from there we can start to take on the big problems of the world, like climate change, or how to feed a growing population through more efficient farming, or how to manage traffic more efficiently. We will see major changes in five years as these technologies evolve,” Oksanen predicts.

6GFlagship is a peek into the future

Oulu-based Bittium, a specialist in secure communications and connectivity solutions, has a keen interest in next-generation cellular technology. Out of all its collaborative R&D efforts, the company has allocated roughly 20% to 5G technologies in 2018, and senior manager, D.Sc. Taavi Hirvonen, expects this portion to grow as 5G enters deployment and the consumer market, which is projected to happen during 2019.

“It would stand to reason, yes. Of course, 5G research and development has been going on for several years but there’s still plenty of work to be done as 5G is still far from ready,” Hirvonen says.

Taavi Hirvonen, Bittium Ltd.

In this context, it would seem a little strange to start actively considering 6G, which may be some dozen years in the future. On the contrary, says Hirvonen: This is the perfect time to start envisioning what possibilities lie in 6G.

“6GFlagship is a wonderful opportunity for us to take a look into the future with university researchers. We expect to see many innovations bubble up in research which we can then apply or refine in our own development. This is also a great opportunity for large corporations, smaller companies and research centers to come together to shape the conversation about 6G. You need the big players who are driving major efforts such as standardization, and also the smaller, agile innovators who focus on specific aspects of the technology,” Hirvonen muses.

As far as Bittium–a company of some 650 employees and solutions ranging from tactical communications to public safety solutions, healthcare technology to wearable solutions–is concerned, many things in 6G will most likely be a continuation of 5G.

“What we are interested in is adaptivity, cognitivity and resiliency. Cyber security will obviously be an enormous part of any future developments. At the same time, artificial intelligence and machine learning will enable features we are not able to predict yet. But in five years’ time, we will be a lot smarter in that regard,” Hirvonen says.

When asked what technologies of the future Hirvonen would like to see realized with 6G, his answer is clear: “Truly cognitive radio. This has been talked about for some 20 years. The current solutions are not genuinely ‘intelligent’ in the purest sense. Actual cognitive radio networking which adapts intelligently to any radio environment is something that there is a real need for in tactical communications,” Hirvonen explains.

Many questions lie ahead of us. What is 5G going to enable? How will the next phase of connectivity change our lives? And what looms further? The answers to these questions will unfold with time, but if you want a vantage point into the future right now, there’s no better place for it than 6GFlagship.

6GFlagshipPhotos: Mikko Törmänen
Text: Janne-Pekka Manninen

Last updated: 21.11.2018