The advent of 5G technology has taken the world by storm, with its promises of lightning-fast speeds and low latency. However, the future of mobile technology is already underway, with 6G looming on the horizon. 6G is the future. This is not a marketing slogan or a premonition of the commercial and consumer adoption of a particular use case. Instead, 6G mobile technology will be whatever we can squeeze into a set of globally agreed standards in the next phase of the mobile technology evolution. The biggest difference will not be the arrival of a new spectrum, ridiculously high bandwidth, subhuman low latency, and all the other technical aspects. Instead, the biggest differences are the academic, commercial, and state vanguards have a more holistic approach. Possibly as early as 2030, 6G will include whatever cutting-edge technology advancements that are available in the pipeline, bridging society even closer with the physical, digital, and virtual realms. In this blog series, I aim to provide a comprehensive look at the future of 6G cellular technology. With numerous patents already filed and ongoing research, I will explore the key building blocks of 6G, including timelines, technologies, and outlooks. The goal is to shed light on the high-level aspirations and initiate a discussion on what the technology industry needs to do to advance 6G. While the specifications and definitions of services, protocols, and scientific boundaries are still evolving, this 6G blog series will provide the data for making those decisions. Topic to be covered will include:
Overview of 6G
Features of 6G
Technical Deep Dive into Technology
Who is Driving the 6G Vision
I will provide a taste of what we will be examining in each of these domains below.
Overview Of 6G
There is no universal acceptance of what defines 6G, and there is no consensus on what its exact capabilities will be. The only thing everyone agrees on is that there is a lot of competing and leading research being done by different groups, including standards bodies, vendors, academia, and from the regulatory bodies still in discussions with their governments about the best way to approach 6G. Given what the telecommunications industry will commit to from 2023 until the mid-2030s, there is a need to ensure that at least the following targets are defined and R&D has begun:
Improvements over 5G in terms of speed, latency, and density
Commercially available networks will become a reality by 2030
More spectrum via extremely high frequency (EHF)
mmWave (30 to 300GHz) and Terahertz (300 to 3000GHz) once the sensitivity, power, and range obstacles are overcome
Mixing of the digital and physical world
Introduction of body area networks (BANs)
Real-time predictions of sense inputs and output
The world of sensors, edge devices, and communications devices will all be singular (see below)
Enterprise and social mixed media as the next advancement of immersive technology
Integrated sensor support with the Internet of Senses (IoS)
Integrated Sensing networks
The world of sensors, edge devices, and communications devices will all be singular
Distinct sustainability targets
100x the speed, 100x less latency at 100 times less power
Support for satellite and non-terrestrial communications
Features of 6G
As we stated, 6G mobile technology is simply the next generation of communication technology, finalizing and evolving from everything currently in 5G. The development is still at the fundamental research stage, with industry analysts envisaging commercial rollout in 2030. The vision is to offer a new level of connectivity, speed, and capabilities, surpassing 5G and revolutionizing how people communicate, work, and live. The major obstacles to overcome to reach this stage are how to utilize a high bandwidth spectrum, and how to achieve end-to-end low latency integration with enterprises and devices. Additionally, the convergence of operational and information technology will require investigating increased security demands. It is also known that 6G must provide a seamless and integrated experience across various devices and services, from smartphones to connected devices. Other challenges include energy efficiency, spectrum allocation, and integrating new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), extended reality (XR), and quantum communication. The development of 6G will require close collaboration among industry, academia, and government.
The following are some of the key technology features expected in 6G by 2030:
High bandwidth: With ultra-high bandwidth, 6G will offer faster data transfer rates and provide a more seamless and immersive experience for users.
Low latency: Providing extremely low latency, 6G will enable real-time communication and interactions, making it suitable for mission-critical applications like autonomous driving.
High security: To ensure the protection of sensitive data, 6G will provide advanced security features to enable secure communication and transactions.
AI integration: 6G is expected to have a strong focus on artificial intelligence (AI), enabling the development of smart and intelligent devices and networks.
