6G as a Universal Connectivity Provider in the 2030s
By Harri Saarnisaari, Lead of the UArctic Thematic Network on Arctic Telecommunications and Networking, Adjunct Professor, Researcher and Hanna Saarela, Development Manager and Marja-Matinmikko-Blue, Adjunct Professor, University of Oulu, CWC Research Unit
The digital divide is widening around the globe, as millions of people remain unconnected or underserved. This prevents people from benefiting from digitalization and utilizing the opportunities it provides.
Indeed, broadband connectivity, and subsequent internet access, has been recognized as a booster for human rights, and it plays a vital role in achieving United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). Other rural or remote connectivity needs arise from an observation that opportunities to increasing remote work are restricted by the availability of connectivity solutions.
Low population density, low level of income, and even poverty are key elements in the challenge. Difficult terrain including mountains and steep hills, and the risk of natural disasters such as floods and landslides add their own complications. The challenge is made even greater by recognizing inexistent or unreliable infrastructure such as the power grid and roads between locations. In the Arctic, dark winter months with cold, snowy and icy conditions as well as permafrost melting furthermore magnify the problems. All these aspects result in slow return of investment and low business profits, making these areas less attractive for investors.
Nowadays, urban life means almost perfect mobile connectivity at homes and workplaces and on the move. Yet, the same service should be enjoyed by everyone, and we should develop affordable yet sufficient connectivity solutions to tackle the challenges; ‘affordable’ meaning the pricing of devices and monthly usage costs, and ‘sufficient’ referring to data rate. These should be defined in the upcoming years.
Connectivity researchers and industry have shown a growing interest in this problem known also as “connecting the unconnected”. It has been recognized that previous generation mobile cellular systems like 5G have not focused thoroughly on this topic. It has also been noted that other disciplines should join the work as well; for instance, the human aspect must be considered more thoroughly than in the past. The needs and the requirements for universal connectivity must be defined, and understanding on the smart use of connectivity, which may still remain somewhat limited, must be transferred efficiently to the people. In parallel, new applications and services must also be developed, taking into account the specific needs of the currently “unconnected”, to be ready to use once the connectedness becomes reality.
We need active, increasing efforts from all stakeholders to create technical and human-focused solutions that connect the unconnected. Governments should reconsider their role in financing and other means for easing the process. This is especially important since the connectivity solutions can become an integral part of public safety in hard-to-reach areas outside the usual government network.
6G is the connectivity technology to be used in the 2030s. The 6G community has already started to define how to connect the unconnected, and UN SGDs have been recognized as important goals. The Centre for Wireless Communications (CWC) research unit at the University of Oulu is one of the leading institutes in this effort as well as a key initiator. The effort is now worldwide and has already resulted in white papers on 6G (see 6Gchannel.com) as well as the first European Union flagship research project Hexa-X focusing on defining 6G. We believe that UArctic and its members could give us, connectivity experts, valuable input especially from other fields.
Finally, we provide an example identified as a research topic. Without reliable or non-existing power grid, telecommunication devices must rely on renewable energy supported potentially by a (diesel) generator. Energy is needed in backhaul microwave towers, local base stations (whether 4G or Wi-Fi), and for recharging user devices, in addition to other electronics people may have. Current technology is based on the assumption of unlimited power. This paradigm has to be changed, and new low-energy consuming telecommunication devices and systems must be developed. This would also be good for the global environment, and specifically the vulnerable Arctic areas.