And… It’s a 6G!
Imagine downloading 100 favourite movies in a minute. Or futuristic smart phones where touchscreen typing is replaced by gestures and voice controls. If these scenarios don’t leave you a tad dazed, picture an electronic watchdog playing home guard, alerting about trespassers as you step out for a morning walk.
These are just a smattering of cool use cases that will ride on 6G, or sixth-generation, networks once this super-high-speed wireless broadband technology becomes ready for commercial deployment in India, which is expected to be around 2030.
6G is slated to pave the way for fast broadband networks powered by artificial intelligence, allowing automated infrastructure optimisation. With data speeds potentially hitting 100 Gbps, it is estimated to be almost 100 times faster than 5G mobile broadband. 6G also promises improvements in network connectivity over 5G. Typical 5G use cases such as smart cities, smart factories, smart farms and robotics are slated to hit the next level in terms of efficiency.
Experts say 6G will support all sorts of spectrum bands, including the higher terahertz frequencies, and use smarter antenna systems. Better handling of network interference and improved machine learning skills, in turn, are likely to propel 6G’s blistering speeds and low latency levels of 1 microsecond vs 1 millisecond in 5G.
INDIA’S 6G AMBITION Earlier this year, India kicked off its 6G act when Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a holistic Bharat 6G vision document. It says the country has the wherewithal to drive the 6G wave globally and leverage this powerful force multiplier to transform itself into a leading global supplier of advanced, relevant and affordable telecom systems and solutions.
More recently, India pulled off a coup of sorts on the 6G global stage, when the Geneva-based International Telecom Union (ITU) backed the country’s call for ubiquitous coverage/connectivity with 6G. Simply put, it means once the technology arrives in about seven years, network deployments won’t cost a bomb, promising affordable 6G fast broadband connectivity for the masses in data-hungry markets like India, including in rural, remote and sparsely populated regions.
The ITU is a UN body that oversees telecom standards development worldwide. It is also the global agency managing spectrum and satellite orbit resources.
“ITU’s decision to accept India’s call for ubiquitous 6G coverage, and the successful integration of 6G ubiquitous connectivity into the IMT2030 (or 6G) framework is in alignment with the PM’s vision of implementing 6G in an affordable and sustainable manner,” said SP Kochhar, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents India’s private telecom operators, Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea.
ITU’s acceptance also underlines global recognition of India’s 6G vision, positioning the country as an active participant in the evolution of the technology and formulation of international standards, he added. “It is expected that India further supports the evaluation and final approval of the IMT-2030 Radio Interface Technology, according to the IMT (International Mobile Telecommunications) process,” said an ITU spokesperson, in a written response to ET’s queries.
The ITU, though, feels the development of 6G may be different in various regions of the world, even though the global agency has planned a timeline for final approval by 2030.
India’s 6G ambitions got a further impetus after it signed a pact with the US to drive high-end research in the field at the recently concluded G20 Summit. Industry executives expect the memorandum of understanding between Bharat 6G and the US-based Next G Alliance to help India establish a robust 6G intellectual property (IP) framework that can increase the country’s influence in the global 6G standardisation process.
Sector hotshots expect the IndoUS 6G partnership to help boost the creation of 6G patents from India, especially since the country has set a national target of achieving 10 per cent of global 6G patents.
STANDARDISATION TIMELINE Experts at US chipmaker Qualcomm, which is at the forefront of the global 6G action, expect all specification work around 6G standards to start by 2025. This is likely to focus on 6G use cases and ways to address (network) architectural evolution and migration. Subsequently, the first 6G standard is slated for completion and ratification by 2028 to support targeted 6G commercial launches by early-2030. The 3GPP, the global standards body that establishes each generation of mobile technology, will be closely involved in the 6G standardisation exercise.
Separately, ITU’s World Radio Communications-2023 conference in Dubai next month will identify new spectrum bands from 7-to-24 GHz to meet future needs of 5G and, eventually, 6G. The outcome of the conference will determine if a chunk of airwaves in the higher subterahertz band will also be available for 6G services worldwide. Advanced research outcomes, though, will determine whether 6G standards eventually develop support for the sub-THz/THz bands.
