The race for 6G supremacy has already started. The UK must get ahead

As the scramble to ban Huawei shows, it pays to develop your telecoms strategy early

January 19, 2021
Image: Pixabay
Image: Pixabay

Even though fifth-generation fighter jets have only recently taken to the skies, countries are already working on the sixth generation. The same, alas, isn’t true for sixth-generation internet. Even as countries—including the UK—are just beginning to accelerate their fifth-generation rollout, they should be planning for 6G. The UK government should make sure Britain becomes a 6G pioneer.

Last year the American F35 fifth-generation fighter jet, 21 of which were acquired by the UK, performed all manner of operational premieres. Britain is now working on a sixth-generation fighter jet of its own. The Tempest will be made by BAE Systems and other British firms; Sweden and Italy have joined the undertaking as partners. Tempest aircraft, which will be flown by the three countries and any others that choose to buy them, won’t enter service until 2035, but it’s vital to start early.

Closer to earth, another generational shift is afoot. As British households are beginning to acquaint themselves with 5G internet, difficult choices that we have been forced to confront—most notably, banning Chinese giant Huawei from Britain’s 5G infrastructure—already threaten to resurface in a new form.

Internet infrastructure generations only change about once every decade, but long before new-generation internet come new-generation standards. Samsung expects the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union to "define a 6G vision" this year. The ITU, as it happens, is headed by a Chinese official, Houlin Zhao.

Beijing was clever to get Zhao elected to the post, because ITU plays a vital role in setting internet protocol standards that impact a mind-boggling number of devices. By 2030, an expected 500bn devices will be connected to the internet. A British official, Malcolm Johnson, occupies the ITU’s number two post, but because the UK—unlike China—strictly follows the rule that UN officials are international civil servants, Johnson’s position doesn’t equal British influence.

And Beijing is thinking ahead. Last summer it unveiled a plan called Standards 2035, with which it plans to set the standards for the world’s future technologies. Huawei already has the world’s largest 5G market share; it’s followed by Nokia of Finland, Ericsson of Sweden, ZTE of China, the US firms Cisco and Ciena, and Samsung of South Korea. As firms move to develop 6G capabilities, the question is how the UK can take a pole position in the race and avoid over-dependence on others.

Today, Nokia and Ericsson are Huawei’s only serious competitors. As a growing number of countries opt out of Huawei due to security concerns, the two Scandinavian firms will get extremely busy. What if Ericsson or Nokia decided the internet equipment business was too diplomatically fraught and shifted their focus elsewhere? It’s not likely, but as private enterprises the firms have no obligation to any government.

The UK and other western countries would be in dire straits. To keep up with the demands of industry and competitors such as China, the UK needs to play in the highest league of technology. During the industrial revolution, private-sector innovation made Britain the world’s leading industrial power. But if a post-Brexit UK is serious about becoming “Global Britain,” the government can’t assume the private sector will power the expansion the way northern factories did a couple of centuries ago. It shouldn’t go as far as the Chinese government, which not only exerts extreme control over industrial strategy and strives to set global standards, but actively supports its companies in global markets as well. The Johnson government could, however, start with 6G.

At the ITU, it should vigorously present its vision of 6G. And at home, it should incentivise companies and entrepreneurs to enter the telecom infrastructure business. Sound dirigiste? Such steering is the purpose of America’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It costs US taxpayers $3.5bn each year but rewards them with innovation that supports the armed forces and then spills over to civilian use. Think satnav, self-driving cars, and indeed the internet itself. ARPA, Britain’s own version, which has a budget of £800m over five years, has been delayed—but is perfectly positioned to steer entrepreneurial minds and firms towards 6G. 

Why not go one step further and launch a government-funded internet infrastructure company? Yes, government-run businesses mostly have a poor track record, but internet infrastructure is already indispensable for advanced economies. The UK government would be naïve to place only one bet: the bet that the invisible hand of the market will sort the issue out. Government involvement in critical national infrastructure is neither new nor doomed to fail. During the Cold War, many European countries efficiently operated postal services, railways, telephony and water through government-owned companies. Last year, US attorney general William Barr proposed that the US government buy a controlling stake in Ericsson.

6G may be even more important than a sixth-generation fighter jet. Being ahead of the curve in the fighter-jet domain is old hat for the UK. It should be easy to apply that mindset to 6G. And let’s not even mention 7G.