As one of the most visible early cheerleaders for private 5G and one of the first major enterprises to deploy it without participation of mobile operators, Germany’s Bosch has illuminating views on progress so far. It seems that after some disillusionment with capabilities of current 5G standards, many of the company’s concerns will be allayed by the forthcoming 5G Advanced in 3GPP Release 18, or even sooner with Releases 16 and 17 as they are implemented in chipsets and products.
These views were set out at the recent Brooklyn 6G Summit, where Andreas Mueller, head of communication and network technology in the Bosch corporate research department, suggested that his company would not have to wait for 6G to enjoy the full benefits of its private network. He did though indicate that many enterprises had been taken in by early hype which failed to make clear that 5G was a work in progress that would only deliver fully on its promise over time through successive 3GPP Releases, some of which are more substantial than others.
“There were inflated expectations, promises that 5G will be the holy grail for everything, and people expected, okay, we will have this from the very beginning,” said Mueller. “But of course that’s not the case, it takes a bit longer.”
The industry was now rising from that ‘trough of disillusionment’ and on its way towards the ‘plateau of productivity’, in Gartner terminology, Muller suggested. Missing from industrial 5G so far were the features underpinning critical applications in manufacturing such as control of real time processes, robots and unattended automated vehicles (UAVs), through support for time-sensitive networking (TSN) and ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC), as well as reduced capability (RedCap) IoT and high-precision positioning.
“All these features will provide a lot of value for the vertical industries, but we’re still missing this in the chipsets and the infrastructure,” Mueller confirmed.
Muller seemed to suggest that adequate support for these capabilities will come in with Releases 16 and 17, but in that case, he may end up a little disillusioned again, for features such as TSN will be arrive in stages with increasing capability, right through the era of 5G-Advanced, which is a major upgrade of 5G coming in with Releases 18 to 20. Nonetheless his essential point is sound, being that support for TSN and ultra-low latency does not automatically follow with deployment of 5G Standalone (SA) rooted in a dedicated 5G core but requires other enhancements as well.
It is true, though, that the demarcation between 5G and 5G-Advanced is somewhat diffuse and artificial, just as will be the transition from 5G to 6G if and when that happens. It is in fact Release 17 that will introduce the high-precision positioning at around 20cm accuracy that Bosch and others have been seeking for process control, robotics and UAV operation in the factory or warehouse.
Rel-17 will also bring further enhancements for latency reduction, so these advances between them will enable that more precise movement control in real time, either by a human operator or automated edge system, in cases where it is not feasible to have sufficient computational power on board the device.
Yet while Bosch may be satisfied with what is coming along it has not been happy with the process, or the communication from the standards bodies. This is a lesson the company has learnt when it comes to future innovations under the banner of 6G. In short, Bosch wants to avoid being swept along by a hype curve next time and be involved in the standards development from the outset. As 6G develops, Muller argued, interested verticals should be involved from the beginning and the technology should then be developed together.
“We really should have a strong focus on the return on investment from the very beginning and on the possible business cases so that we don’t just develop new, fancy features simply because we can do it and because it’s cool,” Mueller added. “More value doesn’t always mean more speed and lower latency. We have to see, do we really need sub-millimeter latencies, and if yes, for how many use cases do we need that?”
He envisaged 6G being a broader platform for services extending beyond the ambit of mobile operators or the 3GPP, embracing digital twinning and embedded AI. “With this, 6G turns from an infrastructure into a platform, and may natively support many things that we are currently doing over the top,” Mueller went on.
He then broadened the 6G discussion further into the societal dimension.” We should not forget the non-technical challenges, and we should look at these right from the beginning.”
He was alluding here partly to regulation, and allocation of spectrum, which are really already within the industry’s ambit. But he also meant societal-related challenges resulting from the advance in wireless capabilities and associated applications, in particular integration of intelligent sending into devices and services. That would amplify concerns over privacy and intrusion, as well as raising the question whether such capabilities came at too high a price in energy consumption.
This is all pointing towards 6G becoming a much broader church, encompassing not just different technological sectors such as edge compute, cloud and virtualization, but also implications of the advances in capabilities, all shaded by a drive for greater sustainability and energy efficiency.