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EU launches next phase of 6G research, splurges €250m on new projects

6G over a digital city

Sustainability, inclusion and trustworthiness are among the top priorities for the next stage of the European Commission’s 6G research programme.

Unveiled late last week, Hexa-X-II will combine the work of 44 organisations to create a pre-standardised platform and system view of 6G. The aim is to give the industry a starting point that will inform eventual standardisation. The project will begin in January and run for the next two-and-a-half years.

While the first phase of the initiative, Hexa-X, was more of a cerebral effort to define the vision and  capabilities of 6G, the aim of Hexa-X-II is to start the really difficult work of turning this vision into reality. With that in mind, the 44 participants are drawn from across the telecoms value chain, and includes operators, vendors, technology providers, and representatives from different verticals, as well as research institutions.

Hexa-X-II is not only tasked with coming up with a blueprint for 6G technology, the Commission also has some societal challenges it wants to address. It wants 6G to use technologies that contribute to a zero-carbon footprint and limit material and energy consumption. 6G should also be inclusive, and not just something that benefits countries that are already rich. Trustworthiness is also high on the agenda; networks must be robust, and offer data transparency, security and privacy.

Nokia was put in charge of Hexa-X, and has been retained as project lead for Hexa-X-II.

“In the 6G era, the digital, physical and human worlds will become far more integrated,” claimed Peter Vetter, president of Nokia’s Bell Labs Core Research, in a statement. “Our goals must reflect this level of integration and inter-dependency. As billions more people and devices get connected, urbanisation intensifies, and we strive to manage the limitations on energy and materials, the role of networks and 6G will only deepen. It is essential that we keep the larger context in mind as we imagine the new network.”

Meanwhile, Ericsson will continue to serve as technical manager.

“Today’s networks have formed an intelligent digital infrastructure offering endless possibilities to individuals, enterprises, and governments worldwide,” said Magnus Frodigh, vice president and head of Ericsson Research, in a separate statement. “The increasing expectations set a clear target for us in the industry and research community – 6G should contribute to an efficient, human-friendly, sustainable society through ever-present intelligent communication.”

As lofty as these goals might be, when it comes to actually selling 6G service to consumers, odds are it will still be pitched as even faster broadband.

Hexa-X-II forms part of the EU’s Smart Networks and Services Joint Undertaking (SNS JU). Established last November as a practical extension of the bloc’s green and digital transition policy, its aim is to align and coordinate member states’ 6G research efforts. It has a budget of €1.8 billion – half of which comes from EU coffers – and provides research and innovation (R&I) grants.

On Friday, the SNS JU announced €250 million worth of funding for its first portfolio of research projects spanning the evolution from so-called ‘mid-term’ 5G to experimental infrastructures that could conceivably be used for 6G. It also covers development of testbeds and vertical-specific trials and pilot schemes.

35 projects have been chosen, and they are split between four work-streams. Stream A concentrates on enhancements to existing technology, like 5G, while B looks into the more experimental 6G stuff – Hexa-X-II falls within the latter. Stream C focuses on research platforms for carrying out next-generation network experiments, and D is concerned with pilots and trials.

“The R&I projects will develop smart communication components, systems, and networks for 6G following both an evolutionary path through further enhancements of 5G advanced technology, as well as a more revolutionary path by investigating the benefits of promising technological enablers,” the Commission explained. “Technology validation initiatives will develop SNS (smart networks and services) experimental infrastructures and carry out large-scale SNS trials and pilots in several business and industrial sectors such as media, industrial IoT, energy, construction, automotive, eHealth, culture, agriculture and education.”

The SNS JU plans to launch another call for proposals in January.

With this endeavour, the EU hopes to pip global rivals like the US, China, Japan and South Korea to becoming effectively the birthplace of 6G. With multiple governments to coordinate, the EU has a lot more cat-herding to do. However, tapping the expertise of two of the world’s biggest telco vendors might just give it an edge.

 

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