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19 July 2022

German 6G Lighthouse Project launches with Nokia at the helm 

Nokia is leading the German government-funded 6G-ANNA project, which is designed to focus on developments in end-to-end architecture as part of the country’s larger 6G Platform national initiative. 

This has relatively modest funding of €38.4m over the next three years, which looks like a seed corn project to raise consciousness at a time when operators are struggling to justify investments in 5G and persuade users that it is worth paying extra for, especially on the consumer side.  


With relatively nebulous objectives at this stage, Nokia is working with 29 partners under 6G-ANNA to focus on three key technology areas, according to the company – 6G access, automation or simplification, and the “network of networks”.  


Of these, only the first one, access, is specified at all clearly at this stage. Nokia talks about laying technical foundations for 5G-Advanced, which is designed, like LTE-Advanced before it, to establish the groundwork for the next generation, while maintaining backwards compatibility. 


Peter Merz, head of standards at Nokia, argued: “While the first 6G networks are not expected to be commercially available before 2030, we are already laying the technical foundation with 5G-Advanced, as well as long-term innovation that will drive 6G developments.” 


Nokia went on to state its belief that “6G will not only build on existing technologies and systems, but also expand and transform what a network can do. It will fuse the human, physical and digital worlds to liberate our innate human potential”. 


Herein lies the challenge in driving interest in 6G at this stage – the need to talk about changing the way people live instead of defining a technological leap forward as distinct as we had with the previous generations. 5G has crystallized gradually over the course of several 3GPP releases, starting with Non-Standalone (NSA) and then adding other capabilities such as 5G Standalone, improved energy efficiency, and support for non-terrestrial networks (see separate item). 


It will certainly be the same for 6G, with 3GPP Release 21, slated for 2028, likely to be the first of several releases that will usher in the new technology. Users on both the consumer and enterprise fronts will naturally be asking what the radical advances will be, akin to 5G’s liberation of vastly more spectrum, combined with the redesigned . 


5G brought greatly increased spectrum and support for carrier aggregation, which together enabled far higher bandwidths and enhanced capacity. Then enhancements in both the RAN and core cut down on avoidable latency through techniques such as scalable transmission slot duration, and slot aggregation, as well as differential QoS and eventually network slicing, to enable effective prioritization at the service and use case level. The other key factor was support for edge compute, taking signal delays almost out of the equation for applications or processes that can be executed locally without recourse to distant servers or data centers in the cloud. 


But additional spectrum in the millimeter wave bands will be recruited as 5G evolves further, as the GSMA outlines in its Vision 2030, focused squarely on 5G. The GSMA contends that by 2030, an average of 5 GHz of mmWave spectrum per market will be needed to satisfy demand for the use cases, especially enhanced mobile broadband, fixed wireless access and enterprise networks. Given this progressive up-ramp in spectrum it is hard to see how provisioning even more of it will justify calling in a new generation, even if some further efficiency improvements are thrown in. 


That leaves the edge and the core. It can be argued that 6G will register a significant improvement by incorporating edge compute natively in the RAN and core architecture, rather than being bolted on as it is with 5G networks at present.  


It will be in the core where 6G may have its strongest case for distinction. It is often said that 5G only comes of age in Standalone (SA) mode, anchored around the new core rather than the LTE evolved packet core (EPC). This is achieved by taking advantage of improvements in hardware performance and network design on top, with a microservices approach in which logic is implemented as small and modular components that can be tuned readily for high performance while imposing less resistance to change. Critical network functions can be more readily moved to the edge of the network, facilitating edge compute even if that is not formally integrated with the core.  


Another key step for 5G was a built-in network data analytics function (NWDAF) with software probes capable of improving with experience, as well as an integrated firewall to increase 5G network security.  


In 6G, the ambition is to exploit further improvements in hardware design and harness these with AI and machine learning capabilities as part of the core to boost performance automatically. Advocates talk of simplifying further the overall functional split across nodes beyond the 5G NR stack introduced under Release 15, defining the three logical nodes of centralized unit, (CU), distributed unit, (DU) and radio unit, (RU), each capable of hosting different functions of the overall 5G NR stack.  


There is also talk of an organic ability of the network to evolve and continuously adapt to changing communication conditions under a smooth software layer, with a recent IEEE paper defining an “organic-like evolving architecture” which it argues has the potential to greatly outperform the current 5G core network, making it a potential option for the 6G networks (DOI: 10.1109/ICIN53892.2022.9758088). 


The problem is that such architectures are just proposals and as yet untested, so the precise form of the 6G core is yet to emerge, never mind its capabilities. 


There is no doubt that mobile networks will continue to advance across all dimensions but it is not clear yet whether there will be another step change that the industry can truly present as a new generation. These advances will be enabled by continued expansion in storage, computation and network bandwidth, along with ability to harness that through AI algorithms, further streamlining of processes and fluid microservices. Future advances, like the proposed 6G core itself, are likely to be more organic than seismic.