Let’s Have No More Gees!
With work on 6G already starting the debate questioned whether this was appropriate or whether we should seek an alternative path to improvements and updates in our cellular technology.
Before the debate an audience poll showed that 63% believed there should be no further generations. Stephen Howard, Partner at Communications Chambers and Phil Sheppard, Director & Principal Consultant, Clear Technology, proposed the motion. Speaking against was Rahim Tafazolli, Regius Professor of Electronic Engineering, University of Surrey and Adrian Scrase, CTO, ETSI. I was in the chair.
Fundamentally the debate came down to who was driving 6G and what their motivation was. Stephen summed it up by asking whether those driving 6G had the interests of the end users – the consumers – in mind, or whether they were motivated by other goals. Clearly, the greater the disconnect from end-user requirements the greater the risk of designing a system that was not beneficial to us all and less likely to be commercially successful.
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During the debate the various interested parties were identified as:
Academics: Academics played a key role in 5G and have a strong interest in new generations as a vehicle for undertaking leading-edge research and for gaining funding for this work. Rahim set out a vision for 6G which was futuristic and stretching but had much overlap with what had been promised for 5G (but not yet delivered). But the motion’s proposers doubted whether these applications were sufficiently credible in that it was unclear there was a demand for them or the ability to deploy them profitably. All conceded though, that end-users may not know what services they would find valuable in the future.
Politicians: Politicians love cellular generations. While much of their interest may be well-intentioned it does them no harm to be associated with leading edge technology. Cellular is also becoming part of the battlefield in geo-politics with some countries increasingly wanting to dominate 5G and 6G for reasons not just of commercial prosperity but also national security. But political interventions are rarely evidence-based and market-friendly and may take cellular further away from delivering solutions that allow profitable deployment and operation. On the plus side, their involvement does tend to lead to funding for activities such as testbeds and trials which benefits the industry, although whether it benefits the end-user or the tax-payer is less clear.
Those seeking grant funding: These can be academics, as discussed above, but also manufacturers and other suppliers, engaging in projects such as EU funded Horizon-type activities. Adrian pointed out the huge funding available for 5G and 6G research, and this is generally to be welcomed, but it can lead to outcomes that are far from ideal. For example, there can be a tendency for those bidding for grants to offer projects that the bidders think will please the grant-making authorities rather than those that are most important or best suited to end-user needs. Sometimes this can result in many projects pursuing “fashionable” concepts such as blockchain or AI.
Operators: These are arguable one of the most interested parties as they will be procuring, deploying and operating the new technology and need to do so profitably. They have not had a good return on capital in the last decade and investors are increasingly sceptical that new technology is a good investment. At one point the debate touched on Internet of Things (IoT) as an example of the disconnect. IoT usage has been disappointing. Those researching 6G (and in the past 5G) broadly suggested that the solution was ever-better technology – “massive machine connectivity” in the parlance of 5G. But the issue appears to be more to do with organisational inertia in businesses that might use IoT, difficulty in integrating new technology and lack of critical mass – all of which might be made worse by introducing yet another technical solution. Instead, resolving the business problems is needed. The standards process does not appear to prioritise non-technical considerations. Phil, an ex-operator, also felt that the case just was not made for 6G, with 5G having huge flexibility for enhancement and with each new generation leading to obsolescence in existing devices such as the current issues with millions of smart meters in the UK that only worked on 2G and 3G networks.
The underlying concern was that 6G might be driven more by academics, politicians and through grants than by operators and consideration of the end users – as arguably 5G had been. And while that would deliver great research and well-funded national projects it might not deliver a solution that operators could deploy profitably.
Rather spoiling the debate, Adrian pointed out this was all irrelevant. The 6G train had left the station. There was so much international involvement in 6G that it was certain to happen. And there was so much history and institutional process that major change was near-impossible.
We took another vote anyway. At the end of the debate the number of those who thought we should have no more gees had grown from 63% to 71%.
What to do? Adrian was almost certainly right, 6G is inevitable. But perhaps this was really less about whether generations are a good thing and more about who should be in the driving seat of deciding what the next generation is. To return to Stephen’s point, surely a process that had the end-user interests strongly at heart would be a better one?
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William is CTO at Access Partnership. He was one of the founding directors of Neul, a company developing machine-to-machine technologies and networks, which was formed at the start of 2011 and subsequently sold to Huawei and became CEO of the Weightless SIG, a body standardizing IoT technology. Prior to this William was a Director at Ofcom where he managed a team providing technical advice and performing research. He has worked for a range of communications consultancies and spent three years providing strategic management across Motorola’s entire communications portfolio, based in Chicago. He was IET President 2014-2015.
William has published 17 books, 100 papers, and 18 patents. He is a Visiting Professor at Southampton University, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the IEEE and the IET. He has been awarded multiple honorary doctorates by the UK’s leading universities and in 2018 was awarded the IET’s prestigious Mountbatten Medal for technology entrepreneurship.