LOCAL 6G ACTION India, with at least 127 patents acquired globally, is already a major contributor in 6G technology development. The country’s natural proficiency in softwarebased configurations, powered by AI, machine learning, deep learning and algorithms are seen as a natural fit, given 6G’s leanings on intelligent software technologies.
So, even as India’s top telcos are busy expanding their 5G networks, the buzz around 6G is getting louder by the day. For instance, Jio Platforms, which houses Reliance Industries’s telecom and digital properties, has already partnered with Finland’s University of Oulu to participate in 6G-related research and standardisation activity. Jio is investing in the initiative through its research unit, Jio Estonia.
Qualcomm is hopeful that 6G services will land in India virtually in sync with the targeted 2030 global launch timelines.
“A cost sensitive market like India, typically, waits for a new technology to mature, so that devices and network gear become commoditised, but since a lot of local manufacturing is now happening in India, it could lead to an early deployment,” a top executive at the San Diego-based chipmaker told ET.
Qualcomm is collaborating with operators and companies to develop 6G technology that addresses use cases for India, he added.
Nokia too has established a 6G lab at its R&D centre in Bengaluru that aims to position India as a key global contributor to the design, development and implementation of 6G technology. “Nokia’s lab will be a platform for future collaboration for industry and academic stakeholders on 6G and will facilitate the testing of new solutions while establishing their potential for commercialisation,” the Finnish telecom equipment maker said in a statement. Nokia’s new 6G lab includes a setup to do research on ‘network as a sensor’ technology that enables the network to sense objects, people and movement without the need for on-board sensors. This is since a key objective of 6G and is bringing the digital and physical worlds together, the company said.
Last month, Sweden’s Ericsson has partnered with IIT Madras’s Centre for Responsible AI (CeRAI) to undertake joint research in responsible AI, especially since 6G networks will be autonomously driven by AI algorithms. “Our partnership with CeRAI at IIT Madras is aligned with the Indian government’s vision for the Bharat 6G program,” Magnus Frodigh,globalre search head at Ericsson, had said.
POTENTIAL DETERRENTS India’s 6G ride, though, is scarcely expected to be a smooth one. This is since the ongoing slugfest between telecom and tech companies over the allocation mechanism for the coveted 6 GHz spectrum band is all set to erupt on the 6G stage.
Telecom operators want the 6 GHz band to be auctioned and used for 5G services now, and 6G in future, while tech companies want it delicensed to boost in-building coverage and ring in affordable broadband services across rural India via WiFi.
“Allocation of the 6 GHz spectrum band is crucial for development of both 5G and 6G in India…licensed use of this band could expedite 5G and 6G deployments, fostering economic growth and digital inclusion,” COAI’s Kochhar said.
The Broadband India Forum (BIF), which counts Google, Amazon, Meta, Microsoft, Cisco and Intel among its members, counters this view, saying indoor connectivity challenges will only get bigger with the advent of 6G, which would entail quality WiFi technologies offering complementary support to mobile broadband networks.
“To future-proof in-building connectivity in a 6G scenario, one would need access to cutting-edge WiFi-6E and WiFi-7 technologies, which entails delicensing the 6 GHz band, something that has already been recommended by the 6G Spectrum Task Force as a part of the Bharat 6G Vision document,” said BIF president TV Ramachandran.
Reliance Jio, in turn, has flagged challenges around aggregating disparate technologies such as satcoms, broadcast to Internet of Things for ubiquitous 6G connectivity. Satish Jamadagni, Jio’s head for global standards and technology development, reportedly feels standardisation bodies need to scale up to address some of these challenges as ubiquitous connectivity will force them to rethink the way network architectures are designed and developed, going forward.
Another likely deterrent to India’s 6G ambitions is the lack of adequate fibre connectivity. With less than 30 per cent of the country’s telecom towers now linked by fibre, the networks are ill equipped to support 6G data speeds, say industry executives.
“Hundred per cent fiberisation of towers is absolutely essential for 6G to be successfully operationalised in India,” said BIF’s Ramachandran.
By Kalyan Parbat