6G Headstart: India throws its hat into the ring

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.

By 2030, India will be the world’s lar­gest cellular market, in terms of users and data consumption and maybe even in val­ue. By being actively involved in 6G rese­arch and development (R&D), it could ge­nerate serious intellectual property and help develop industry standards in terms of technology, spectrum usage norms and use cases.

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.

India’s strengths

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.

Spectrum challenges

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.

Devangshu Datta