U.S. taps Apple, Google, Nokia, Qualcomm for 6G boost

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) took aim at 6G with the launch of its single largest public-private partnership program, enlisting nine cloud, tech and telecom heavyweights to help academics develop the technologies that will define next generation networks. 

Partners in the newly unveiled Resilient and Intelligent Next-Generation Systems (RINGS) program include Apple, Ericsson, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia, Qualcomm and VMware. The U.S. Department of Defense and National Institute of Standards and Technology are also participating.

Through the program, NSF will distribute some $40 million in funding to fuel academic research projects focused on next generation connectivity. Those working on projects chosen for the program will have access not only to the aforementioned industry and government partners for collaboration, but also NSF’s four wireless testbed facilities to trial their ideas.

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NSF is currently seeking research project applications, with proposals due by July 29. It expects to award approximately 40 grants.

Thyaga Nandagopal, acting deputy director for NSF’s Division of Computer and Network Systems, told Fierce that ten years ago the agency invested in research that led to the development of 5G by showing the viability of technologies including mmWave and spectrum sharing. It’s hoping to do the same again with the next generation of connectivity technology, but through a more collaborative approach, he added.

“To some extent our earlier 5G investment did not have active partnerships with industry of the nature we’re trying to emulate here,” he said. “But what we are seeing now is a lot of interest from industry saying ‘hey, NSF is in a position to identify and fund certain kinds of innovative breakthroughs that can help us get ideas. So instead of us waiting for those publications to happen or trying to discover them organically, why not be part and parcel of this discovery process from the very beginning.’”

Nandagopal acknowledged there are several other programs across the globe aiming to address “the next G,” but said the NSF effort is somewhat unique in its emphasis on boosting resilience alongside network intelligence, bandwidth, latency and scalability.

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“One thing Covid has shown us is our networks are something we cannot live without anymore,” he said. Nandagopal added resilience could mean anything from defending against cyberattacks and natural disasters to self-healing unseen flaws in code.

Joint effort

Peter Vetter, the head of the Access & Devices Research Lab at Nokia Bell Labs, told Fierce the public-private partnership structure of the RINGS program offers the U.S. a chance to leverage the full strength of industry by uniting network, silicon and cloud players under one banner alongside researchers.

He added with a three-year funding period for the program grants, the timing is right to be prepared for the expected start of next generation standardization efforts in 2024 or 2025.

“You put more great minds together, but it is a combination of industry and academia,” Vetter explained. “So the academia, they can come up with their crazy ideas. But what we want to help with is give an industry perspective, share our experience and make sure the vectors point in the same direction.”

“The thing I’m excited about most is really that community aspect…and the opportunity to drive foundational research together,” he added.

Beyond tackling resilience and intelligence as outlined by NSF, Vetter reiterated Nokia’s eagerness to address six key challenges in next generation systems. Among other things, these include development of a “network of networks,” protocols to ensure trustworthiness and advanced spectrum technologies for new and existing bands.