Either the country leads in the technology, or it bleeds as the net pay outs from SEPs become a burden
Even before Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, Captain Kirk used variants of “Beam me up, Scotty” whenever he wanted to be transported to the Spaceship Enterprise in Star Trek.
Science fiction is aspirational, but also inspirational. When 5G is tipped to change everything, talking about 6G is not really far-fetched. After all, 5G discussions had begun in 2004 when 4G standardisation was still mid-way.
The very nature of technological advances often dwarf the earlier ones. Morse’s telegraph was eclipsed by Graham Bell’s telephone. Starting with 2G in early 90s, successive decade saw emergence of 3G, 4G and now 5G, promising peak speed of 1 Gbps (1,000 Mbps) compared to 20-100 Mbps on 4G. However, 6G holds promise of 1 Tbps (1,000 Gbps).
What would we do with high data-speeds?
Designed for connecting things in mind, even 5G falls short of expectations in use cases like transmitting 3-D holographic avatars anywhere, anytime by anybody; there are numerous other situations as well. Think of a Mumbai specialist speaking in a mix of English, Marathi and Hindi assisting a nurse conversing in a mix of Khasi and Manipuri trying to save a new-born with complications, based on examining the baby’s digital twin and leveraging federated cloud infrastructure spread globally, which is running on quantum computing and powered by distributed native Artificial Intelligence (AI)..
Beyond just high speed, in the range of 1 Tbps in the form of enhanced Mobile Broadband, such a situation also warrants ultra-reliable and low-latency communication (URLLC) and massive machine-type communications (mMTC). Also, with almost every device being connected and sporting an internal antenna, one square kilometre area may connect 10 million devices using 6G compared to a million in case of 5G.
In all humility may one propound: “Usage expands to fill the network capacity available” , admittedly inspired by the fabled Parkinson’s law “Work expands to fill the time available”.
Worldview of 6G, challenges and solutions
Over the last couple of years, 6G discussions have featured researchers, standards bodies and leading industry players. These include Ericsson, Samsung, NTT DoCoMo, ITU, IEEE, Worldwide Radio Forum and 3GPP. In order to meet such stringent performance criteria, some of the key technical challenges are energy efficiency, avoiding signal attenuation due to obstructions and water droplets in the air, and, of course, maintaining end-to-end trust through robust cyber security and data protection mechanisms.
Lower frequency bands are already crowded and offer rather limited spectral bandwidth of radio channels is a self-imposed inhibiting factor thereby limiting data speeds. On the other hand, 100 MHz to 1000 MHz band offers uncrowded and wide swathes enabling greater data speeds, albeit with limited coverage.
These would need innovations in antenna design, miniaturisation., edge cloud and distributed AI models. In addition, we need to ensure end-to-end security and privacy by design, instead of as an afterthought.
Lead or bleed? The choice is ours
After years of concerted efforts, the Indian submission of ‘Low Mobility, Large Cell’ (LMLC) has been accepted as a candidates for 5G, considering the fact that greater coverage may be more relevant than high-speed of travel.
Beyond carriage through 6G, we need to identify other use-cases, challenges, opportunities and solutions early on. Unless India makes substantive and sustained contributions in the standardisation as well, by way of Standard Essential Patents (SEPs), we cannot become self-reliant in 6G.
In order to become atmanirbhar, we need to focus on efficiency, equity and resilience as underscored by the prime minister at the India Global Week. Sans that, even if we are able to design, develop and deploy indigenous solutions for 5G and 6G, etc, net pay outs in the form of royalty for SEPs would continue to be a huge burden.
To become a global leader, we need long-term strategy for public private partnerships to foster collaborative research, just like it is being done in Europe.
Yes, even without that, we may still be able to beam our 3D avatars up, but the costs would be substantial. The choice is ours: Do we want to lead or bleed?
The author is Public policy consultant and senior visiting fellow at ICRIER
Views are personal