While most of us have been adjusting to the arrival of 5G networks in the world around us, Roger Nichols has been thinking about 6G. Nichols is the 6G program manager at Keysight, a California-based test and measurement equipment manufacturer. In other words, Keysight is one of the companies that builds the tools the rest of the wireless industry needs to ensure their own cutting-edge tech performs as expected.
IEEE Spectrum spoke to Nichols about how test and measurement companies fit into the developing 6G landscape, how much earlier than the rest of the industry they need to think about new wireless technologies, 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 there is some degree of “do-it-yourself” out there, it turns out that this is quite specialized work. Most of our customers would rather have us experts deal with that. The idea of measuring things is the comparison of the behavior of some design to an accepted standard. That set of skills and expertise is our specialty.
For example, you could make your own pliers and hammers, if you wanted to build a house. But you’re far better off buying those from somebody who knows how to do it. It’s not the best analogy, but that’s one way to look at what we do: we make tools.
It’s hard enough to design the communications systems, and to deploy to scale. That’s a big enough challenge for companies like you mentioned. They have their hands full in making those complex systems work and in remaining competitive. They have to make a zillion of them and deploy them all over the world, and the systems must work in cold weather, in hot weather, in the rain, and other elements. The way I put it is, “You folks have to make the network operate. Our job is to help you understand if that’s really happening.”
Roger Nichols of KeysightKeysight
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: The first public interview I did on 6G, was in the late summer of 2019. So, we’ve been thinking about this for a while. That might seem a little bit crazy because it was also 2019 when the first production 5G networks were launched—first in South Korea in March and then in December in the United States. So it’s been over two years for us.
The reason why we get involved early is because early and continued engagement with leaders in the industry is critical to long-term success. If you think only about 6G sales, then that opportunity started a couple of years ago. It’s relatively small amounts of business, but it’s there. But as that grows, if we’re not involved early and continuously, it becomes extremely difficult to pursue the business at the scale a company like ours thrives on.
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 get deployed, and then later when they’re in production—the design process, the measurement process and the validation process all start a long time before that. Therefore, we have to think about what we need to do well in advance of network deployment and operation. And so, in the context of what we do, we need to precede the rest of the industry.
I would not say we must think about 6G earlier than everybody else. The research takes a long time to get from nascent technologies to something that you can put into a proof of concept and then ultimately trial and deploy. So we all start thinking about this at the same cadence. We’re not super far ahead, but we must be ahead of the industry to ensure they have the tools when they need them as they’re developing their systems.
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 deployment is still in that 2030 territory. Obviously, it takes several years after that for things to become mainstream. What I describe here will not be consistent with what you’re going to see in 2030. It’s more like what you’ll see in 2036 or 2037.
Somewhat like 5G, 6G is not being defined in terms of how many bits per second, how wide the bandwidth is, what the power level is, or what spectrum is being used. It’s being defined in how the systems will be used and their impact on society. That’s a critical thought paradigm that started in the 5G days, as they were envisioning the use cases that the system would have to address and how that would make a difference to society. With 6G, that “how will this make a difference to society” question is even more a part of the discussion right now.
What are those societal impacts that are defining 6G?
Nichols: One is called “sustainable development.” What that translates to is the use of mobile wireless communications in a much more pervasive way within society. We’ve seen a lot of that kind of motion in the last couple of years with COVID. For education systems, you can get teaching expertise and interactivity to places that currently don’t have it, whether that’s in rural or even not-so-rural areas.
That also involves how we manage health care. People talk about things like remote surgery. Yeah, okay, maybe that will happen. There’s a lot of policy issues around that. Remote health care, far more mundane but no less essential, and which is getting its start in 5G, will be amplified in 6G. Or think about how you would manage a city government using pervasive mobile communications and computing, like real-time traffic management, or emergency services, or many of the other logistics necessary in today’s cities.
Are there any other impacts?
Nichols: Another area is immersive telepresence. Think of a tactile hologram, like from Minority Report or the latest Blade Runner movie. Or, like you and I, instead of on a video call, we would actually shake hands; you can feel the other person’s hand and you’d be dealing with a full-size, holographic perspective. So that might seem a little silly, like a Star Wars movie. But let’s extend that to remote troubleshooting physical systems, or even someplace where you couldn’t ordinarily put a human because it isn’t safe.
There are a few other use cases, but the other one I’ll highlight is the attention to privacy and security. As we expand the way these systems are used, and the number of systems that communicate—whether that’s smartphones, or robots that cooperate with each other, or things that are built into our skin—the threat surface for malicious actors is much more significant. So we’ll need a way for the system to automatically understand the relative level of security or privacy that is needed, depending on the application—and adjust accordingly. I even see the potential of leveraging things like artificial intelligence to address one of the most common security problems right now, which is that people just don’t configure their system properly—there’s a door, there’s a lock, and there’s a key, but people don’t lock it. We could have systems that catch—and correct—us in that kind of situation.
