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Technology

Race for 6G: South Korea and China off to early leads

Japan plays catch-up via infrastructure, and US tries to gain ground with chips

Workers install base stations in the U.S. state of Texas. Next generation 6G service will require many more base stations.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- As fifth-generation wireless networks start to go mainstream, competition to develop 6G has begun, with Samsung Electronics and Huawei Technologies at the forefront, especially in the base stations that will form the backbone of future networks.

Those companies provide leadership to South Korea and China, respectively. Japan aims to play catch-up, while the U.S. desperately pushes to regain leadership in innovation.

Work to standardize technological specifications for sixth-generation networks is expected to begin around 2023. That move likely will kick-start development of equipment and parts ahead of anticipated commercialization around 2027.

South Korea and China, home to global manufacturers of mobile phones, base stations and electronic parts, are tapping the expertise of these companies and aim to take the lead in setting 6G tech standards through public-private efforts.

South Korea seeks to become the first country to launch 6G commercial services, with Samsung and LG Electronics setting up research centers and Seoul considering a 976 billion won ($800 million) development project.

Beijing unveiled a research and development program in November, while Huawei debuted a research team.

Base stations are expected to undergo a transformation in terms of quality and quantity with 6G, which likely will support speeds of more than 1 terabit per second, or over 10 times faster than 5G.

But in terms of range, the transmission distance of 6G base stations will be only 200 meters or less.

This means "we'll need base stations 10 times a population," said Tetsuya Kawanishi, professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.

Japan has about 600,000 base stations, he said, projecting that 6G will require 1 billion nationwide and up to 100 billion globally.

While current base stations are roughly the size of a refrigerator, 6G networks will use shorter wavelengths and therefore require smaller antennas, so their stations can be as small as mobile handsets. Even lighting equipment, signs and passenger cars may play the role of a base station.

Base stations also are expected to act as servers and process data at high speeds. Ultrafast communication will be available even in remote areas, facilitating collection of big data. Businesses are seeking ways to develop such smart stations to gain leadership in the race.

Three players control roughly 80% of the current base station market: the rapidly rising Huawei, Sweden's Ericsson and Nokia of Finland, IHS Markit says. Europe intends to work on developing standards with the 3rd Generation Partnership Project -- a collaboration of standards organizations -- and others.

President Donald Trump wants the U.S. on the front line of 6G tech. The U.S. apparently looks to build a leadership position in chips, used for high-speed data processing, tapping Intel and other American companies.

Tech giants envision new services using base stations. Amazon.com has teamed with Japanese telecom carrier KDDI for its Amazon Web Services to offer edge computing, processing data at locations physically closer to users' premises.

Japan plots a comeback with 6G. The communications ministry unveiled ambitious goals under its "Beyond 5G" strategy released in April, seeking to capture a 30% global market share for base stations and other infrastructure, up from just 2% at present.

Tokyo also wants 10% of relevant patents worldwide to come from Japanese companies. Samsung leads the 5G race as the holder of 8.9% of patents, followed by Huawei at 8.3% and Qualcomm at 7.4%. Japan's NTT Docomo ranks sixth with a 5.5% share, according to Cyber Creative Institute.

Japanese telecom carriers are devising infrastructure ideas. Besides satellites, Docomo aims to set up base stations in rugged areas and elsewhere. SoftBank Corp. is pursuing what it calls the High Altitude Platform Station business, having unmanned aircraft send network connectivity from the stratosphere.

The problem may be that Japanese companies have focused on the domestic market alone.

"Whether Japanese equipment makers that lack a track record in 5G will be able to gain leadership on 6G is questionable," said a senior executive at a telecom company.

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