University of Oulu

Mobile’s next generation: The 6G-based hyper-connected future of living and work

We continue our look at the work in the field of 6G communications in the Finnish city of Oulu, most notably at its university, and see what products and services the new network will support

In the first part of our two-part feature on 6G development, we looked at the work that is taking place in Oulu, Finland, focusing on how 6G will build critical bridges between physical and virtual spaces to enable new use cases while optimising industry operations.

In the second installment, we look at another of the early research topics at the University of Oulu – sub-THz radio technologies. Agreement regarding future mid-band 5G mobile radio spectrum was reached at a conference in Dubai in December 2023, and 6G spectrum bands still need to be finalised, making it an important part of research challenges.

6G Flagship director Matti Latva-Aho believes the message from the spectrum conference is that the industry needs to utilise everything possible and use in 6G all of the allocations already given for 5G. This, he says, will be a strong message that says 6G should be more of an evolution of 5G than something radically new.

One key point was that 6G could potentially make best use of the current mmWave bands. Another area under active consideration is making 6G-compatible chips and other associated radio frequency (RF) technologies commercially available. Researchers at the University of Oulu are also working on how to combine centralised cloud and edge computing, getting closer to the user.

Referring to work being carried out by Nokia, Latva-Aho believes basic coverage for the new generation will be in the existing 5G bands, refarmed to 6G. Capacity enhancement will likely take place for both 5G Advanced and 6G in the 10GHz range. Specific 6G comms with peak capacity will likely be at the 100GHz region for W-band and above 175GHz for D-band.

Yet there will inevitably be several gating factors affecting the university’s research programme. One of these will be regulation – not only of the 6G network itself, but also of vertical areas. The research team knows it cannot do everything the engineers would like it to do. For example, there are already very strict rules in place regarding automated driving. And the healthcare sector moves slowly.

Vertical alignment

Looking to see how healthcare and energy systems can be assisted by 6G is the 6G Energy-Enabled Sustainable Society (6GESS). This is a multidisciplinary concern based around four faculties of the college spanning Medicine; the Faculty of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering; the Faculty of Technology; and the Oulu Business School.

The aim of 6GESS is to investigate connectivity-based technologies that could form the backbone of future healthcare, based on cloud computing, big data, as well as virtualised, private and secure individual follow-up and treatment options. An “essential” 6GESS theme is the use of renewable energy sources throughout wireless network infrastructures.

The programme – run in cooperation with the OuluHealth ecosystem, the healthcare providers of the City of Oulu, the Oulu University Hospital and the Future Hospital 2030-project – has five basic steps. The first is creating citizen-centred data-driven preventative healthcare, leading on to virtual healthcare service development. From here, 6GESS believes it can form the basis of an artificial intelligence (AI)-tailored wireless hospital, ultimately delivering a “user-empowering” data-driven flexible energy system. The project is intended to help providers minimise the net energy consumption of future data-driven e-health systems.

Photo of University of Oulu building
University of Oulu

The university’s work has been assisted by having Nokia engineers and researchers on site and being able to tap into the resources of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, which is located across the road from the university campus. VTT’s role is to be a “visionary” research, development and innovation partner and to promote the utilisation and commercialisation of research and technology in business and society.

In the field of communications, VTT has testing facilities encompassing 5G and 6G test networks at several locations, with testing of radio access and services for different verticals. It also offers antennas and RF component testing using its anechoic rooms, a millimetre-wave laboratory and clean rooms. It also has a dedicated facility to support research and development (R&D) work on data links and critical communications for defence and security, as well as in critical infrastructure industries.

At its Oulu facility, VTT is investigating multilayer connectivity systems, looking towards 5G and 6G integration over both terrestrial networks (TN) and non-terrestrial networks (NTN) – that is both space and airborne networks. One current project involves low Earth orbit (LEO) CubeSat testing with W-band (75GHz) and Q-band (38GHz) beacons for channel propagation measurements. The tailored CubeSat platform uses a ground station with receiver terminals in Austria and Finland. The satellite launched in June 2021 and the first W-band signal was received two months later.

Close-up photo of signal laser measuring technology
6G Flagship signal laser measuring

VTT’s 5G and 6G research domains include a number of key vertical applications, such as mobility and smart city; smart grid; port automation; next-generation mining; and defence. The company is also part of the Nokia-led Hexa-X-II European 6G Flagship programme. One of 44 partners, its focus will be continued development of technology and define the 6G platform and system, covering the entire value stack from hardware to system to platform to applications to service providers and an academic presence.

VTT is also part of the Hexa-X-II’s Confidential 6G project, which aims to enable secure and privacy-preserving computation via novel cryptographic techniques and operation across the cloud-edge continuum, which the partners say will be necessary in 6G services.

It is also working on the 6G XR project to build a research infrastructure that can provide a validation platform for 6G use cases by developing enablers for extended reality (XR) services. This will also see the validation of multi-access edge computing scenarios and integration in the cloud, and demonstrate and validate performance of 6G applications. The focus on the latter will be on immersive applications such as holography, digital twins, virtual reality (VR) and XR.