Extended reality (XR): By supporting the integration of XR technologies, such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), 6G will create new opportunities for entertainment, education, and commerce.
Technology Deep Dive
During the series, we will also be exploring some of the underlying technologies planned to be part of the 6G networks in 2030. In each of these, we will identify what each of the target technologies will be, as well as a review of the state of the art in each area. Of course, we will always ask the most important questions – will these technologies become ubiquitous without the next generation of mobile technology?
Body Area Networks
Body Area Networks (BANs) can involve the use of 6G wireless tech to link wearable tech and other close-proximity devices to the human body. These networks facilitate real-time data exchange between devices, allowing for constant monitoring of health and fitness metrics such as heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure. 6G BANs are poised to surpass current wearable tech with benefits such as greater bandwidth and reduced latency, resulting in more precise and real-time health and fitness tracking data. In addition, the aforementioned integration of AI and XR will enable the development of new and innovative applications in the healthcare and wellness industries. BANs in 6G will also provide new opportunities for research in the fields of wearable technology and telemedicine, enabling the development of new and innovative treatments and therapies for a variety of medical conditions. In conclusion, BANs in 6G represent a significant step forward in the development of wearable technology and telemedicine, providing new opportunities for health and wellness monitoring and management. This opens the door for developing new and innovative applications in the healthcare industry.
Beginning with Release 17 of the 5G standards, we were introduced to the concept of non-terrestrial mobile networks, not just for ensuring that traffic can be transported over a satellite backhaul network. Early explainers of GSM (2G) focused on the global aspect of mobile communications, and satellite backhaul was used to show that one user could phone another anywhere on the planet. 6G proposes to usher in the era of non-terrestrial networks (NTNs). A proliferation of low earth orbit communications satellites has raised the question of direct earth-to-satellite data communications as being more efficient, open, and accessible in the 6G era. Over the next few blogs, we will be introducing the concepts behind the challenges of this early concept, as well as the more conceptual use cases that explore UAVs (drones), high-altitude vehicles, and the effects of space, ariel, and ground networks interoperating with each other.
6G technology is expected to leverage various frequency bands and radio technologies, including millimeter-wave (mmWave), terahertz (THz), and sub-THz frequencies. Some of the key radio technologies and frequency bands that are expected to be used in 6G technology are:
mmWave: Uses high-frequency bands in the 30 GHz to 300 GHz range, offering ample bandwidth for high-speed data transmission
Terahertz (THz): Leverages frequencies in the 0.1 THz to 10 THz range, which provide even higher bandwidths and potential data rates than mmWave
Sub-THz: This category encompasses all existing spectrum at frequencies below 0.1 THz, providing unique opportunities for low-latency, high-capacity communications over longer distances
Overall, 6G is expected to leverage various radio access technologies, including new multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) techniques, beamforming, and network slicing, to provide high levels of reliability, security, and performance. Going way beyond what is currently planned for 5G.
The ultrahigh frequencies being planned for 6G, fortunately, do not use existing communications spectrum, but they are being used for critical applications. Like Wi-Fi and 5G, we will need to address cooperation between these. THz spectrum's current key uses include medical imaging, spectroscopy, and scientific research. In medical imaging, it's used to visualize internal biological structures. In spectroscopy, it's used to identify chemical compounds and study material properties. In scientific research, it's used to study material properties and investigate light and matter behavior at high frequencies.
The Evolution of Wi-Fi in the 6G World
Alongside industrial IoT, private networks, satellite communications, and every area of management, control, and integration, 6G has tried to include almost every potential communications technology in the grand plan. Wi-Fi networks are not exempt - as non-3GPP networks in the 5G architecture, the interaction between Wi-Fi and cellular communications will become increasingly intertwined in the next decade. It is possible that 6G and Wi-Fi will be competing again for the same frequency spectrum in the near future. A potential resolution could be to adopt new models for sharing both licensed and unlicensed spectrum, similar to the CBRS and related technologies. Another option would be to implement smart spectrum allocation that adjusts based on real-time needs and priority for the spectrum during a specific time and location.
