Features | Economy

Can Japan and the US Lead the Way to 6G?

The Biden-Suga summit this week will help set the tone on the allies’ cooperation on “Beyond 5G” technologies.

Can Japan and the US Lead the Way to 6G?
Credit: Depositphotos

National leaders like Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and U.S. President Joe Biden find themselves in an unenviable position. As fifth-generation (5G) mobile telecommunications networks are being rolled out in their countries to fulfill the promise of faster speeds and lower latencies to help bolster their economies, network operators in their countries have few or no domestic hardware vendors with whom they can do business. Instead, they are being forced to choose between hardware components made by Chinese companies, viewed by their governments as an unacceptable national security threat, or by European or South Korean firms, which are more costly. This is one of several China and technology competition-related issues that Biden and Suga will discuss when they meet in Washington on April 16.

Even as 5G networks are only just becoming commercially available, U.S. and Japanese policymakers are already considering how they can prime their de facto national champions to be at the cutting edge of “6G” or “Beyond 5G” technologies. These are some of the so-called emerging technologies enshrined in a new bilateral policy working group set up in advance of the Biden-Suga summit. There are many ways that policymakers can take a coordinated, measured, and proactive approach to ensuring network security and commercial competitiveness in the decades to come, and the work will begin in earnest after the leaders’ meeting is concluded.

In cooperation with Japanese partners, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently hosted a series of bilateral discussions with various stakeholders from government and industry to consider the ways that the U.S. and Japanese governments can coordinate Beyond 5G policies productively. The dialogue focused on information sharing and brainstorming rather than decision making, but it revealed strong agreement on many objectives for telecommunications policy, as well as multiple areas for potential collaboration.

Broadly, these areas include supporting foundational research for new technologies, helping to transparently establish global technical standards, encouraging the adoption of open hardware systems rather than the closed (vendor-specific) variety, and promoting best practices and providing commercially viable network options in third countries.

Collaboration is already underway between U.S. and Japanese firms to promote a new network architecture dubbed Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN). Historically, network operators have had to buy entire systems including individual antennas and aggregating base-stations from a single vendor to ensure their compatibility. The Open RAN standard is intended to strip away much of the proprietary software built into this equipment and replace it with an open-source layer so that network operators can mix and match – and, ideally, “plug-and-play” with – hardware from multiple vendors. It will also enable some virtualization of these networks.

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Open RAN advocates tout performance benefits including AI-supervised load management (to improve efficiency) and the ability to tailor hardware solutions for their deployment environments, but the technology is not fully mature. There are several dozen active deployments of Open RAN networks being tested, but none are commercially available yet. One representative of a large Japanese network operator that has successfully integrated a handful of vendors’ equipment into an Open RAN network described a complex and costly process of trying to maintain smooth and secure operation. He added that increasing vendor diversity could raise life-cycle costs exponentially unless technical improvements are made. The U.S. and Japanese governments are investing in Open RAN research and funding pilot projects involving multiple companies to evaluate such systems in realistic scenarios, but a greater sense of urgency is needed.

Public-private partnerships like the miniature fake cities built to test AI, smart-home, and driverless car technologies should also incorporate new networking equipment in their portfolios and coordinate their work – as necessary, through government agencies. Two such examples include separate test platforms in Michigan and one near Mt. Fuji, providing twice as many research opportunities for the allies. A relatively small amount of new government funding could facilitate data sharing and some division of labor to maximize the value of these investments.

It is important to remember that when considering national economic development, next-generation telecommunications networks are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are means that will enable future industries to be established, make existing ones more productive, and improve standards of living. Being a leader in technical innovation means little if firms do not adopt those innovations. Convincing firms to adopt future networking technologies will be critical to ensuring that they actually reap the benefits of this infrastructure development. Consequently, government- or business-backed test platforms should also develop demonstrations of Beyond 5G technologies vertically integrated in various industry use-cases. That would help realize the promise of advanced networking technology more quickly.

The allies are also expected to push for technical standard setting that is transparent and not tied to one nation’s preferences. Some U.S. and Japanese government representation at international standard-setting bodies will be necessary, but de-politicizing this process could produce better results. Diplomats’ comments at international standard-development bodies are often laden with geopolitical baggage. Instead, allied governments can expand their private-sector participation by subsidizing the attendance of engineers from smaller U.S. and Japanese companies that have traditionally been absent at these forums because of financial constraints.

The United States and Japan are also eager to spread the use of Open RAN and trusted vendor hardware to less developed countries. Leveraging their development finance programs can contribute to this goal and help counter China’s growing economic influence. Development finance corporations have often relied on concessional loans to fund new infrastructure abroad. If it is the goal of the United States and Japan to ensure that critical network infrastructure in developing countries is secure in addition to merely existing, the use of grant and equity funding should also be considered. Working with other like-minded nations would also be worthwhile and requires coordination. The Palau Submarine Cable Project announced last year, a trilateral cooperative by the United States, Japan, and Australia – another member of the newly established “Quad” – incorporates both of these principles and could be a model for how future infrastructure projects in developing countries could be supported. The Quad itself will have its own working group on emerging technologies.

Domestic regulators can also help smooth the road ahead. Beyond 5G technologies are likely going to take advantage of the millimeter-wave and terahertz frequency parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. In the United States, for example, the FCC could work with hardware manufacturers to identify which parts of the spectrum can and should be reserved for future mobile networking technologies. That might also mean preparing a new round of the “Incentive Auction” for the government to buy back licenses for lower-frequency segments of spectrum and sell them on to mobile carriers. Further coordinating these decisions across borders with long lead times for private sector planning purposes could help improve hardware compatibility between U.S. and Japanese vendors. As research and development progresses on new technologies, innovators will benefit from predictable policies related to securing the supply chain, data privacy, and spectrum use.

Mobile communications, and the technology that underlies it, is poised to become even more integrated with our daily lives, and governments will find it challenging to balance simultaneously the needs of their domestic companies, citizens, and international partners. Governments should resist the urge to intervene too drastically in the private marketplace and avoid policies that enshrine specific technologies, as they lack the expertise and information to pick future technology winners. Still, some coordinated government action by the allies can help prevent Chinese dominance in these markets, which will be critical for the future of U.S. and Japanese industry. Biden and Suga can set the tone, but close and ongoing consultation with the private sector and with other international partners will be the linchpin of success.