Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Are you ready for 6G? Maybe not. It’s seven years away at least. Still, industry stakeholders are already discussing the possible protocols and their key ambitions for sixth-gen mobile networks…
It seems like yesterday that the world was excited about the ‘future’ launch of 5G. In fact it was five years ago. The specs behind 5G were ‘frozen’ by standards body 3GPP in June 2018, and fully specified by September 2019.
Now, according to the GSA, 5G is firmly in the mainstream. In its latest data round-up the trade body summed up the progress of 5G as follows:
• 1.77 billion 5G global subscribers
• 265 commercial 5G launches
• 2,000+ 5G devices announced
• 1,704 commercial 5G devices available
• More than $50 billion spent on 5G related spectrum auctions and assignments
5G is off to an excellent start. However, the mobile telecoms business never stands still. Which is why the industry is already preparing for the ‘sequel’ to fifth generation mobile.
Yes, we’re talking 6G.
‘Talking’ is the active word here. At time of writing 6G standards and specs have not been defined. Still, plenty of conversations are happening behind the scenes. Industry stakeholders have discussed many technical options. They have also broadly agreed a commercial and social ‘wish list’ for 6G when it arrives.
Let’s dive into the topic.
What is 6G?
Simply, 6G is the next generation of mobile network technology. The more interesting question is: what is 6G for?
Well, since it is probably seven years away, no one knows for sure. But, as we suggest above, mobile stakeholders have already come to a degree of consensus.
Two 6G qualities stand out. The first is its ability to support a new ‘Internet of Senses’.
According to Cap Gemini, 6G networks will power immersive, ubiquitous, and sensory digital experiences on a massive scale. This will make it possible for 6G applications to sense their surroundings, and thereby turn the network into ‘our sixth sense’. This will accelerate the development of completely new experiences, such as immersive mixed reality and holographic and multi-sensory communication.
Nokia Bell Labs agrees and describes this quality as follows:
“The ubiquitous network becomes a source of situational awareness, collating signals that bounce off objects to determine type, shape, relative location, velocity and perhaps even material properties…such a mode of sensing can help create a “mirror” or digital twin of the physical world in combination with other sensing modalities.”
The second much-discussed characteristic of 6G will be its low-energy consumption.
Ericsson believes 6G will enable devices to operate without batteries, by making it possible to harvest ambient energy from vibrations, light, temperature gradients, or even from the radio-frequency waves themselves.
Obviously, deploying zero energy devices will remove all limitations associated with battery replacement and charging. This could hugely expand IoT use cases in areas such as logistics, warehousing, shipping, environmental monitoring, agriculture, telehealth and so on.
Alongside these above two transformative benefits, experts have cited other key 6G qualities such as the self-learning network. In 6G, a dynamic AI/ML-defined native air interface could give radios the ability to learn from one other and their environments. Those nodes could determine the best way to communicate, rather than rely on engineers.
Another important development could be in security and trust. More devices mean more attack surface for cyber criminals. Meanwhile the emergence of mixed-reality worlds will also offer new opportunities for scammers. Nokia Bell Labs believes 6G has the potential to defend against these threats, citing new tech such as Quantum Key Distribution and homomorphic encryption.
How might 6G change everyday life?
It’s one thing to talk about the ideas like ‘the internet of senses’ in the abstract. But most people want to know: how will 6G affect me on a day to day basis?
Of course, no one knows for sure. But here are some ideas proposed by the standards body IEEE.
• Phones may be further developed into keys and money.
• Voice or movement could replace typing.
• Implanted sensors, telesurgery, and wearables could transform healthcare.
• Holographic meetings might succeed online conference calls.
• 6G could reach remote locations with no Internet access via satellites.
• Humans will better communicate with robots, IoT devices, and wearables.
• Robots and drones might perform dangerous jobs in place of humans
• Education being further reaching and more immersive.
• Sensing where devices are could improve identity and reduce fraud
• Smart agriculture could control water, monitor livestock, and provide accurate pesticide use.
• 6G smart grids could optimize energy distribution.
When will 6G arrive?
Designing a new generation mobile network is hugely complicated. It involves thousands of researchers and developers, all of whom have to agree underlying technological standards before the network is built.