The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is a collaboration between several organizations to develop and maintain global standards for mobile telecommunications. Figure 1 depicts a rough timeline of the releases of 3GPP specifications from 1999 until 2035:
Figure 1 - 3GPP specs timeline
What we can expect:
2022: Release 17, Introduced 5G Non-Standalone (NSA) and Standalone (SA) modes, Non-Terrestrial Networks.
2023: Release 18, Enhanced edge computing, Improved Sidelinks, Boundless extended reality (XR) applications and features. Private Networks Redefined.
2025: Release 19, which includes localized XR/Metaverse, Ambient Power, Sense Communications, AI/ML transfer services.
2027: Release 20, The remainder of the 5G feature set, including spectrum and full convergence of MBB, URLLC and mMTC will be addressed. Quantum Computing makes impact.
2029+: Release 21, the features, services, and targets will be determined by the speed of scientific advancement to include all the above new services.
The influence of any new technology on a society is dependent on its uptake, adoption, and acceptance levels, as well as factors such as accessibility, cost, and benefits. No technology has delivered on the promise of changing society across the whole planet as much as mobile technology over the last two decades. Like all paradigm shifts, it is difficult to see if the promises of 6G will have the same impact, or if the expectations and obligations of society will determine the bounds of where the technology will go. If it lives up to its promise, 6G technology could well to bring about a new era of connectivity and communication, enabling more companies the ability to connect and interact in innovative ways that we can’t envision today. Greater collaboration and focused productivity, as well as more efficient and accessible healthcare, education, and entertainment services have the potential to change how we view the world beyond our body area network access devices. The development of autonomous vehicles has encountered several setbacks, whereas industries such as remote surgery, advanced manufacturing, and particularly communications have flourished due to the advent of 5G technology. Another important aspect that will gain significance is the environmental impact. 6G may prove to be a catalyst for the efficient utilization of energy, decrease of waste, and the promotion of green technologies. In planning for 6G, we will explore each of these themes and try to reconcile the forward march of industry on the needs of our society to work in symbiosis with technology.
Who is Driving the 6G Message?
The final blog of the series will explore the different stakeholders in developing the technologies that will become 6G. Since the early days of communications, we had a number of bodies that have innovated, shared, competed to deliver the best, or most viable, global solution. With 6G, we have drivers, and we also have a few organizations across industry, academia and the public realm that are all interested in leading this discussion. We will explore who they are, and how they are working together. The organizations we will focus on are standards for 6G technology are being developed by various international organizations and standards bodies around the world, including:
3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is responsible for defining global standards for mobile telecommunications, including 5G and 6G technology.
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is a global standards body for electrical engineering and computer science and is involved in the development of standards for 6G technology.
International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a specialized agency of the United Nations and is responsible for developing and promoting international telecommunication standards, including those for 6G technology.
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) responsible for developing standards and guidelines for the United States and is involved in the development of standards for 6G technology.
International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is responsible for the development and publication of international standards, including those for 6G technology.
All of these organizations are leading the way in defining and standardizing 6G technology, collaborating with industry partners, universities, and stakeholders to ensure it is secure, interoperable, and meets industry needs. The 6G standards will play a crucial role in its widespread adoption. Moreover, the 6G standards will pave the way for a renaissance of innovative applications and services. In Asia, there are also several organizations involved in the development of 6G technology standards and has established several organizations and initiatives to support its efforts. The China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT), China Mobile Research Institute, and the China National 6G Group and Industry Alliance are some of the key organizations involved in this effort.
The promise of 6G, like all the generations of mobile communications before it, promises to be a game changer. All of the above-mentioned domains will be discussed in this 6G blog series to illustrate the current state of knowledge as well as the challenges and opportunities each technology epoch will bring. Each blog will be speculative and informative, with equal parts optimism and pessimism. Our goal is to provide CIOs and networking professionals with a better understanding of how to get ready for 6G. Check back each month as the series continues!