In the north of Finland, a famous cluster of companies supports research into new radio technology. From well known names like Nokia and Keysight to renowned research institutions such as the University of Oulu and VTT, to more tactical companies such as KNL, a shortwave radio specialist for military applications, this small area contains a concentration of wireless expertise to rival any in the world.
There’s also a large gathering of companies involved in the products and applications that benefit from newer wireless network capabilities. These are companies developing smart eye glass technology, software for cars, healthcare devices and other products. Many of them formed in the last decade and a bit as a result – locals say – of Nokia collapsing off its burning platform in 2011 and giving thousands of laid off staff the motivation to form and move into start-ups.
Radio engineers work on long lead times. The work on a lab bench now might not be in a commercial network for another 5-10 years, if at all. That means that researchers in Oulu, as elsewhere, are thinking about 6G radio, even though it is likely to be at least 2030 before anything that might be called a 6G commercially network is in operation..
What’s slightly different about Oulu is that it is home to a 6G Flagship programme that was the first in the world to start asking 6G questions – such as why might society need 6G, what would it be for, what technologies might enable those use cases, how can we build them?
Oulu University’s 6G Flagship is one of 14 scientific research flagships selected for funding by the Finnish government. Reflecting the strategic importance the Finnish government attaches to communications research, it was the first project chosen as a national research flagship and it has been in existence since 2018, which roughly coincided with the deployment of the first pilot 5G networks. The Flagship has leveraged an initial EUR25 million government seed funding to secure an overall budget of EUR250 million from private funding and EU funded research grants.
Finland’s commitment to funding 6G research is ongoing – its 6G Bridge programme run by Business Finland has funded 30 projects with EUR130 million funding through 2023-2025, whilst 6G Finland is a national 6G coalition formed in May 2022 to lead 6G at a policy level. Then Finland itself sits within the EU research and funding framework. Following on from its 5G-PPP programmes the EU is running 62 projects within Hexa-X and Hexa-II, under the organisation of 6G-SNS.
As one of the earliest, if not the earliest, formal 6G research projects, 6G Flagship’s first white paper was amongst the first documents to wrestle with what 6G might be for. At that time there were certain standout items. 6G must meet societal goals, and for this the researchers latched onto UN SDGs. It must also transform energy efficiency.
By exploiting higher frequency bands in sub Terahertz frequencies it might also enable use cases such as holographic communications. These would necessarily be dependent on short range, D2D and D2X networks.
As a result there was also an early statement that 6G wireless connectivity would not be solely or even mostly controlled by mobile operators deploying networks in licensed spectrum. The paper said that to enable the deployment of alternative networks in unlicensed spectrum, or in high band spectrum with short range propagation, 6G should also somehow encompass a change in regulatory regimes, to enable a range of deployment options.
Since then it has produced a further 12 white papers that have expanded on many areas, but some of these core themes remain.With a second phased starting in 2022, the flagship now has 500 researchers, drawn from 50 countries, spread across four strategic work areas. Of these its work on wireless connectivity research is the largest, looking at what a future 6G RAN (or RANs) might look like.
A second stream looks at device and circuit technologies. A third stream investigates distributed and wireless computing, while the final stream takes on sustainable and human-centric services and applications.
In its labs, TMN was able to see work undertaken on Reflective Intelligent Surfaces, with horn antennas reflecting beams to study the behaviour of radio signals in the 140 GHz band, to study the performance of signal propagating at such high bands.
In a chamber there was testing of the RF capabilities of a first sub THz chip, at 300 GHz, where applications may include combined communications and sensing, as a well as very high bandwidth apps such as holographic communication. The chip designed here takes RF data and down converts that to 1 GHz and from there to a digital signal.
The Flagship also takes advantage of a Test Network at the University of Oulu, which in turn is backed by Nokia’s radio research. The NSA and SA test network currently has a 5G macro site at 3.5 GHz, as well as small cells indoors, including a mmWave access point at 24 GHz. Outdoor mmWave is currently planned. There is also a platform to connect 400 IoT sensors, a vEPC as well as a 5G core network, and an MEC platform for edge processing. Through 2024 this architecture will include deployment of a RIC platform and xApps on the edge platform.
The Test Network benefits directly from Nokia’s involvement (it is based on Nokia equipment and software), and Nokia in turn can use the network as one of the proving grounds for its own research. Nokia might bring interesting problems to academics to solve, and it might also introduce research results into its product portfolio evolution.
Crucially the Flagship also sits within a wider wireless ecosystem based around Oulu specifically, and Finland. As a city region, Oulu hosts over 1,000 tech companies, with (for Finland) a very young average age of under 40, something boosted by the presence of 25,000 students. There are 12,000 non-Finnish inhabitants from 120 countries. And the city is currently growing by 3,000 people a year.
This ecosystem includes companies such as:
- KNL, which is developing long range radio technology in the shortwave band, with applications already adopted by the Finnish military. In fact military and secure communications might well become one key driver for radio research in the cluster, as Finland’s membership of NATO and its worsening relation with Russia, with whom it shares its only land border.
- Another company with expertise in tactical and secure comms is Bittium, which develops Software Defined Radio solutions for the military, as well as tactical IP Wireless solutions.
- Keysight and Orbis systems. Keysight is providing is emulation and test systems to developers that are investigating the operation of radio in new frequencies, and the addition of aI techniques into the air interface. Orbis is a provider of test systems, including OTA chambers and shielded rooms, as well as RF signal switching and functional test systems.
- Elektrobit’s software is embedded in modules in connected cars. The company is targeting the development of open software architectures within vehicles to provide a platform for software connectivity and development. The importance of in-vehicle software will increase as 5G and 6G networks enable deeper V2X connectivity outside the vehicle, and as car OEMs compete on dashboard features and control and analysis of data.
- Dispelix is developing waveguide technology for smart and AR/VR glasses that can look and feel like wearing normal glasses.
Declaration: TMN’s trip to Oulu was paid for by Business Finland. None of the companies featured, nor Business Finland, has had any input or control over this article.