It’s been only a few months since the formal launch of 5G services, but India has already committed resources to 6G with the release of a vision document and the launch of a 6G test bed. India obviously aims to play a critical role in developing standards and generating intellectual property for 6G, which will probably not roll out before 2030.
The current state-of-the-art 5G is magnitudes faster than 4G. As such, 5G enables real-time applications and use cases, which were inconceivable with 4G. The promise of 6G is that it will be 100x faster than 5G and that would enable futuristic, barely imaginable applications. 6G is envisioned to offer disaggregated, virtualised and scalable networks with granular functionality to enable application-specific processing. It is being seen as a platform to enable the convergence of the physical and virtual worlds.
According to Union Minister of Communications, Electronics and Information Technology and Railways Ashwini Vaishnaw, India already possesses 127 patents related to the future network. That would be a critical step forward from being just a large market, since history shows that patents for 3G, 4G, 5G, etc. have been worth billions. Apart from India, countries such as Finland, Japan, South Korea, China and the US have started facilitating R&D into 6G.
It is anticipated that global standards organisations such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will be releasing the IMT-2030 document for 6G in 2030. Other standards organisations such as 3GPP and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and regional standards bodies of Korea, Japan, India, etc. are trying to develop their own standards. The industry consensus is, expect Phase I of standardisation to start from 2025, leading to the first 6G specification to be ready by the 3GPP Release 21 in 2028 and commercial deployments around 2030.
The Telecommunications Standards Development Society, India (TSDSI) is a sector member of the ITU. TSDSI, alongside six other bodies, is also an organisational partner of the global 3GPP project, wherein specifications for 3G, 4G and 5G were developed. TSDSI played a key role in defining 5G standards, with the 5Gi standard from India recognised as one of the three radio interface technologies for 5G. TSDSI pushed through the Low Mobility Large Cell (LMLC) configuration as a mandatory requirement to cater to the use case of providing coverage in rural and remote areas to people moving at “low speeds” through “large cells”. This standard has been merged into the global 3GPP Release 17 specifications, paving the way for global adoption. TSDSI should be able to leverage this experience to navigate the global standards development ecosystem when it comes to 6G.
By getting into the 6G game at the inception, India could be a major influencer. Through active involvement in 6G R&D, it can generate serious intellectual property and help develop industry standards in terms of technology, spectrum usage norms and use cases.
Nature of 6G networks
Future 6G networks will have to provide intelligence, limitless connectivity and complete synchronisation between the physical and the virtual worlds. A foundational feature for 6G will be “sensing” – a new channel to observe, sample and link the physical to cyberspace. Digital twins – virtual models that very accurately reflect real physical objects – will be a key feature of the 6G landscape.
New use cases and applications will not only connect humans with machines and machines to machines, but also connect humans with the digital world. Networks, assets, processes and systems will come together at scale and holographic telepresence will become a new norm for both work and social interactions. Dynamic digital twins with accurate, synchronous updates of the physical world will be an essential platform for augmenting human intelligence.
At the same time, 6G will have to meet the demand for traditional communication requirements as well as key performance indicators (KPIs) for new capabilities. 6G networks are expected to feature the following types of KPI associated services:
- Ubiquitous mobile ultra-broadband (uMUB)
- Ultra-high-speed low-latency communications (uHSLLC)
- Massive machine-type communication (mMTC)
- Ultra-high data density (uHDD)
Given sustainability concerns, there will also be a heightened focus on energy consumption and energy saving with independent, vendor-agnostic testing and validation.
Broad market trends
There are some broad market trends leading the way for 6G research. These include the following:
- Core technology advancements: Key technology advancements include advanced radio frequency (RF), compute topology, machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI), extreme disaggregation, multimedia/display, perception/human interface and power management.
- Environmental and societal sustainability: The wireless ecosystem must fuel sustained global growth while systems must be designed to minimise environmental impact. Another key driver is the need to promote digital equality.
- Enhanced new experiences: The emergence of next-generation experiences through fixed and mobile broadband will also propel demand for 6G. For example, the rising adoption of the metaverse will augment physical experiences, creating immersivity.
Satellites will have to play a very large role in 6G, which will need to rely on combining multiple communication technologies for its use cases to be meaningful 24×7. 6G networks will have to link sensors everywhere to create an “internet of everything”. Satellites offer ubiquity, continuity, scalability and resilience as well as high levels of security. Therefore, they would play a critical role in this process of always-on, very high speed data transfers that will be integral to 6G. Telecom service providers are already using satellites to increase geographical footprints, uptime, etc. If 6G is to deliver, satellites will be essential.
The next wave of innovations – be it AI/ ML, software-defined network (SDN)/ network function virtualisation (NFV), edge, cloud or open initiatives – will be driven by a software and modular approach. India’s prowess in the software and a deep technology start-up ecosystem along with the establishment of R&D centres of global giants in the country are other strengths.
