Mission possible? Why the UK’s 6G plans need to focus on developing standards

6G is seen as a critical technology for future telecoms and the UK’s ability to compete on a global stage, but what’s the reality? Where can the UK find its key role? Will setting standards generate innovation – and where are the emerging opportunities for 6G development?

Guy Matthews

While the UK government claims it is on a mission to establish the country as a world leader in the development of 6G technologies, and is backing its ambitions with £100m in new funding, what does this really mean for the UK and its role in 6G development?  Much of this cash will go towards setting up Future Telecoms Research Hubs (at Imperial, Oxford, Bristol and Surrey universities) to support early stage research into 6G technologies. Links between academia and the telecoms industry are being actively encouraged, for everyone involved to at least start thinking about 6G, its technical and regulatory challenges, and what a 6G future should look like.

Smart Internet Lab logo

The University of Bristol is a good example of this, with £15m of the government’s £100m being allocated to build the UK’s first 6G federated testbed (JOINR – Joint Open Infrastructure for networks research). This will provide a testing environment for research projects from all universities collaborating through the Research Hubs, as well as Bristol’s own Smart Internet Lab.

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There are already several 6G-specific research hotspots around the UK, in many cases collaborations between academic institutions and technology companies. For example, the University of Bristol-led REASON project (Realising Enabling Architectures and Solutions for Open Networks) is an ecosystem representing the entire telecommunication R&D supply chain (which includes Ericsson, Samsung and Nokia), coming together to develop a roadmap for open 6G networks. While the 6G Innovation Centre (6GIC) at the University of Surrey is a joint initiative with research and development company InterDigital, among others, with the brief of examining the technologies that might form the basis of future 6G standards.

“‘The UK can absolutely be a dominant player in 6G and already has a considerable history of leadership in the telecommunications sector”

Paul Harris, Principal Wireless Architect, CTO Office at VIAVI

The University of Sheffield also operates a research centre, the UKRI National 6G Radio Systems Facility, which unites academics with various industrial partners to work on areas such as candidate waveforms, transmitter and receiver circuits and digital acquisition and signal processing. 

A number of telecoms equipment vendors have also chosen the UK to site centres of 6G development. Ericsson has established a well-funded research unit in the UK to focus on breakthrough 6G innovations. And Samsung Electronics has chosen the UK as the location of a new research group to develop networks and devices. Network operators like BT and Vodafone are also driving cellular innovations in areas like AI and quantum computing.

Can the UK fulfil its 6G ambitions?

While the UK may be off to an encouraging start, which the £100m in further funding can only enhance, questions inevitably hang over government claims around ‘cementing early UK market leadership’ in 6G? Can the country emerge as a true frontrunner against competition from Silicon Valley, China, South Korea and even the EU?

Paul Harris, Principal Wireless Architect, CTO Office, VIAVI.
Paul Harris, Principal Wireless Architect, CTO Office, VIAVI.

“The UK can absolutely be a dominant player in 6G and already has a considerable history of leadership in the telecommunications sector,” says Paul Harris, Principal Wireless Architect, CTO Office at VIAVI, a network testing provider. 

He points in particular to the UK’s part in developing standards for 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G, with British engineers holding leadership roles within the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), adding that four of the top ‘standards-essential patent’ producing companies have had a sizeable R&D footprint in the UK for over a decade.

“The UK will be a good contributor towards 6G technology,” agrees Purva Rajkotia, Director, Global Business Strategic Initiatives with the IEEE Standards Association. “Service providers like BT can bring in their perspective on customer needs. Ofcom can provide regulatory insights. Ecosystem players like the UK’s ARM Holdings will play a significant role in terms of technology development and deployment.”

However, 6G’s success may be more about future investment than past successes, and China looks likely to provide the biggest and best-funded benchmark for any aspirants to market dominance. It has signalled that it expects to realise the commercialisation of 6G by 2030, with core standards set by 2025. It began serious experimentation in 2022 and has already carried out research on 6G system architecture, laying the foundations for its next steps.

“The UK is historically strong at bringing technology ideas to reality, taking many ingredients and making something cohesive out of them”

Purva Rajkotia, Director, Global Business Strategic Initiatives with the IEEE Standards Association

“China is being very aggressive with 6G,” says Jeffrey Metzger, Strategic Partner Development with InterDigital. “The EU and the UK seem to have got the message, and they are now investing to help industry get ahead of the curve. The US doesn’t seem as eager to support industry in the same way. The emphasis there seems to still be on getting 5G right.”

InterDigital, he explains, is focused on applied research to support the development of standards: “In many ways what we do is similar to the research work of academics, which creates synergies,” he adds. “We help them to understand what’s really needed commercially, they help us with the research side.”

Creating collaborative 6G standards

Camille Mendler, Chief Analyst with consulting firm Omdia, with responsibility for strategy and innovation in 5G and 6G, points out that the evolution of standards, without which there can be no meaningful innovation, will be a matter of international collaboration rather than unilateral initiative. 