Today, 6G standards have not been defined. However, there has been substantial research activity. A variety of new industry bodies have each made proposals on the roadmap for 6G. They include the European Hexa-X project, which first met in 2021, the North American Next G Alliance (NGA) and the Chinese IMT-2030 (6G) Promotion Group. There’s even a 6G Industry Association (6GIA) that was created as the voice of European industry and research for next-generation networks
In June 2023 there was arguably the first significant 6G milestone. It was when the International Telecommunication Union — Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) presented its standard for 6G technology, the Draft IMT-2030 (6G) Framework Recommendation.
ITU members described the recommendation as “covering key information regarding the usage scenarios that 6G will pursue – as well as capabilities and roadmaps toward the international standardization and commercialization of 6G.”
The next big 6G calendar event will be the World Radio Communication Conference 2023 (WRC-23) in November. It will set the spectrum foundations for 6G.
Overall, the consensus seems to be that discussions on the exact technical specifications will start from 2025, leading to the first 6G specification in 3GPP Release 21 by 2028. Commercial deployments will start around 2030.
What are the technical options for 6G?
As we have discussed, 6G will be defined by rapid speed, wide reach, vast capacity and low energy. What will it take to achieve these targets? The industry is still debating the technology required. However, many stakeholders have already written about the options.
Ericsson, for example, says that 6G will require access-link technology along with new packet fronthaul and wireless transport technologies, such as relay and mesh networking. It will also need more integrated access and backhaul.
Ericsson also suggests that there should be new spectrum bands and even new radio technologies such as holographic beamforming, advanced duplexing technologies and ‘gigantic’ massive MIMO technology. It says sub-1 GHz frequency bands will remain necessary even in the 6G era, while mid-band spectrum can address wide area use cases that require capacity. Spectrum in the mmWave range will continue to provide high capacity in crowded environments.
However, high capacity 6G use cases could demand spectrum in the centimetric (7-15 GHz), while a complementary sub-THz (92-300 GHz) range might help to deliver required speeds beyond 100Gbps and extremely low latencies of 6G niche use cases.
Meanwhile Nokia Bell Labs identifies the sub-THz range as being a suitable use case for 6G backhaul networks. These bands were previously deemed unsuitable for cellular, but new techniques such as beamforming could open up those frequencies to future 6G networks.
If the first 6G networks are successfully launched in 2030, it will be roughly half a century since the first cellular network (wireless) technology emerged.
This was 1G – launched in Japan in 1979. 1G was analog, and as such offered patchy coverage, poor sound quality, limited vendor compatibility and many privacy/security flaws. That said, it was the world’s first glimpse of mobile comms. It was a revolution and other nations launched their networks in the early 1980s.
Digital 2G network tech represented a significant improvement when it commercially launched on the GSM standard in Finland in 1991. Shortly after so-called 2.5G (GPRS, EDGE) implemented a ‘packet-switched’ domain. This made it possible to transfer small quantities of data over the network.
Demand for data drove the creation of 3G in 2001. 3G offered peak data rates of at least 144 Kbps with a maximum of 14 Mbps. The most common standard was UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System), which was used in Europe, Japan and China. The alternative was CDMA2000, used in North America and South Korea.
Speed and latency improved again with the introduction of 4G. It offered speeds of up to 150 Mbit/s download and 50 Mbit/s upload. The first WiMAX standard launch was in South Korea in 2006 while the first LTE standard deployments were in Oslo and Stockholm in 2009.
4G made it realistic to enjoy true multimedia experiences on the mobile network: video streaming, multiplayer gaming etc. But it lacked the capacity, reach and latency to truly support the IoT world of automated machines, connected vehicles, smart cities, telehealth and more.
This led to 5G, which began deploying worldwide in 2019. 5G uses shorter frequencies (millimeter waves between 30GHz and 300GHz) to boost performance. In 2023, most 5G networks are ‘non-standalone’. They rely on the underlying 4G infrastructure. But eventually, they will be replaced by 5G standalone (SA) networks, which use a cloud-based virtualised core. 5G SA will deliver the following benefits.
• Up to 10Gbps data rate
• 1-millisecond latency
• 1000x bandwidth per unit area
• Up to 100x number more connected devices per unit area than 4G
• 99.999 percent availability
• 100 percent coverage
• Up to 10-year battery life for low power IoT device
5G SA promises amazing speed and performance. But its qualities will certainly be overshadowed by 6G. And now we are on the verge of the 6G era. As we have explained in this article, the specifications of 6G are still to be finalised. However, insiders expect agreement on standards to start from 2025, with commercial deployments expected from 2030. Exciting, isn’t it?