Editor’s note: Tom Snyder, executive director of rapidly growing Raleigh-based RIoT and a thought leader in the emerging Internet of Things, is the newest columnist to join WRAL TechWire’s list of top drawer contributors. His “Datafication Nation” columns are part of WRAL TechWire’s Startup Monday package.
RALEIGH – In the last two weeks, I have discussed how 5G has not built market traction in the enterprise sector that was expected, and how 6G is at risk to follow the same path. You may want to read those pieces as context for today where I’ll suggest how 6G standards organizations, and the federal government might take a different approach.
The TLDR summary is that 5G made two mistakes. At the existing 4G frequencies, 5G upgrades created valuable efficiencies for cellular carriers, but no significant new applications for consumers. At new 5G millimeter wave frequencies, the carriers failed to recognize that the value proposition for devices that don’t move (or don’t move much) are entirely different compared to devices that move long distances. But carriers did not adjust their business model or market approach. There does not seem to be an industry-side-push to approach 6G differently.
A new approach, I believe, begins with a rethinking of spectrum policy at the federal government level. Today, the major cellular carriers (T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon) essentially each have a monopoly control of radio spectrum they have won through federal auctions. The US government has collected billions of dollars in licensing fees, in return for allowing limited competition in the market.
There is some practical sense for this approach, when you consider the lower frequency cellular bands. There are consumer and enterprise customer advantages to having a common carrier as a phone or radio-enabled device moves around the country. The days of complex roaming agreements are essentially gone in the US, and a limited number of US carriers makes global roaming agreements with international carriers simpler.
But the new spectrum that was created for 5G is a very high frequency “millimeter band”. High frequency signals only travel very short distances (hundreds of feet) and require high amounts of energy. These networks are only practical within individual buildings or extremely compact campus or downtown areas (similar to WiFi).
Carriers argue that there are benefits to having a single operator manage smaller private 5G high frequency deployments that are linked to the national 5G traditional cellular. But manufacturing, agriculture and other industries have been hesitant to sign on, not yet seeing the value of having an outside service provider in their network, charging a monthly fee, when their own IT teams would prefer to manage private networks themselves (again, similar to WiFi).
I believe there are two changes in mindset that the industry should consider, to make 6G transformational. Both relate to increasing competition and access for innovators.
First – the federal government should consider private licensing for some bands of high-frequency spectrum and offering others as unlicensed bands for experimentation. Factories or campuses should be able to privately license spectrum for use on their properties. Private licensing enables industry to continue independent and autonomous operation, and the ability to innovate within their own organizations. It also solves the “managed service provider” issue I described in my first article, creating a clear path for MSP’s to manage 6G networks analogous to the WiFi model.
The physics of high frequency wireless limit travel to very short distances and signals do not penetrate walls and obstructions easily, giving little risk of interference with neighboring properties. Germany has already made private licensing available for 5G with favorable market response and several other European nations have followed suit. The model is proven, but would be a shift in US policy.
There is little question that there is significantly more “use case” innovation in WiFi and LoRa and other unlicensed frequencies than we have seen in 5G. Entrepreneurs and startups need frequencies where they can prototype and launch highly experimental solutions to market without the burden of carrier service fees or red tape. But today’s unlicensed bands are 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. There are no unlicensed options at extremely high frequencies that could unlock new applications like holographic displays and immersive experiences.
To be fair, there is already discussion about spectrum sharing in 6G forums, and the White House announced a 2-year spectrum reallocation study project last week. Even the carriers understand that the days of pure monopoly control are probably coming to a close. But the focus of multiple operators sharing the same spectrum seems to be more related to how to maximize spectrum utilization (good for carrier-side profitability) and not for innovation and experimentation. There is no discussion about unlicensed sections of the 6G radio spectrum that I’m aware of.
Industry lobbyists counter that shared spectrum and a form of private licensing exists for a protocol called CBRS. CBRS sits in a favorable range for long-range, high bandwidth communications. These bands were auctioned to smaller operators on a “priority license” basis, such that multiple operators can share spectrum with higher licensees, getting priority access when network traffic becomes limiting. While there are CBRS deployments, that market has been slow to adopt, supporting the establishment’s argument that spectrum sharing is not beneficial or needed.
I disagree that this is a relevant argument – I’m not suggesting that the long-range communication components of the radio spectrum should be significantly changed as we consider 6G. Rather we focus on short-range use case innovation.
- WHAT IS 6G? Check out this explanation.
The second area for rethinking the 6G specification is to bring new voices to the table. It is clear that computational networks and communications networks are converging. Cloud computing is the networking of thousands of compute nodes in a data center to create a massive computer. The resources of that computer can be efficiently shared and managed with software.
With ultra-fast 5G and future 6G networks, there is increasing demand for Edge Computing. Putting additional computing power into every device is expensive. But networking many edge devices together, with ultra-fast, but short range wireless communications can make those devices begin to look like a traditional cloud data center. Software can be used to manage compute resources across the edge to enable cloud-like applications, but without transmission latency. This type of new platform capability could dramatically improve autonomous robots, drone applications and self-driving vehicles.
The problem is that the 6G specifications conversations are dominated by the major cellular carriers, the phone manufacturers and Qualcomm, the top semiconductor IP company globally. There is only token participation from the major semiconductor chip manufacturers or the traditional cloud and analytics providers.
Most new value across all industries today is coming from Artificial Intelligence. If the application of AI is where we will see the most innovation in the coming years, then 6G standards should be getting inputs from sector leaders like AWS, Google, SAS, Intel, Microsoft and NVIDIA.
I predict that the established voices will be reluctant to bring these other industries fully into the conversation. They don’t want the risk that Google or AWS decides to compete directly with them by offering their own 6G communications-compute network offering. There is precedent – Google has participated in spectrum auctions in the past but failed to outbid the established carriers. Big tech has the cash to win future auctions if they decide to go all-in.
Or we may see further consolidation if an AWS, for example, were to strategically partner with or acquire one of the traditional carriers to secure the lower frequency, nation-wide access while building out the new high frequency edge marketplace. Perhaps Apple will further verticalize, adding 6G services to their already strong position in phones, wearable devices and cloud data centers.
If 6G becomes a combined communication and edge computing standard, there is an opportunity to fully address use cases that have not been solved with what is available on the market today. But to truly create a merging of compute, storage and wireless networking means we should embrace competition from outside the traditional wireless industry, and from new market entrants. This starts with a new kind of 6G standard, that not only envisions protocol enhancements to more efficiently utilize spectrum – but also new sharing of spectrum and technical specification for integration of data storage and analytics.
If communication networks and edge cloud computation remain divided, we are likely to continue to have overly complex solutions with higher cost, higher energy consumption and slower market adoption.