Camille Mendler, Chief Analyst, Omdia.
Camille Mendler, Chief Analyst, Omdia.

“We can’t end up with multiple 6Gs,” she warns. “What we need is dialogue and harmonisation. The UK must align with the US and the EU here, as an open partner. As for China, their play for 6G is part of a long thought-out strategy. They are all about outcomes, rather than getting hung up on the definition of the technology, as you can see from what they have been doing with 5G and Private 5G. They are leading here in terms of industrial transformation that uses 5G, AI, and other technologies. For them, 6G is just another staging post on the journey of transforming a number of critical industries, in the interests of growing their economy. They are putting money behind this, as is South Korea. The UK’s £100m is not a trivial sum. But it means nothing unless you can apply it to a bigger picture.”

She also notes that even with the most finely honed standards, 6G can’t succeed without wider buy-in. “Why would, say, a UK manufacturer that is highly dependent on real time operations move to another technology just like that?” she asks. “They need to be convinced that 6G is a good idea. Will it improve their output? Make their environment safer? We need a narrative about what 6G can do for industry and enterprise and different vertical sectors.”

VCs and other investors, based in the UK and elsewhere, also need to believe that 6G is worth their time and money. The outcome for them will be measured in patents and use cases for 6G that are replicable in devices, practices and processes around the world. For their part, network operators will be looking for good reasons to invest in creating networks that will probably be a lot more complex than those they are running today. 

What 6G innovation might look like

If the UK is to be the crucible of the next wave of 6G innovation, what are the most obvious areas for success? And what specific strengths might the UK bring to bear on them?

Rajkotia cites a number of opportunities where the UK can bring relevant experience. “There is immersive communication, omnipresent IoT, temporal services, and AI-led compute,” he notes. Exploiting areas such as these could, he says, come down to which countries offer not just the right levels of investment, but also the best skill sets.

“Skills will definitely have an impact on what the UK does with the technology,” he adds. “There must also be leadership in delivering more sustainable solutions, especially in the connectivity and telecoms domain.”

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The UK has the brain power to succeed in the vanguard of 6G, believes Mendler. “It has some of the top universities in the world,” she says. “It is not short of skills. I’d like the UK’s priority to be around identifying use cases that will justify 6G. This demands a dialogue between technology brains and industry. We need to see available funding directed in the right places.”

The various UK-based research hubs will no doubt be looking to capitalise on technology areas where the UK has already established a reputation, such as in Open RAN and AI embedded in system architecture. Increasing openness in networks might suggest openings for entrepreneurial start-ups with an algorithm for optimising a particular network function. 

“There’s lots that the UK is doing behind the scenes, whether or not it is going to be home to the companies that develop the solutions,” says Dean Bubley, tech industry analyst and futurist with Disruptive Analysis. “The UK should look to continue with the good work it did with 5G, on the radio network side, on security, small cells and semiconductors. A lot of that projects forward into 6G. The UK has already had a leading 6G role in the ITU’s Working Party 5D which came up with the IMT-2030 framework, finalised last December. Certainly the vast majority of future 6G devices will have an ARM core somewhere in them. And ARM is not the only innovative silicon company in the UK. The UK has pockets of specialist skills, for example on the satellite side.”

One of the biggest emerging innovation opportunities for 6G is non-terrestrial networks, agrees Harris. “The UK has a strong aerospace sector with leadership in satellite design, manufacturing and testing, and we are seeing an increased convergence of both traditional terrestrial network and satellite players in 3GPP,” he says.

Massimo Fatato, Head of Networks, NTT Data UK&I.
Massimo Fatato, Head of Networks, NTT Data UK&I.

Before any UK innovators get stuck into future possibilities they should reflect on past lessons, thinks Massimo Fatato, Head of Networks at systems integrator and consultancy NTT Data UK&I.

“With 5G there was too much focus on the technology and not enough on what can be enabled by it, so let’s learn lessons from that,” he says. “With 6G, let’s consider the business KPIs, use cases and applications. 6G will be about moving a huge amount of data in real time to different parts of the world. We can use it to establish an almost physical engagement between people who are miles apart. 6G can allow that because of its inherent capabilities, its low latency and its huge bandwidth.” 

6G today, he says, is at the dream stage, awaiting the standards, the network capacity and the capability to make those dreams a reality.

“We are exploring the art of the possible,” he concludes. “The UK is historically strong at bringing technology ideas to reality, taking many ingredients and making something cohesive out of them. I believe it can play a part in enabling 6G to make the world a better place.”

Guy Matthews
Guy Matthews / Writer

Guy has been a technology journalist for over 35 years during which time he has edited and written for numerous newspapers and magazines. A particular specialism for the past 20 years has been the market for wholesale telecoms services. As one of the main freelance writers for Capacity magazine, Guy has written in depth on topics ranging from developments in subsea cabling and the evolution of the Internet of Things to Carrier Ethernet standards and the challenges of network security. He has also contributed to European Communications, Mobile Europe, Vanilla Plus, IoT Now and The Register.