Huawei has begun researching 6G at its Ottawa lab

Huawei’s research and development centre in Kanata, Ont. Paul McKinnon / Shutterstock.com

Huawei has started researching the next generation of wireless technology that will follow 5G at its primary research centre near Ottawa, The Logic has learned. 

The Chinese tech giant is exploring 6G even before 5G technology is widely commercially available, and before the Canadian government has made a decision on whether telecommunications firms will be allowed to use Huawei’s equipment in building out their new networks across the country.

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Talking Point

Huawei is in the early stages of researching 6G technology at its Kanata, Ont. lab, and is in talks with Canadian university researchers about working on development of the next-generation wireless system. The Chinese telecommunications company’s plans come as the federal government is deciding on whether to allow the company’s equipment in Canada’s 5G networks.

The exploration of 6G was confirmed to The Logic by Song Zhang, vice-president of research strategy and partnership in Canada, during a presentation at the Kanata, Ont. facility. The company has also begun speaking with academics at some of Canada’s top research universities about developing the technology.

“The local team is looking at that and forming research topics with academia, with Canadian researchers,” he said. “5G is very new, and looking at 6G is part of the so-called 5G evolution.” 

Huawei did not answer specific questions about which Canadian university researchers are involved in its 6G development at this point; when the company will officially launch projects; or whether it’s discussed the technology with telecom companies.

The research, which Zhang describes as being very early-stage, comes as Huawei—and its 5G wireless technology, in particular—are under scrutiny over the company’s alleged ties to the Chinese government. 

The U.S., New Zealand and Australia have restricted the company’s 5G-enabled devices, and have banned telecommunications companies from using Huawei equipment in 5G infrastructure in their countries, following a global pressure campaign by the U.S. 

The federal government is currently conducting a security review of Huawei’s technology before deciding whether to allow telecommunications firms to use the company’s equipment in 5G infrastructure, and whether its devices will be permitted to use the network when it’s available. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the government likely won’t have a decision before the October election. 

Goodale’s office did not directly answer The Logic’s questions about whether it has communicated with Huawei about its 6G research in Ottawa, or whether it knew about the work. 

“The Government of Canada is carefully assessing the security challenges involved in future 5G technology, while recognizing the potential this technology holds for Canadians,” said Scott Bardsley, Goodale’s press secretary.

Dani Kennan, press secretary for Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, meanwhile, said the department is aware of companies exploring “technologies that move beyond 5G,” but did not confirm whether it knew specifically about Huawei’s work on 6G. “The work we’re focused on right now is getting ready for 5G by investing in Canadian companies and research … and ensuring that the right spectrum is available to support competition and the effective deployment,” said Keenan. 

Zhang noted that Huawei’s R&D track record in Ottawa positions the lab to lead the company’s global 6G development.

The firm’s Canadian team helped lead its global 5G development, beginning around 2009, said Zhang, by hiring wireless technology researchers from Nortel ahead of the Canadian company’s eventual collapse. 

Huawei has research partnerships with 10 Canadian universities. The firm said it spends about 10 per cent of its Canadian R&D budget—which totalled $180 million in 2018—on projects with academics. In May, the company announced a $220,000 partnership with the University of British Columbia to research 5G. It also has an ongoing partnership with Carleton University, where researcher Halim Yanikomeroglu led a $1-billion 5G research project with the company.

5G wireless technology could reach download speeds of up to 20 per cent faster than what’s currently available, per industry estimates, including tests by wireless chipmaker Qualcomm. It will also allow more mobile devices to access the internet at the same time. The technology is expected to be widely available by 2021, according to the GSMA, a trade association for network operators. 

Zhang said every new iteration of wireless technology takes about 15 years to research, develop and become available for public use—4G took roughly eight years to develop and 5G has been in the works for about 11 years—putting 6G on pace to be available in the mid-2030s. 

Huawei isn’t the only company developing wireless technology in Canada. In January, Finnish firm Nokia was awarded $40 million through the federal Strategic Innovation Fund to carry out 5G research in the country. Swedish competitor Ericsson also has an R&D facility in Ottawa.

Bell and Telus already use Huawei equipment in their existing wireless networks, and have each partnered with the Chinese firm to test 5G. Marc Choma, Bell’s communications director, told The Logic that the carrier is “in early stage discussions with multiple partners on 6G technology,” but that it was too early to comment on specific plans. “The focus is on launching 5G right now,” he said. Telus did not respond to The Logic’s request for comment.

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Sarah Schmidt, Rogers’ director of public affairs, did not answer questions about whether the company has communicated or worked with Huawei on 6G. “We are working with Ericsson to build our 4.5G and 5G network across the country,” she said.

Canada is becoming increasingly important to Huawei’s research ambitions. In July, the company reportedly laid off an unspecified number of staff at its U.S. R&D subsidiary, Futurewei Technologies. Following the reports, Chris Pereira, Huawei Canada’s director of public affairs, told The Logic that the company plans to keep growing its workforce in Canada. 

In February, Huawei announced it would hire 200 new staff in Canada by 2020; Pereira said it’s already reached that goal. And, in June, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei said he planned to open new research centres in Canada, beyond its hub in Kanata. Pereira said the expansion “will entail significant new hiring for well-paying jobs in Ottawa and Montreal.”