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Senior MPs back calls for a new approach to '6G’ technology

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The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)

5 min read Partner content

MPs have welcomed calls from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) for a new approach to mobile digital technology which prioritises societal benefits over a focus on “ever higher data speed”.

In a new report, the IET say the traditional approach to developing next generation mobile technology, based on a model seeking “ever higher data and ever higher spectrum bands”, has become unsustainable and is in urgent need of change.

When it comes to the next generation of mobile technology – dubbed 6G – the focus should instead be on tackling “societal challenges such as sustainable economic growth, pandemics and climate change,” says the report.

“The traditional focus on ever higher data speeds for a new mobile generation is no longer sustainable. A new approach is needed that positions 6G innovation as an opportunity to break out of this unsustainable business model,” the IET say in their 6G for Policy Makers report.

“The majority of the value that next generation mobile broadband networks offer society and the economy lies in the applications and services they support. Instead of starting by setting arbitrary 6G technology goals like data speeds, we should begin by identifying where the value is likely to be over the next 20 years.”

The IET say that 6G – which is expected to be rolled out in the 2030s – must be “outcome-led, rather than predominantly technology-led". “Globally, we’re all changing how we work, stay safe and play in response to societal challenges such as pandemic control, climate change and sustainable economic growth,” the report says. “6G infrastructure challenges need to be shaped by identifying what digital and communications networks must be capable of to meet these challenges.”

Chi Onwurah said the IET, of which she is a fellow, was “quite right” in calling for active government engagement in the development of 6G technology.

To this end, the IET say 6G needs “an adequate pre-standardisation research phase… guided towards building a consensus on the most promising lines of research”. “6G should be the catalyst to bring everything that needs to be modernised at the same time.”

The Minister for Digital Infrastructure, Matt Warman, welcomed the report, noting that it highlighted the “huge potential” for the next generation of mobile technology.

“The government is working to place the country at the forefront of next generation networks to maximise the benefits for our future economy and level up,” said Mr Warman.

“This includes investing in research and development and leveraging the strengths of UK industry and academia.”

The report calls for the government to perceive 6G as the “framework” from which to hang long-term goals tied to national infrastructure plans, but says achieving this would require greater industry engagement from the outset.

This, it continues, would shape the conditions for “sustainable, long-term research”, which would lead to new investments in national infrastructure.

“A successful 6G mobile infrastructure will need a supportive 6G spectrum policy, this especially needs to drive far more effective use of bands below 6GHz that are particularly suitable for wide area coverage,” it adds.

“The competitive market and industry will look vastly different 10 to 15 years from now. The most impactful benefit of 6G will come from regulation and technology developing in sync.”

Shadow Minister for Science, Research & Digital Chi Onwurah said the IET, of which she is a fellow, was “quite right” in calling for active government engagement in the development of 6G technology.

A former head of telecoms technology at Ofcom, Ms Onwurah agreed that ever increasing data speeds and higher spectrum bands are no longer sustainable.

“Government should not be blinded by whiz-bang technologies, much as I love them, but focus on coverage and delivering broadband for all,” she said.

“I believe Government, and the industry bodies, need to consider how to engage people in that debate, and reflect on why it is that no G, with the possible exception of 2G, has really delivered on digital inclusion, and why rural communities continue are left behind.”

“6G, whatever it is, should also have competition built in as well as addressing social obligations, as the IET says.”

One candidate for 6G identified by the report is the “Internet of Senses”, described as a fusion of the physical, digital, and non-physical worlds; in effect moving user engagement away from screens and into a multi-sensory experience.

Former Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee, Stephen Metcalfe, welcomed both the report and its ambition, noting 6G would “better connect an increasingly small world”.

He added: “Engaging with industry at an early stage and identifying promising technology prior to drawing up standards is a bold suggestion that can help ensure 6G is the best it can be. I hope the government will consider its contents and respond accordingly.”

Stephen Timms, a member of the All-Party Group on Broadband and Digital Communication, said 6G presents the UK with an opportunity to build the future generation of communications. 

“The past year has given us all a new understanding of the power and benefits of telecommunications,” added Mr Timms. “Now we can build on UK expertise to make the most of the opportunities of the next generation of technology, both commercial opportunities in developing and building it, and universal opportunities in using it.”

However, the report says the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards body needs modernising to meet the challenges associated with developing new technology.

It adds: “The General Assembly of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute should be encouraged to initiate some early thinking on what reforms may be needed to global standardisation, so that 6G builds upon current excellence.”

Ms Onwurah warned that the UK government had “stepped back” when it came to playing a part. “This has left it to vendors and countries more focused on geopolitical priorities, such as China for example,” she added.

Click here to read the IET’s full report.

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