If 6G is being defined through these societal impacts, how do you take those ideas and transform that into actual test and measurement equipment that the wireless industry can use?
Nichols: I don’t want to downplay the importance of the key performance indicators—throughput and capacity and energy consumption and so on. First we must understand at least a little bit about what we’re trying to accomplish. Then, what are the technologies that must exist for that to work? What performance levels are necessary?
Think about immersive telepresence. The data rate needs to be quite substantial—hundreds of gigabits per second, driven by needs like the size of the hologram, the frames per second, and the digital processing to make the images nice and clean. All of that only covers the quality of the image, which is just one fact of overall performance. An interactive hologram also places exceptional latency requirements on the system, and as I stated before there are significant privacy and security issues.
Most of what I’ve described just covers the radio link, but how does the rest of the network have to behave? How does it manage all that data moving around? What if it has to process and communicate more than one hologram—then you multiply all of those performance requirements by n, and how do you manage that?
This is one reason why we expect artificial intelligence to be inherent in 6G. The network will become such a very, very complex system that it will have far too many “levers” to pull for optimization than a human could figure out. Therefore, artificial intelligence will be used to optimize the amount of data that must be processed and communicated. Or it may be able to anticipate what’s going to happen so we don’t have to just brute-force extreme data rates and latency to manage the information flow from one place to another.
So you’re thinking about what these new technologies might require and working from that point?
Nichols: All those things I described—between data rates, latency, power consumption, network interactions, security, and even artificial intelligence—all of that informs the answer to how somebody will model, design, and implement that system. What will they need from a company like ours, in order to help them?
We need to measure radios that must operate at that level. We need to have very fast systems that measure high data throughput across wide bandwidths and multiple radio technologies. We need to have time-sensitive analysis systems that measure latency. We will need network-simulation and emulation systems that help people understand how the network should behave.
Can you give an example of measurement equipment that Keysight is working on developing so that other companies can use it to develop their 6G technologies?
Nichols: No one has a system yet that will make measurements for an air interface that is operating at 100 gigabits per second. We’ve done some great initial work here. We’ve simulated and emulated RF transceivers, but a full air interface that is operating that fast—with all the necessary components—that’s all still work to be done.
We have expensive, sophisticated systems that can make some of those fundamental measurements at subterahertz frequencies. The next challenge for us is how do we turn these research tools into more affordable systems for mainstream use?
Another fundamental challenge in system design and measurement is data processing. If you think about manipulating systems that consume that much data—100 gigabits per second, for example—in a single measurement chassis that might be a quarter of a cubic meter, there are several considerations. Can you process the data that fast? One industry-wide challenge is that the sample rate required for bandwidths and data rates that are this high is far larger than state-of-the-art clock rates in FPGAs and ASICs. Not only that, processing that much data consumes a lot of power. So we’re working on ways to make these systems more efficient.
It sounds like there’s a lot to work to be done as 6G develops. For you personally, what do you find most exciting?
Nichols: It’s a technical geek’s dream, right? The cool thing about mobile communications is that it has very significant demands of every electrical-engineering and computer-engineering discipline that I can think of. I think to some extent, that’s unique for the electronics industry.
One thing that started in 5G is moving as much of the functionality as we can into software-driven implementations, in which the system becomes more flexible and reprogrammable. What will make the largest difference for 6G is that it will be even more flexible. If you think about all of the different functions of a network, this means making as many of those functions into software as possible. It’s not likely that we’ll have virtual antennas and radio power amplifiers. That means the radio, the electronics, the fiber optics, and more must still exist, and it must perform better than it did. What sits on top of that is standardizing and improving how we deal with expanding and flexible virtualization.
This means that what makes the performance of a network “good” or “bad” becomes more subjective—at least in today’s terms—depending upon how the network is being used and who is using it. But companies and users will still want to benchmark with a quantitative measure of “just how good is it?” And this is the exciting challenge: It’s what I call quantifying the subjective. What will it take to design and monitor performance in terms of key indicators that answer questions like “What is your quality of experience?” and “How secure is it?” rather than just bits per second and uptime. In addition to all of the electronic wizardry that the industry will develop in the next 10 to 15 years, this, to me, is an area that’s just superexciting in terms of making it all work.
Michael Koziol is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum where he covers everything telecommunications. He graduated from Seattle University with bachelor's degrees in English and physics, and earned his master's degree in science journalism from New York University.