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Mobile’s next generation: 6G development finds its north star

The 6G industry and technology ecosystem is truly global. Yet if a single country could be singled out as a leader, then it could be argued that this would be Finland, in particular thanks to the city of Oulu

You could never accuse the mobile telecommunications industry of resting on its laurels. Since the emergence of the first generation of mobile comms and services in the early 1980s, it seems that even before one generation of mobile technology leaves its initial ramp-up phase, work has begun on the next generation.

Since around the year 2000, and the arrival of the transformational 3G mobile standard in 2001, the world of communications has become used to the arrival of a new generation in mobile networking every decade. That is, 2G, and 10 years later 3G, then 4G a decade later, and now 5G after a similar time. And, logically, 6G by 2030.

With every generation leap, mobile networks have transmitted more data, faster, with added network capacity and lower latencies opening up new vistas in mobile applications and services. Think of the possibility of mobile video made possible by 3G, the data services revolution made possible by 4G, and the pervasive connected world of 5G with the potential of dedicated slices of spectrum for business.

But the arrival of 6G will be no mere “logical” progression. 6G is designed to revolutionise how consumers, networks and devices communicate with and among each other, and will form the basis of 2030 societies and businesses, with the new and integrated features potentially significantly advancing digitisation.

And judging by the development work ongoing in the seemingly unlikely place of Oulu in Finland, 6G will change how networks perform tasks such as joint communication, sensing and positioning. It promises to build critical bridges between physical and virtual spaces to enable new use cases while optimising industry operations.

The Nordic tech hub

Located in the Finnish midlands at 65 degrees north, just over an hour’s flight from Helsinki, the city of Oulu has 215,000 inhabitants growing at over 3,000 a year. It is the leading tech hub for Finland.

Looking at the country’s research and development (R&D) expenditure per capita in 2022, Oulu saw €3.437bn invested, followed by Vassa (€2.703bn), the country’s capital Helsinki on €2.345bn and Tampere with €2.169bn. More than a tenth of Oulu’s population is university students and the average age is 39.4 years. It is also going to be the European Capital of Culture in 2026.

Photo of University of Oulu building
University of Oulu

One of the most interesting aspects of the formation of Oulu as a tech hub is that it is essentially a case of triumphing over adversity. The city was long a centre of excellence for Nokia and faced great uncertainty when the comms technology and services giant hit financial troubles around 2011. Directly or indirectly, the company was responsible for thousands of jobs in the area, and after the fall of Nokia, there were thousands of telecommunications engineers across the city trying to figure out what to do next.

Yet undimmed by the uncertain prospects, Oulu found itself with thousands of highly skilled, highly educated workers determined to start anew. This entrepreneurial spirit saw the formation of several tech firms determined to carry on the work. Right now, the prowess of these companies in traditional wireless communications is flourishing.

For example, many years’ worth of knowledge built up in traditional radio technology is now being tapped in what is effectively a renaissance for the sector, thanks to booming demand for such products in the modern defence industry. What has emerged is a region full of companies boasting large communications patent portfolios working with highly skilled and experienced comms engineers on projects such as shortwave radio, which is now very relevant again, producing comms technologies for modern digital battlefields.

Toni Lindén, CEO of local connectivity and radio solutions firm KNL, says its work involves “reinventing” shortwave radio and bringing it back to the modern era.

“What we do in KNL is provide a completely independent communication solution for the [Finnish] government’s use cases where failure is not an option. There is a tactical use case where you can have a core network that can [use] traditional higher frequency radio bands, but it can also [support] LTE and private 5G solutions,” he says. “We connect those clusters across a very wide operating environment and area. The distance between two nodes in our radio system can be thousands of kilometres without any other infrastructure required.”

The University of Oulu

Finland has been ahead of the game in 6G for some time. In fact, the country’s research received an unlikely boost from Donald Trump who, when bemoaning the state of 5G development in the US, demanded that the country start on 6G. A tweet from the University of Oulu informed the 45th president that 6G work had already started, leading to the academic facility’s website seeing massive traffic.

The University of Oulu is, perhaps uniquely, very well set up for mobile communications research. It already has 5G non-standalone and standalone networks on campus, testing 2-, 4- and 6-beam 5G solutions, having a frequency licence for 3.5GHz/60MHz across the university campus. This supports 5G outdoors with macro coverage and indoor equipment. It also investigates cellular internet of things (IoT) and has more than 400 sensor platforms at the campus, supporting LoRa and NB-IoT connectivity.

