Can UK universities compete in the 6G research big league?
The UK certainly has a large number of Universities with reputations for very high-quality wireless research. But does enough substance sit behind these great brands that would be relevant to 6G? That is the question the UK Spectrum Policy Forum set out to answer earlier this year. It was a pioneering initiative, and this article sets out how we did it and what we found.
At the start of 2021 the UK Spectrum Policy Forum, with the support of DCMS, recast the responsibilities of its Cluster activities so Cluster 2 would be the place where everyone could think long term about spectrum policy. 6G happened along at the perfect time to motivate building a bridge between the research community and spectrum policy makers in launching the new Cluster 2 activity. DCMS agreed the terms of reference for a 6G wireless research initiative that was also to explore 6G spectrum policy implications.
A data base search was carried out on current EPSRC grants for research likely to be relevant to 6G as delineated by five national policy goals that DCMS agreed were suitable for the purpose of this initiative:
- Widespread coverage
- Innovation in spectrum management
- Economic viability
- Alignment with the government’s net zero targets.
- Seamless connectivity
Figure 1 shows the spread of active EPSRC grants in these potential 6G relevant areas:
The reason for the data base search was to identify three Universities to approach to host three showcasing workshops. (Three was a pragmatic number to handle.) The results made it possible to identify two leading contenders, Bristol, and Surrey, and the third was a toss-up between two more. Strathclyde emerged as the preferred choice because of its exceptional work on TV White Space.
It was obvious from figure 1 that presenting the research from just the three selected Universities was not sufficient. So, a rule was agreed with them that at least 50% of the projects presented should be from other Universities. Also, the workshops had to be open to all and free of charge. The University of Bristol set the bar very high with the first of the workshops in May and that was matched by Surrey and Strathclyde in July and September respectively. As showcasing events, they were stunning successes, with over 800 registrations and a flow of people coming and going over the days to watch things of interest to them from the 53 research projects coming from 25 universities. Comments on the depth and quality of presentations were uniformly positive.
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DCMS wanted to see a credible due diligence on the industrial usefulness of the research presented. They suggested a panel of experts to do this. Then came the tricky question – how to separate industrial relevance from academic excellence? The solution we came up with was a bottom-up evaluation on a three-point scale of extraordinary, significant, and useful. These descriptors were likened to the reading on an imaginary “impact meter” measuring a projects potential impact on the goal it was addressing. The results are shown in table 1.
Table 1 – Evaluation of the potential impact of current research on the five 6G goals
What was “extraordinary” was that the methodology worked exceptionally well. Table 2 shows how the current projects were splitting between the goals.
Table 2 – The split of projects between the five goals
One of the surprises for many people is to have found so much relevant research and momentum across such a large number of Universities. Having research spread across 25 Universities allows the best talent to contribute irrespective of where it is located, but it also suffers from a lack of critical mass and much of the research being invisible to those that might want to exploit it.
The UK can do better than this.
It is the only really significant “gap” in the UK’s current 6G research capability the initiative has uncovered. It is one the UK has the time to get right if the government galvanises action now.
This has been due diligence at its very best. There is no doubting, through the very openness of the initiative, a credible kite mark of excellence has now been stamped on UK universities’ 6G research. It has also exposed a shortcoming of a lack of collaboration between universities working on similar research projects. The initiative will probably be best remembered for the just-in-time nudge it has given the University establishment, EPSRC and the government to move speedily to get in place a high performing research collaboration model. With that in place, the UK Universities working more closely together, will be more than able to compete in the 6G research big league.
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Prof Stephen Temple CBE is Chair of Cluster 2 (long term spectrum strategy) of the Spectrum Policy Forum, a member of the IET Communications Policy Committee, visiting professor to the University of Surrey 5G>>6GIC and technical secretary to its Strategy Advisory Board