6G: Navigating Between Technology Standards, National Security, and the Economy

The South Asian Times, November 26, 2023 

By Asheef Iqubbal

The rapid evolution of telecommunications and the proliferation of digital technologies are transforming our world into an interconnected and interdependent society. Therefore, development of telecommunication and digital technology standards plays a pivotal role in shaping the spectrum of socio-economic opportunities and power within a society.

The transition from manufacturing-based economies to more knowledge-based ones has facilitated the trend of standardisation in the telecommunication sector. While often invisible, standards offer a connection between technology and the market, providing a common design for products and processes.

Setting standards that promote interoperability and compatibility among complex technical products has become a necessity. This is crucial for facilitating coordination among equipment manufacturers working towards a common goal.

6G is set to reshape our future by revolutionising data transmission and low latency (that is the ability of a computing system or network to provide responses with minimal delay.) Its impact will be experienced across various sectors, ranging from robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Blockchain to the Internet of Things (IoT), space exploration, and defence advancements. Drone technology, medical sciences, and innovation also stand to benefit from the advancements brought about by 6G.

As much of the discourse revolves around the divide between the digitally enabled virtual and physical world, the consequential economic and geopolitical implications are significant.

Standards have become a focal point in the ongoing geopolitical tension, notably between China and the US. Both countries are increasingly weaponising technologies and their standards to concentrate more power, often with little consideration for their impact on developing countries. In the absence of an equitable global framework, emerging technologies, such as 6G, could exacerbate global economic disparities.

The evolution of telecommunication networks and standards

Unlike other technological innovations, the evolution of telecommunication networks has progressed in distinct phases, each culminating in a new “generation”. The networks of each generation, from 1G, 2G, 3G and 4G, have introduced prospects of socio-economic mobility as well as challenges, such as security and privacy. Now 5G has arrived in many parts of the world, promising low latency and the ability for thousands of machines to communicate with each other. As the telecommunication industry debates about the consumer expectations for 5G and beyond, momentum for 6G is starting to build.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN body responsible for international mobile telecommunication standards, is expected to come up with the standard for 6G by 2030. Technical standards have gone beyond the scope of forums where specialists discuss and establish specifications to facilitate development and international trade. They now serve as a strategic instrument to establish dominance.

The establishment of 4G and 5G standards were hard-fought, requiring the building of consensus among different stakeholders, such as service providers and manufacturers, which is a complicated process. 5G is considered to be a major shift in communications technologies because it offers greater speed, processing ability, and low latency – all of which support data intensive technologies and communication.

Standards for 6G will reshape the telecommunication network. It will impact the spectrum of emerging technologies, including AI and IoT.

Standards have direct economic implications for the companies involved in the development of telecom networks, as the standard-making process plays a crucial in shaping the innovation and structure of the industry. The standardisation processes are also important from the perspective of competition and consumer welfare. The mechanisms of processes lead to the quality of interoperability, connectivity, and the industry’s ability to generate network effects.

Historically, developing and least-developed countries around the world have been dependent on US-led western mobile communication technologies. For instance, until 2000, advanced countries such as the US and European countries were the main drivers of global telecom standards. But the scenario started to change dramatically after the rise of China in the sector.

With 5G standards, China has started to assert its dominance in technology, challenging the standard setting process.

The US-China tension over standards constitutes complex and challenging economic, security, and political issues. In 6G, emerging technologies such as IoT and AI will be integral to its services, and also influence the future of the global economy. India has also made inroads into the global standard-making process through 5Gi, aiming to foster domestic manufacturing growth and national security considerations.

While India may hold the belief that protectionist policies, such as regulating patent licensing or promoting domestic standards, can enhance innovation and global competitiveness of domestic players, it might prove to be counterproductive.

5Gi stirred controversy as domestic telecom operators and equipment vendors opposed its mandatory adoption, due to interoperability and cost issues. Industry opposition led to the merger of 5Gi with global 5G standards. Now, India is looking to develop a domestically made 6G technology to strengthen its national security and economic prospects.