The University of Oulu is very well set up for mobile communications research

6G public research in Finland has three main component programmes: 6G Finland 6G SNS; 6G Bridge; and 6G Flagship.

6G Finland was the driver for a national 6G coalition formed in May 2022 to lead 6G policy and other strategic discussions, while there are EU-level liaison views on key 6G technologies encompassing 62 projects with €380m in funding with support for the Hexa-X and Hexa-X-II projects.

6G Bridge is a Business Finland funding programme running from January 2023 to December 2026 with a budget of €130m. It is currently backing about 30 projects.

The core of activity at the University of Oulu is 6G Flagship, which is said to be the world’s first 6G research programme. A national research flagship beginning in 2018 – as Donald Trump knows now – and having entered its second phase in May 2022, it is backed to the tune of €251m and is set to run until the end of 2026. It currently involves 500 researchers from 50 nationalities and has already generated 13 6G whitepapers, 2,700 peer-reviewed papers and 100 doctoral theses. Some 400 research projects have either been completed or are ongoing.

At its heart, the 6G Flagship programme envisages 6G as supporting a data-driven sustainable future society enabled by near-instant, unlimited wireless connectivity. Key drivers for the research span areas such as digital inclusion via guaranteed connectivity; new ecosystems and business models; end-user trust; development of a service-driven network architecture; local connectivity enabling a 6G metaverse; and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled networks and applications. There are a number of working assumptions in the 6G development, such as keeping current site density with a 10-fold data capacity increase but with just half of the energy consumption of 5G.

In its 6G endeavours, the university is hoping to replicate its work in 5G development, and 4G before it. As regards the latter, the university created what it says was the first open test network for 4G/LTE, leading to a 5G proof of concept (PoC) in 2018. This work saw trials of 5G mmWave networks for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeong Chang, in partnership with ETRI and Finnish mobile technology giant Nokia, which has a significant presence in Oulu, including labs at the university.

Having initiated an operator-grade live micro-operator 5G New Radio (NR) network in 2019 and worked on 5G+ networks in 2020, the university developed its first 6G PoC devices in 2023 with the aim of developing its first 6G network in 2025 – before 6G standardisation begins. The university also has an energy consumption/production measurement environment, looking at integration with different vertical industries. Ultimately, there will be a roadmap evolution towards a 6GTest Network (6GTN).

6G Flagship director Matti Latva-Aho believes his institution’s 6G work is very different to the 13 other research flagships in the country. “We are the only flagship operated by one organisation alone,” he notes. “We got €25m funding upfront from the government. [This has enabled] us to start new activities and make critical recruitments for new professors, etc. We have about 100 researchers within one faculty working for six years. Half of these are focusing on wireless communication and the other half looking at different aspects from material science to AI and ML [machine learning] algorithms, applications and services.”

Principal research pillars

The 6G Flagship programme has a number of key strategic research areas: wireless connectivity solutions; device and circuit technologies; distributed intelligent wireless computing; and sustainable human-centric services and applications. Its research has now entered a second phase, and after establishing 6G technology enablers, it is now working on a 6GTN and 6G vertical applications, resulting finally in what it hopes will be 6G vision leadership.

The Oulu research team sees three fundamental vectors in terms of future 6G research. Ubiquitous connectivity is one; artificial intelligence (AI) and communication systems is another; and the third is integrated sensing and communication. One example of sensing work is looking at accurate positioning down to a few centimetres, including indoor environments.

Explaining the key technological thrusts of the research programmes, Latva-Aho says there are four principal research pillars. Wireless connectivity is the largest of these and concentrates on looking at what the future of 6G radio access will look like. “How do we transmit the radio signals? What type of network functions do we need? Then devices and what technologies to look at,” he explains. “How do we implement the equipment? How do we implement the radios and other future circuit technologies that we need? How do we make all of this in an energy-efficient manner?”

With regard to research in 6G vertical application areas, the Oulu team is trying to meet the needs and exclusive deployment of future technologies in selected scenarios. Health and medical, energy, security and defence are the initial topics of interest.

