6G fragmentation may have just gotten a little closer

Officials from the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and Japan announced a teaming to promote 'telecommunications supply chain diversification and open network architectures.' But the move may also increase the chances of a fracture in the 6G standard.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

October 5, 2023

4 Min Read
An image depicting "6G" on a circuit board representing the next generation of mobile wireless communications.
(Source: JL/Alamy Stock Photo)

The US, the UK, Australia, Canada and Japan this week announced the new Global Coalition on Telecommunications (GCOT) to focus on topics "such as telecommunications supply chain diversification and open network architectures." But the move may also increase the chances that any future 6G standard will fracture among international superpowers.

That kind of fragmentation would represent a major blow to large wireless network operators and equipment suppliers. The economies of scale derived from a single, global standard – like 5G – would be lost in a future international market split among several different flavors of 6G technology. Vendors would be forced to pick and choose from among those flavors, and their sales would be limited as a result. And that would probably force them to raise prices on their equipment for their wireless network operator customers.

There is precedent for such fragmentation in the global cellular industry. Anyone familiar with the acronyms CDMA, GSM and WiMAX knows this. But the 4G LTE standard, released roughly 20 years ago, helped unify the world's cellular network operators and equipment vendors around a single technology. And the industry doubled down on that approach with 5G.

Thus, a fragmented 6G future is clearly a concern for most players across the global telecommunications marketplace. "I think it's incumbent on all of us then to see what we can do to get this message across above the engineering layer and try to get the economists to be really aware of the damage that could be done if we saw a fragmented standard," Adrian Scrase, CTO at global standards association ETSI, said earlier this year, according to Mobile World Live.

Related:3GPP moving to prevent power grab by Apple, others

The issue will be a topic of discussion later this year at the World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRC-­23), where international policymakers will begin discussing how they might harmonize global spectrum allocations for 6G.

But it will be the 3GPP that will face the issue head on. The group is the international standards body primarily responsible for cellular networking technologies, and it played a leading role in creating the globally deployed LTE standard. The association recently updated its voting rules in order to prevent Apple and other big companies from gaining too much power.

From supply chains to open interfaces

The goals of the new GCOT come as little surprise. They largely dovetail with efforts within individual member countries – including the US and the UK – to promote "secure" telecom equipment and "open" interfaces. Such terms often reflect legislators' desire to block the use of equipment from Chinese vendors, and to encourage the deployment of open RAN specifications.

Related:After Brazil's about-face, Indonesia still hedges on Huawei

For example, the GCOT's statement of intent specifically calls out a desire to "support principles on open disaggregation, standards-based compliance, demonstrated interoperability, and implementation neutrality, such as those set out in the 2021 Prague Proposals on Telecommunications Supplier Diversity, and the UK's Open RAN Principles."

The 2021 Prague Proposals focused on the security threat from China and how open RAN technology could improve 5G security. And the UK's open RAN push in part involves funneling $110 million into research and development projects involving O-RAN Alliance specifications. The US is embarking on a similar effort to the tune of $1.5 billion.

The GCOT also states an intention to "enhance cooperation with international partners and support developing countries and emerging economies to build secure and resilient digital infrastructure."

That would certainly dovetail with an international push – involving the US, the UK, Australia and other countries – to block sales of Huawei equipment on a global stage. That effort kicked off in the US during the Trump administration's "clean networks" program, and the Biden administration appears more than willing to continue the work.

But the GCOT also states a willingness to "coordinate on our approaches to existing multilateral and relevant multi-stakeholder fora and support existing multilateral activity by considering how to support initiatives from other fora."

How that will ultimately play out – including in the 3GPP, where Huawei executives sit alongside those from Apple – remains to be seen.

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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