Early last year, President Trump famously mentioned 5G on Twitter. "I want 5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible," he wrote. "American companies must step up their efforts, or get left behind. There is no reason that we should be lagging behind on........."
At the time, his mention of 6G felt like a throwaway line, a joke.
It doesn't anymore.
That's because a growing number of companies, academics and policymakers in the US wireless industry have begun organizing around 6G, with the loudly stated intention of ensuring US leadership in the technology.
This week, one of the premier US telecom standards organizations argued that it's now time for "leading companies in the information and communications technology (ICT) industry to join with government in a shared commitment that will put the US at the forefront of technology leadership for the next decade."
Continued ATIS in its policy paper: "By working now to align government and industry on a set of core principles and actions, the US will be at the forefront of 6G development and deployment."
"Old models of leadership are not going to play in this new future in light of the geopolitical landscape," ATIS CEO Susan Miller told Light Reading, nodding to US-China tensions. "If the US is really going to assert its leadership, it's going to have to act in a new way."
Miller explained that ATIS wants the US government, the US academic community and the US wireless industry to begin organizing around the development of 6G technology. Specifically, in its "call to action" that the organization is circulating in Congress and the White House, ATIS is requesting federal funding and tax credits for 6G R&D, as well as more spectrum and development zones around the country.
The push by ATIS is not minor. The association's board is composed of top executives from AT&T, Verizon, Ciena and Comcast, and it's the group that has previously addressed topics including secure supply chain, robocalls and hearing aid compatibility for cellphones. Meaning, ATIS is often the place where major US telecom companies go to get things done.
6G buzz begins
To be clear, 6G has been percolating among US academics for months now. For example, last year NYU Wireless luminary Ted Rappaport (an early proponent of 5G in millimeter wave spectrum) published a paper on 6G in frequencies above 100GHz.
Also last year, the FCC voted to approve experiments in spectrum above 95GHz.
More recently, the US National Science Foundation's Spectrum Innovation Initiative began advocating for a new National Center for Wireless Spectrum Research (SII-Center) that would "go beyond 5G, IoT and other existing or forthcoming systems and technologies and chart out a trajectory to ensure United States leadership in future wireless technologies, systems, and applications in science and engineering through the efficient use and sharing of the radio spectrum."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that US wireless executives, academics and policymakers are beginning to discuss 6G. After all, in its 2019 annual report, China's Huawei said it had kicked off research into 6G, including "air interface technologies, new network architectures, and key enabling technologies." More recently, ZTE said it would partner with China Unicom on 6G to support speeds up to 20 Gbit/s.
It's a topic that's going global. For example, the University of Oulu in Finland announced an association with 6G Flagship to study the 6G space. More recently, UK regulator Ofcom issued technical rules for operations in the 100-200GHz range, which is expected to house initial 6G operations.
This is why ATIS is hoping to create an organized push in the US for 6G.
Black, white and grey
"Just leading with R&D is not going to support leadership with 6G," ATIS' Miller argued. "This is a place where government, industry and academia should really work together in a public-private partnership."
But wait: Isn't that kind of coordinated push a hallmark of China, where government officials have essentially mandated a massive 5G buildout?
"We don't see this as top down," replied Mike Nawrocki, ATIS' VP of technology and solutions, of the association's recommendations. "What we're really proposing is a coalition."
"The China model isn't going to work here," Miller added.
It's often hard to tell whether US officials are pleased or unhappy when they acknowledge they can't proceed like their Chinese counterparts.
Indeed, the issue is not exactly black and white. Futurewei, Huawei's R&D subsidiary in the US, is among ATIS' members – a fact that Miller readily admits.
Nonetheless, "successful US leadership demands a national commitment to technology leadership and excellence. Our future depends on it," concludes ATIS in its political call to action.
What's the end result here? Many have speculated that geopolitical pressures will fracture 6G into the standards soup – think CDMA, GSM, TD-SCDMA and W-CDMA – that the global industry struggled to leave behind with LTE and 5G.
That's certainly an outcome ATIS is willing to at least entertain. Miller wouldn't use the word "fragmentation" but said instead that "there may be a regionalization related to market needs."