It was a minefield that attendees of the first day of sessions at Brooklyn 5G Summit 2019 on Wednesday maneuvered through: The topic of whether the world's governmental policy makers have blown 5G wireless all out of proportion. Representatives of the world's three principal telecommunications equipment suppliers -- Huawei, Ericsson, and Nokia -- took the stage at NYU's Tandon School of Engineering, along with other stakeholders in the 5G global standard.
At issue: Have the expectations of both policy makers and wireless customers been raised so high that the development of "6G Wireless" -- until now merely a placeholder for future discussion -- actually begins now?
"This summit is about 5G, but it is also 'Year 0' of the 6G era," remarked Nokia President and CEO Rajeev Suri, without explaining whether that meant the clock had started or was on hold.
"There is some pretty reasonable concern that people are getting distracted by 6G, while 5G is still in its infancy," Suri continued during his keynote address. "Fair point. But at the same time, we should recognize that forward-looking research and potential technology components could be useful, not only for 6G but also for evolved 5G. And that is what Nokia Bell Labs is working on."
What's the rush?
The standards body globally recognized for defining the 5G portfolio of technologies is 3GPP, an organization of telecommunications stakeholders founded during the 3G era. Its members include, among other groups, service providers and equipment manufacturers. Though 3GPP is ultimately responsible for certifying 5G standards, it has actually published 15 complete versions of those standards, the latest of which was dubbed "5G" because its components can completely replace those specified by earlier versions. Release 16 of the 3GPP standards will also be 5G, and thus far, such is the plan for Release 17.
Under the precedent that 3GPP has set, a 6G standards portfolio would include components that may co-exist along 5G for a time, though are capable of replacing them completely. Here's the problem: This may not be what some members would prefer. Rather, especially as wireless technologies encompass broader ranges of business and consumer applications, they may consider it more practical for individual components to have their own lifecycles. Who knows, for example, whether standards for low-latency moving vehicle communications may become obsolete well before, say, the Millimeter Wave (mmWave) standard for fixed wireless access?
What's so wrong with 3GPP Release 15, asked panel moderator Dr. Robert Heath, that mandates stakeholders pick up the pace for Release 16?
"I don't think, fundamentally, there's anything wrong with Release 15," responded Peiying Zhu, senior director of wireless technology at Huawei. "In fact, we actually designed the standard in phased approaches. It's kind of planned in that way." Going forward, Zhu continued, she believed it would help the standard if more attention were paid to uplink speeds in throughput tests, not just downlink speeds.
One potential mode of evolution for mobile communications, remarked Dr. Arun Ghosh, director of AT&T's Advanced Wireless Technology Group, could be the actual phasing out of the cellular model. Base stations could, under a new and more dynamic model, serve more flexible and even fluctuating regions, perhaps even changing over time. Perhaps resilience could improve over a given region if more than one hub serviced it simultaneously.
"Multi-hub networks have existed for decades," said Dr. Ghosh. "They just have not been in play in the cellular network. . . And I do see this paradigm shift of going to such architecture, eventually evolving. Who knows, maybe in the future, your network infrastructure itself could be on a mobile platform? I think that's why some of the non-terrestrial options of delivering network, are very important. When we say 'non-terrestrial,' we always start to think about satellite, but that's not the only option; there are other options that could be much closer to the ground, that are perhaps much more interesting."
Tomorrow's backhaul today
The future AT&T's Ghosh brought forth could be a very different one than even 5G's earliest architects envisioned. Without all the cumbersome processing equipment tied to base stations, not only could they become lightweight, they could conceivably be mobile themselves. At the very least, transmitters blown out of commission during a wind storm could be replaced by teams of one or two workers in pickup trucks, in a matter of minutes. It sounds like the kind of future to which you could attach a "6G" banner.
But Huawei's Zhu reminded her colleagues, the basic technologies that would make such a situation feasible are already part of the 5G portfolio.