How to best tap into these elements and take practical advantage of future spatial computing applications is being worked on by Oulu firm Dispelix. Its vice-president of strategy, Riku Rikkola, said the company was aiming to create a world where “technology no longer looks like technology”. In practice, this means making extended reality glasses look, wear and feel like ordinary eyewear.

With specific reference to 6G, the company sees the new infrastructure as allowing people to fuse physical and digital worlds, supporting cloud-based data processing and holographic communications. This will also be based on engineering design that is founded on low-latency connectivity, energy efficiency, artificial intelligence and machine learning. The company sees three main use cases for its 6G-based technology: warehouse and logistics; smart manufacturing; and assisted maintenance.

Reading the road

Another local firm weighing up the 6G opportunity is automotive software developer Elektrobit. At CES 2024, a clear message was given that rubber was about to hit the road for the software-defined vehicle market, with in-vehicle communications and infotainment systems hitting the accelerator pedal.

6G testcar

Studies from Berylls and Capgemini predict that by 2026, 36% of cars will have over-the-air capabilities, with new vehicles based on common software platforms growing from 7% in 2023 to 35% by 2030. This will likely lead to a market for software-based features and services to be worth $640bn by 2030.

Elektrobit looks at an industry defined by the rapid evolution of the software-defined vehicle – based on systems spanning  infotainment, advanced driver-assistance, vehicle functionality and the cloud – but believes that currently there is a lack of “one language” for communication between functions and hardware. The future, in its eyes, is a dedicated vehicle software architecture where the development of functions is decoupled from the cycle of hardware development. The systems would be interlinked and accessed through a common vehicle application programming interface (API) running on an automotive operating system.

For Elektrobit director Marko Huttu, the future of the industry is a connected one. Indeed, he predicts that in 10 years’ time, all vehicles will be connected, with demand driven – every pun intended – in large part by autonomous vehicles. As regards the 6G networks that will likely be available by that time, he believes their availability will drive – pun intended again – strong demand in vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications. This will encompass vehicle-to-cloud (V2C); vehicle-to-grid (V2G); vehicle-to-home (V2H); vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I); and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V).

In this world, he says, big data will be king, with an increasing use of analytics to unlock efficiencies and new services. Another likely consequence will be more partnerships between with big tech firms and startups. Huttu made particular mention of smart cockpits, which he said would continue to be the biggest differentiator for car manufacturers over the next 10 years.

When will 6G land?

So, what is the likely timeframe for the roll-out of 6G networks? A February 2024 study from Juniper Research predicts there will be 290 million 6G connections globally by 2030. Yet to achieve this initial growth, the report warns that the operators offering 6G must solve various technological challenges, including the issue of network interference arising from the use of high-frequency spectrum with the risk of creating an unreliable 6G network.

A solution proposed by Juniper is the use of reconfigurable “intelligent surfaces”, a technology designed to mitigate the impact of interference from large obstacles, including buildings, on network services.

But might it also be the case that telcos are in no great rush to deploy 6G networks, nor indeed deploy them at all. Bruno Zerbib, executive vice-president and chief technology and information officer of Orange Group, suggests that the linear progression in mobile phone generations may have reached an end as the technology makes an inexorable move beyond the current model. Zerbib believes the comms industry has reached a point of singularity and that what lies ahead is going to be very different from what the industry has been through in the past 10 to 15 years.

“We’ve been pretty much stuck in that generational paradigm where there was 2G, 3G, 4G, [then] 5G. I believe 5G is the last ‘G’ and we’re moving beyond Gs. We’re going to have continuous innovation”
Bruno Zerbib, Orange Group

“We’ve been pretty much stuck in that generational paradigm where there was 2G, 3G, 4G, [then] 5G. I believe 5G is the last ‘G’ and we’re moving beyond Gs. We’re going to have continuous innovation. Our customers are telling us they didn’t feel much difference moving from 4G to 5G, and they should. We failed in terms of communication marketing. We talked about bandwidth when really we should have talked about how efficiency is created [and] energy consumption and the way we improve the reliability of our network.”

The tangible part of this revolution, Zerbib believes, will be to roll out products and services on a continuous basis, with increased capabilities. Orange, he says, will not be marketing “6G” when its form emerges. It will instead be a case of technological launches that show how the company is reducing CO2 emissions in its work, how it is continuously improving latency and how it can introduce the capabilities that will unlock the third wave of internet of things (IoT) for business and enterprise customers.

Whether or not Zerbib’s prediction comes to pass, what is without doubt is that 6G mobile will be truly disruptive one way or another. In fact, 6G, or whatever comes after, has to be. The future of living and working will be hyper-connected, and connectivity to support these digital lifestyles has to be pervasive and robust.

The work taking place at Oulu is to look at how to support a data-driven sustainable future society enabled by near-instant, unlimited wireless connectivity. Today’s networks don’t have the capability to do this. Let’s see what this brave new world will look like.

  • Read part one: 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 country would be Finland, in particular thanks to what is happening in the city of Oulu. We look at why this may be the case.

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