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How governments are shaping the race to 6G

South Korea's ICT minister sparked headlines from Mobile World Congress last month when she appeared to announce 2028 as the starting date for Korean 6G.

With the US, China and Japan anticipating commercial 6G starting no earlier than 2030, this seemed to suggest the Koreans were either impressively confident or utterly deluded.

In reality, the minister, Lim Hye-sook, was merely affirming the 2028-2030 timetable her government set last year (see 6G off to a flier – but to where?).

Such targets might seem like tokenism, but they are also an effective way to galvanize business and research leaders.

In fairness to Korea, it has a good track record. It "won" the 5G race with all three telcos launching 5G on the same day in 2019. Contrived, yes, but effective as Korean operators continue to be among the world's 5G pacesetters.In parallel with this contest for global 6G supremacy is a race involving mostly the same countries to partner up.

Lim Hye-sook, for example, during her visit to Barcelona also met with officials from the US, Finland and Indonesia to discuss 5G and 6G collaboration.

As it happens, Korea doesn't have any formal 6G partnerships with any other country, despite the best efforts of the US.

Neighboring Japan is a different story. Eager to claw its way back to the front ranks of mobile, it has struck multiple 6G partnerships with the US as well as with Finland and, most recently, the UK.

Some of these are more statements of intent than anything else, but Japan appears to be making some progress. It expects to lodge one of the first 6G technical drafts at an ITU meeting in June, according to Nikkei Asia Review.

The draft, recommending certain specs and requirements, has been developed by the Beyond 5G Promotion Consortium, a national body including big firms like Toyota and NEC as well as the telecom operators and the government.

China's reaction

Of course, the target of all this activity is China, and there are signs it is unsettling Beijing, despite its self-proclaimed global leadership in 5G.

Last December, the official Xinhua news service castigated the US government and western businesses for pressing ahead on 6G collaboration without China (see China rails at foreign 6G partnerships).

A China-based conference on 6G technology in March heard repeated appeals for international cooperation.

Xiang Libin, deputy head of the Ministry of Science and Technology, said China's telecom industry had been cooperating with foreign counterparts for decades, according to China Daily. "We welcome and actively support international cooperation on 6G," said Xiang.

Interestingly, some analysts suggest China should make a play for Korea as a partner (in 6G and other technologies) by slashing entry barriers for Korean business and investors and forming various kinds of collaborations. It makes sense, though it's extremely unlikely.

The actual creation of 6G is going to occur at industry level and in the 3GPP, not in government offices. But the decisions governments make today will heavily impact the way the next generation is developed.