"I think what you put here is not really for 'Beyond 5G," said Zhu. "I think NFV [network functions virtualization], C-RAN [Cloud (China) Radio Access Network] -- they're happening already, in the product, right now. The issue with C-RAN is really, do you have reliable, fast backhaul? But I think in fact, mmWave can be used to enable C-RAN. It makes C-RAN easier. I think those will definitely happen in 5G; it's not going to be 'Beyond 5G.'"
"Backhaul," as Zhu referred to it, is the transfer of data and voice traffic that needs to take place on the back end, to make that content available through the transmitter by customers. Up until recently, engineers thought that countless thousands of miles of fiber optic pipes would need to be laid to enable the colossal amount of backhaul that 5G would require. Then more recently, some engineers suggested that mmWave -- a technology originally envisioned to replace wired broadband for gigabit speed Internet customers -- could be leveraged as an alternate backhaul mechanism, for when carving up the Earth to lay new pipes simply isn't practical.
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Zhu's implication here is that a simple reassignment of functionality in the 5G portfolio could lead to the future Ghosh outlined: One where a fixed fiber connection wouldn't be necessary for a transmitter and base station to go live.
But Zhu was also saying something deeper and much more critical to Huawei's future as a global competitor. Huawei has a deep stake in the intellectual property of 5G. Indeed, it is an original creator of many of its technologies and, along with China Mobile, co-created the C-RAN base station scheme that inspired 5G in the first place.
Huawei's deputy chairwoman remains under house arrest in Vancouver on a US warrant alleging her firm did business with Iran in violation of sanctions against that country. And just Wednesday, the UK government said it would limit Huawei's participation in its own 5G rollout to "non-core" elements of the network -- without really explaining what parts those are. By one interpretation, since Huawei is measurably responsible for core 5G technologies, it may only be able to participate in technologies in which it has no direct stake.
That ship may have sailed
The UK's decision is not quite in defiance of Germany, which earlier this month was given the green light to participate in its 5G rollout. This after a warning from the US weeks earlier that it could suspend its partnership in German intelligence partnerships, ended up being walked back.
Growing tensions between the countries that just happen to be 5G equipment providers' principal customers, especially with regard to what they still perceive as a "race to 5G" between themselves, has provoked some to consider whether it's time to set 6G goalposts -- especially for the US -- and aim for them.
"I think there's a lot that you can learn from being early in the process for a new generation of technology," remarked Chris Pearson, president of telco advocacy group 5G Americas. "In the North American market, we saw that 4G LTE, we were very early, we pushed it to the limit, I think. . .and it did serve the North American market very well. . . It is a long race, but you get a learning curve that'll help you in this long race."
That prompted a comment from Adrian Scrase, who heads the 3GPP partnership committee for parent organization ETSI, on what he called "this rush-to-be-first bit."
"Let's be fair. Presidents of countries are saying, 'My country's going to be the first to deploy.' The UK prime minister at the time, [David] Cameron, said the UK is going to be the first country in Europe to deploy 5G. (He's now an ex-prime minister, but that's for a different reason.) My point is, standardization takes time. It takes several years to write a generation of standards. When we set about this process in 2015, there were many, many operators saying, 'We don't need this right now. Please slow down the standardization process! We don't need 5G, because LTE's doing fine.' And yet when we started the three- or four-year program of writing these standards, during that process, there was this massive acceleration, and the political push that said, 'We want these standards right now! Why are you so slow, 3GPP? You need to speed up!'
"My point is," Scrase wrapped up, "standards historically are either too early or too late. It's very difficult to have standards that are perfectly on-time. It's even more difficult when the timeline keeps shifting forwards and backwards."
Scrase's assertions illustrated an apparent disconnect between the political and the technological proponents of 5G. A "6G" would be very convenient for countries wary of becoming perceived as lagging behind in 5G, perhaps for backing the wrong proverbial horses -- or trying to exclude the right ones. And the group with "3G" still in its name is still trying to dry the ink on the second version -- the second of maybe four, perhaps more — of today's idea of the future.