As regards the latter, Latva-Aho says: “The university has a long history in defence-related research and has developed operational communications systems for military loads over many years. It’s an area that requires high reliability and minimal latencies. There are many areas similar to the defence application area having the same kind of technical requirements. One of the areas having the most stringent requirements has been medicine.”

Latva-Aho is keen to emphasise that everybody needs to talk about sustainability development goals in the context of designing ubiquitous global coverage of 6G networks.

“It will democratise the services to everybody no matter where you live, or if you are rich, and so on. Tackling remote area connectivity challenges are oftentimes not at all technical, but political, economic and social. When you have these kinds of multiple views to your research programme, there will probably be two different directions. Some of these are going to be the latest advances in the wireless technology domain, the other [will be to develop something] robust, cheap enough and affordable,” he says.

“Research has given us lots of things to think about. IBM has been actively trying to challenge the existing mobile operator domain for mobile. We have been talking about local 6G concept spectrum licences, which could be given to anybody who is making infrastructure investments like shopping malls, campuses, airports, hospitals, you name it. Somebody has an incentive to make investments for something specific, requiring something unique.”

Benefits of 6G services

This is going to take advantage of the intrinsic technical nature of 6G networks. Location and, most importantly, the context of location will matter greatly. Is the user in a factory? A hospital? Whereabouts in a factory or hospital? That will matter and mean the network can support very specific applications that can differ from place to place. A consequence of this will be that the 6G ecosystem will need more and quite likely new players.

Another key facet and fundamental of the research programme at Oulu is that there is an emphasis is what the development team believes is the need for the new 6G services as having societal benefits. Citing a local example, Latva-Aho observes that healthcare costs in Finland are typically high and that with 6G technologies under development, these could be reduced.

“The idea with 5G was to try to include a new vertical area. [With 6G], we need to enrich the application space and possibilities to utilise what is going to make our society more efficient”
Matti Latva-Aho, 6G Flagship

But for this to happen, he concedes that the ecosystem needs new players to not only implement such technologies, but also participate in the enabling phase. Again, citing healthcare applications, Latva-Aho stresses that to work for everybody, bandwidth and network availability and capability have to be present everywhere. Vertical industry players will be crucial for 6G to be successful, he states.

“The idea with 5G was to try to include a new vertical area. [With 6G], we need to enrich the application space and possibilities to utilise what is going to make our society more efficient. We have to think more seriously about how to involve critical work when people [need to] engage. These vertical layers will also have to share the [revenue] cake, and to this we have to add trust. If we can, we will have IoT-type devices, with machine-based communications, everywhere with different connectivity.”

Latva-Aho also flags that as 6G services are developed, there will also be new versions of Wi-Fi, with Wi-Fi 7 mass deployment arriving soon, and that the technical targets for this new wireless standard are not that different from those being looked at by the telecommunications players with 6G.

People won’t care what connectivity method they use, he adds. That means developers will need to focus on the service context. Once again, to Latva-Aho, locational context is the key. There will be different types of services at airports, sports arenas, hospitals and at home. 

“We will use the most efficient wireless access solution, context-dependent. Sometimes you would like to use Wi-Fi, sometimes 6G or even proprietary IoT. [We may] have the positive possibility to customise the radio connectivity solutions for some of the most important and critical vertical applications, and then the system will automatically adapt. So the service stream and network architecture is happening – maybe more slowly than we think, but it is happening.”

Close-up photo of flagship antenna development
The university is developing and evolving biosensors to work at ‘extreme’ speeds over connectivity solutions

The university also believes that one of the key enablers for making the 6G revolution happen is to have fast biosensors. For that, the university is developing and evolving such sensors to work at “extreme” speeds over connectivity solutions. And software communications is one of those areas because at the 6G frequency band there needs to be enough bandwidth to provide really high data rates. This development will not take place at current existing frequency bands deployed below 6GHz.

Looking at work in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the university is adopting a two-pronged approach. First will be looking at how to use AI and ML to optimise better network functionalities in an automated manner. The other will be investigating ways to take advantage of the distributed nature of wireless networks to make better AI-inspired applications.

The research notes the large number of already available wireless devices collecting real-time data and will see how it can make these AI and ML algorithms more real time. It accepts that they will never be completely real time, but it will certainly be a pillar of future work. 

  • Read part two: Continuing our look at the work in the field of 6G communications in the Finnish city of Oulu, most notably at its university, we find out what products and services the new network will support.

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