Roger Nichols has been thinking about 6G while the rest of us have been adjusting to the emergence of 5G networks in the world around us. Keysight, a California-based test and measurement equipment business, employs Nichols as the 6G program manager. To put it another way, Keysight is one of the firms that create the tools that the rest of the wireless industry requires to ensure that their own cutting-edge technology works as intended.
Nichols spoke with IEEE Spectrum about how test and measurement firms fit into the evolving 6G landscape, how much sooner they need to think about new wireless technologies than the rest of the industry, and what to expect from 6G.
Roger Nichols on…
- Why companies don’t build their own test equipment
- When the 6G conversation started
- What to expect from 6G
- How to build the test equipment the industry will need
Why don’t telecom companies like Ericsson and Nokia manufacture their own test and measurement equipment in-house, if they’re going to need that equipment for their wireless technology research?
Roger Nichols: While some “do-it-yourself” work is available, it turns out that this is a highly specialized job. Most of our customers would prefer to leave it to us, the specialists, to handle it. The concept of measuring things is comparing the behavior of a design to a predetermined benchmark. We specialize in that set of abilities and knowledge.
If you wanted to build a house, you could make your own pliers and hammers, for example. However, you’re much better off buying them from someone who understands what they’re doing. It’s not the most accurate analogy, but that’s one way of looking at what we do: we create tools.
It’s difficult enough to build and install communications systems at scale. That’s a significant difficulty for businesses like the ones you highlighted. They’ve got their hands full trying to make such sophisticated systems work and stay competitive. They must produce a zillion of them and deploy them all across the planet, and the systems must function in all types of weather, including cold, hot, rainy, and other conditions. “You people have to make the network work,” I explained. Our goal is to help you figure out if that’s the case.”
5G is still early in its deployment phase, but you (and the rest of the industry) are already beginning to think about 6G. When did you first start having those conversations?
Nichols: In the late summer of 2019, I gave my first public interview on 6G. So, we’ve been debating this for quite some time. That may sound a little strange given that the first commercial 5G networks were deployed in 2019—first in South Korea in March and then in the United States in December. So it’s been more than two years since we’ve seen each other.
We get involved early because we believe that early and ongoing interaction with industry leaders is vital to long-term success. If you solely consider 6G sales, the potential began a few of years ago. It’s only a modest amount of commerce, but it exists.
Being involved early also means building the credibility with the leaders in the industry. It means you learn about what they need early on. Given that these systems take a long time to develop—because of the level of complexity and some of the new technology that must mature—then being part of that longer-term trajectory is essential for success.
Do you think test and measurement equipment companies need to be thinking about 6G earlier than the rest of the industry? So that you’re able to provide the equipment the rest of the industry needs to get the ball rolling on 6G development?
Nichols: If you think about when things are deployed and then when they’re in production, the design, measurement, and validation processes all begin much earlier. As a result, we must consider what we need to do well ahead of network implementation and operation. As a result, in the context of what we do, we must be ahead of the pack.
I wouldn’t say we need to start thinking about 6G sooner than the rest of the world. It takes a long time to get from fledgling technology to something that can be used in a proof of concept, then trialed and deployed. As a result, we all begin to think about it at the same time.
It’s therefore early and in real-time. And that’s not just commercial customers. That also means research entities. And we must stay on top of what’s going on at the policy level—governments, government research labs, that kind of thing.
6G is still many years away, with many in the industry thinking 2030 for first deployments, or a bit sooner if they’re being especially optimistic. Even so, what kinds of expectations are you seeing from people in the industry for this next generation of wireless?
Nichols: Initial 6G rollout is still scheduled for 2030. Obviously, it takes a long time for anything to become widespread after that. What I’ve described here will not be representative of what you’ll see in 2030. It’s more akin to what you’ll see in the years 2036 and 2037.
6G, like 5G, isn’t defined in terms of how many bits per second, how broad the bandwidth is, how much power is utilized, or what spectrum is used. It is being defined in terms of how the systems will be used and their social impact. That’s a critical thinking paradigm that began with the 5G era, when they were imagining the use cases the system would have to address and how that would affect the system’s performance.
What are those societal impacts that are defining 6G?
Nichols: “Sustainable development” is one of them. What this means is that mobile wireless communications will become much more prevalent in society. With COVID, we’ve seen a lot of that type of motion in the last few years. You can bring teaching knowledge and interactivity to regions that don’t have it now, whether they’re in rural or even not-so-rural locations, in school systems.
This also applies to the way we administer healthcare services. People discuss topics such as remote surgery. Okay, perhaps that will happen. There are numerous policy considerations around this. Remote health care, which began in 5G but is far more ordinary but no less important, will be intensified in 6G.
Are there any other impacts?
Nichols: Immersive telepresence is another area. Consider a tactile hologram from Minority Report or the most recent Blade Runner film. Alternatively, instead of a video chat, you and I could shake hands; you’d be able to feel the other person’s hand and be dealing with a full-size, holographic viewpoint. So that might come out as a little goofy, like something out of a Star Wars movie. But let’s take it a step further and apply it to remote troubleshooting of physical systems, or even places where a human wouldn’t be safe.
There are a few more use cases, but the attention to privacy and security is one that I’d want to highlight. As the number of systems that interact and the ways in which they are used expands— Whether it’s cellphones, cooperative robots, or devices that are embedded into our skin, the threat surface for malevolent actors has grown significantly. As a result, we’ll need a mechanism for the system to automatically detect and alter the required level of security or privacy, depending on the application. I also see the potential of using artificial intelligence to address one of the most common security issues today, which is that people simply don’t configure their systems properly—a there’s a door, a lock, and a key, but no one locks it. In that circumstance, we may have systems that catch us—and correct us.