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6 December 2021

India plots to leapfrog to 6G with locally developed technology

As India’s 5G deployment horizon keeps rolling back, the country’s communication minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has been floating the idea of accelerating development of indigenous 6G technologies and deploying them as soon as 2023 or early 2024, well ahead of other nations. This idea of leapfrogging a generation is hardly new and it was a former Indian communications minister Dayanidhi Maran who made almost a very similar suggestion about skipping 3G and moving straight to 4G, over 17 years ago in May 2004.

That minister was rather ahead of his time there, and it took another six years until 2010 for the regulator, TRAI, to publish a paper suggesting the country leap straight from 2G to 4G, having initially virtually skipped 1G to deploy 2G. To some extent that came to pass, and with India only now establishing widespread 4G coverage, the country is in a position to extend high speed broadband more widely than has been possible with the patchy fixed line coverage. As we have argued before, countries late to deploy 5G will not necessarily be at a disadvantage if they have solid 4G infrastructure, which will also serve as a launching pad towards future generations.

India does, then, have form in skipping mobile generations, having largely done so twice before. But the situation is rather different now because there is increasing overlap between the generations. Skipping 4G into 5G would have been less feasible for most countries because the former provides a foundation for the latter.

In the case of 6G the distinction will be rather more blurred in any case. It is true that 6G is associated with ‘terahertz’ frequencies above 100Gbps in the way that 5G has been linked to millimeter wave frequencies above 30 GHz. But there is an overlap, in that frequencies up to 300 GHz are by definition mmWave, since at that upper limit the wavelength is one millimeter. Furthermore, 5G has been defined in three frequency ranges, including the low band down to 600 MHz, along with other features to improve efficiency, reduce latency and increase device capacity. 4G was capped at 2.5 GHz., so was within a far more tightly bound frequency range.

There are no definitions of 6G specs as yet, and many are speculating that it will be an extension of 5G, particularly into higher frequency bands, rather than a radical departure. But the same points were made about 4G-to-5G but the industry’s interest is to push for a new architecture, and that may prove necessary anyway to boost performance significantly enough, across the four dimensions of speed, latency, device density and energy efficiency, to justify a new wave of investment.

The aim is to support 100Gbps theoretically compared with 10Gbps for 5G, and minimum latency down to a few microseconds against 1 millisecond for 5G. The target for device density is 10m per-kilometer, against 1m for 5G and 100,000 with 4G. The energy consumption target is 1 nanojoule per-bit, again about 10 times better than 4G.

Context is required, because latency is contingent on signal distance traversed and the lower targets can only be attained at short range. And energy per-bit is almost irrelevant because data traffic increases and what really counts is consumption per-device, per-user, or per-unit of time.

Many of the 6G targets are dependent on advances in engineering or materials. For example, new so-called III-V materials, such as indium phosphide (InP), are considered necessary to meet 6G’s ambitious energy efficiency targets, and these have yet to be shown capable of being integrated onto a silicon platform. India is unlikely to able to beat the rest of the world on the draw to these, although the hope is that research and development can be galvanized by this continued focus on “Make in India”.

It is far from clear though that there is the stomach among the country’s equipment makers and certainly not operators for continuing to forge a seperate course over cellular development than other nations. We have seen lately how all three of the country’s major operators, Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, have converged into a common position by calling for the country’s separate 5Gi version of 5G to be merged with 3GPP.

On November 1 these three issued a letter through their representative body COAI to the country’s Department of Telecommunications calling for 5Gi to be harmonized with 3GPP, essentially becoming a local variant rather than separate approved version. This hardly suggests they will be enthusiastic about implementing a locally developed version of 6G.

It is true though, as we have discussed before, that 6G is being drawn into a politicized race to achieve the lead in intellectual property to a greater extent than was the case with 5G. Early 6G efforts are becoming mixed with the US-China political and technology wars, as well as efforts by the cellular ‘Old World’ – the likes of Japan, Korea, Finland and Sweden, which contributed so heavily to the earlier mobile platforms – to defend their fiefdom. The center of mobile gravity has already started shifting towards the ‘New World’ regions, in which we include the USA, in share of 5G patents and commercial power.

Against that background, India could well see an opportunity to place a major stake in the 6G intellectual property ground and tilt the mobile axis once again.