As a convention, each generation of mobile technologies takes a decade from the concept to becoming available commercially. Research and pre-standards work on 6G began in the early 2020s with the founding of projects/forums in various regions – notably the 6G Flagship (University of Oulu, Finland), HEXA-X, and NEXT G Alliance. The ITU has taken up work on defining the Vision of IMT 2030 (6G). There is a strong appreciation of the need for fostering consensus, collaboration and global harmonisation in standards development.
In this context, there is confidence that the Indian industry, start-ups, academia, R&D and policymaking bodies can come together to play a leading role in 6G.
The promise of 6G is that it will be 100x faster than 5G, enabling futuristic, barely imaginable applications. It will enable the convergence of the physical and virtual worlds, and offer disaggregated, virtualised and scalable networks with granular functionality.
Six task forces
The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has constituted a Technology Innovation Group on 6G (TIG-6G) with six task forces to develop the vision, mission and goals for 6G. The task force on international standards contribution is chaired by N.G. Subramaniam, chair, TSDSI. TSDSI initiated work on 6G with a workshop in early 2020 and has recently published a technical report, “6G: Use Cases, Requirements and Enabling Technologies”.
India’s Telecom Standardisation Roadmap 2030 is being developed jointly by government agencies and stakeholders from the telecom ecosystem. Technologies spanning physical, networks and applications are being positioned around eight pillars that emphasise sustainability, ubiquitous connectivity, data-driven society, and trust-security-resilience, among others. Technology trends and the roadmaps of global standards development organisations are being studied and mapped to the National Priorities specified by the Ministry of Communications and the Indian National Standardisation Strategy.
Experts from DoT, TSDSI and the industry have leadership positions on global standards forums, including the ITU and 3GPP. The Digital Communication Innovation Square (DCIS) and the Telecom Technology Development Fund (TTDF) schemes have been launched by the government to promote research and innovation with a standardisation potential.
The task forces are entrusted with the responsibility of mapping 6G activities and capabilities worldwide, coming out with a white paper on India’s competencies, developing a roadmap for R&D, pre-standardisation, developing applications and products, and creating action plans for 6G technology.
Among telecom operators, in Reliance Jio’s Estonia unit, Jio Estonia and the University of Oulu have entered into an agreement to collaborate on the development of 6G technology. This is expected to extend Jio’s 5G capabilities and help explore 6G use cases.
As new use cases, products and innovative solutions emerge, one key aspect is the shortage of spectrum, which may be a barrier. In November 2022, DoT announced that it plans to seek the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) views on opening up spectrum in the 95 GHz-3 THz frequency range, to be used for experimental purposes to develop products and solutions based on 6G technology. The spectrum is likely to be allocated for a 10-year term. As per DoT, the move may allow academic institutions, research organisations and the industry to obtain radio waves and undertake studies with a pre-standardisation process. This would enable them to develop products and solutions converging satellite and terrestrial networks.
DoT reportedly plans to vacate more spectrum in the mid-band, worth over Rs 1 trillion, from incumbent broadcasting or satellite users in the next three years and auction it for 5G and 6G. According to sources, the department wants to shift incumbent users, predominantly broadcasting firms, from the 3670-4000 MHz band to the 4000-4200 MHz band.
DoT believes that telcos will require more frequency in the mid-band once 5G gains traction and later for 6G. Many countries, including the US, have already allocated spectrum till 4200 MHz for 5G. Also, the department recently rejected the recommendations of TRAI to reserve 40 MHz in the 3700-3800 MHz band for captive networks as the entire mid-band from 3300-4000 MHz is best suited for 5G services.
Millimetre wave (mmWave) is also utilised for 5G, and DoT wants these airwaves to be allocated through auctions as well. The department has decided against reserving any spectrum in the mmWave band (28.5 GHz-29.5 GHz) for private networks or for satellite players.
Infrastructure requirements of 6G
Nobody is certain about what 6G will require in terms of physical infrastructure. There is little clarity on how exactly devices will need to be reconfigured. For instance, 6G is likely to allow object tracking with highly accurate sensors and enable accurate visual and voice recognition. Existing mobile devices may not be adequate to host the cutting-edge features that 6G would offer. This could lead to a complete overhaul of the handset industry alongside the roll-out of 6G.
Rural areas and remote industries such as rail, offshore drilling and broad mining will benefit from the enhanced connectivity of 6G. In addition, the network’s ultra-low latency will further accelerate high speed finance. However, these and other 6G benefits will come at a cost, as the technology will be far more expensive than its predecessors. Given this, adoption disparities can be expected.
Apart from this, data analytics is set to grow extensively with the coming in of 6G. 6G will also enable faster sampling rates. Furthermore, 6G can enable the deployment of threat detection systems, drones, health monitoring, feature and facial recognition, and air quality measurements. This technology will also come in handy in the implementation of futuristic projects such as smart cities and autonomous vehicles.
By getting into the 6G game at the inception, India could be a major influencer, in addition to being one of the world’s largest markets. The positive externalities of the telecom industry are well known and the new use cases of 6G will enable a strong multiplier effect on the entire economy.