The Indian government aims to hold 10% of the intellectual property rights (IPR) in 6G technology. To achieve this goal, a 22-member technology innovation group was formed in 2021. As a part of this, “Bharat 6G Vision” document was released in 2022, with a particular focus on fostering collaboration among stakeholders, including the government, industry, and academia.

If navigated effectively, the current scenario presents an opportunity to deconstruct the understanding of technical standards and instrumentalise it for shaping governance framework for emerging technologies and their role in facilitating trade, economy, and security.

Global power play: Geopolitical battles in 6G standards

Given the growing importance of emerging technologies, including telecommunication networks, and national interests, standards are becoming an increasingly significant aspect of foreign and trade policy.

At the G20 Summit 2023, India and the US collaborated to accelerate 6G technology. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Bharat 6G Alliance and Next G Alliance, facilitated by the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, deepening public-private collaboration. They also established two Joint Task Forces focused on Open RAN collaboration and research and development in 5G/6G technologies.

The centrality of Open RAN and telecom networks in this collaboration is geopolitical, representing a response to China’s leadership in 5G standardisation. In 2022, QUAD members also emphasised Open RAN, recognising the significance of telecommunications security and vendor diversity in the supply chain. The India-US Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET) also aims to build open, secure, and resilient technology ecosystems based on mutual trust, reinforcing shared values and democratic institutions.

National security considerations have become a critical discussion point in policy discussions on developing technological standards, especially in the wake of controversies involving Chinese technology companies. In 2021, US president Donald Trump banned US companies from working with or buying telecommunications equipment from Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei on the ground of national security risk.

The debate on national security risks has overshadowed the operational challenges faced by technology firms, industry bodies, and officials. Furthermore, it tends to overlook the associated costs involved in standards development.

This tension over standards will have a direct impact on the development costs for manufacturers, as they do not have to develop proprietary technologies from zero, resulting in lower costs for consumers. Standards also provide a framework for quality and reliability, ensuring that telecommunication equipment and networks meet the necessary requirements, leading to increased trust in the technology.

China has a well-crafted policy, including state-subsidised strategy for the development of technologies and their standards. The State typically monitors the development of standards and the private sector is actively encouraged to contribute its expertise to the process. As a result, Chinese companies are estimated to have installed internet and mobile network equipment in at least 38 countries. This makes Chinese technology the potential de facto standard.

Contrary to the rhetoric, robust standards development depends on the capability of Research and Development (R&D), which requires huge financial resources. India’s financial allocation towards R&D is comparatively modest at 0.8%, markedly below the European Union’s 2.27% allocation and China’s 2.55% investment.

As a result, India was not even featured in a 2021 study by the Tokyo-based research company Cyber Creative on 6G patent applications by country. China topped the list with 40.3% of total patents, followed by the US with 35.2%.

In 5G, Ericsson from Sweden, Nokia from Finland, and ZTE from China collectively dominate nearly 80% of the global network equipment market in terms of revenue.

Chinese equipment may cause threats to data privacy, competitiveness, and national security and it is creating a sense of fear, particularly among democratic countries, due to its top-down, state-led approach, and industrial ownership of technology. In addition, it is argued that equipment might be instrumentalised for state surveillance as China’s domestic regulations mandates businesses to share data with the government.

In contrast, the US standards community consists primarily of industry-led organisations that have traditionally operated independently of the government. In response, the US has begun to take a new approach to standardisation by using its diplomatic clout by bringing allies and partners together; Open RAN is just an initial example.

Policymakers across the globe have legitimate concerns about the potential manipulation of standards by undemocratic actors. Geostrategic tension over this may lead to fragmented telecom networks operating in silos, which poses significant economic implications for industries and consumers alike.

A meaningful use of technologies cannot rely solely on technology itself; it must be upheld through a balanced combination of technology, political arrangements, rule-based global orders, and a market committed to these values.

(Asheef Iqubbal is a senior research associate at CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group, headquartered in Jaipur.)

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