Home5G & BeyondWhat is 6G and why do we need it?

    What is 6G and why do we need it?


    As competition hots up around the globe, how are mobile operators preparing for the future network?

    As the promises of 5G start to become reality, industry talk is turning to the next generation of technology, 6G. Deployments aren’t expected for decade, but the industry is already abuzz with how it can boost performance and capacity.

    Beyond 5G, the thinking is that 6G will enable advanced enterprise use cases as well as virtual worlds including the so-called metaverse.

    It is with this in mind that 6G is being competitively showcased across the globe. China’s official news agency has announced a 6G satellite in orbit, while the University of Oolu in Finland has launched a 6G Flagship project combining global research around the technology.

    Meanwhile, Japan has devoted $482 million to 6G and the country is building a facility to develop and test wireless projects.

    So what are the promises of 6G and what challenges will mobile operators need to overcome to prepare for its arrival in 2030?

    The promises of 6G

    Among the benefits, 6G could offer a substantial boost for performance and capacity, says Manish Mangal, Global Business Head 5G and Network Services at Tech Mahindra. “6G will tap into additional frequency bands, primarily in the mmWave GHz and sub-THz ranges, providing wider bandwidth access that can deliver up to 1 terabit per second of capacity.”

    Other benefits of 6G include latency as low as 1 microsecond and enhanced security, offering better quality of experience for a broader range of use cases.

    The technology will further boost 5G applications including augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), as well industrial uses such as smart robotics and autonomous cars, says Richard Webb, Director of Network Infrastructure at CCS Insight.

    As part of this, the metaverse will inevitably feed into how 6G networks are framed, says Sylwia Kechiche, Principal Analyst, Enterprise at Ookla. “Specifically, 6G’s superior performance and latency will support high-quality visuals, realistic haptic feedback and enhanced location-based experiences.”

    Devices and protocols

    Artificial intelligence (AI) will play a big role in 6G, says Joe Barry, Vice President of Marketing, Systems and Technology in the Communications and Cloud Business Unit at Analog Devices. “AI will be present in the end devices, the access points and the network – and even within the protocol itself. Adding intelligence to edge devices will ensure insights and actions are delivered in a timely fashion while also reducing bandwidth.”

    In an era where telecoms firms are trying to boost their green credentials, 6G will also improve sustainability, says Azfar Aslam, VP and CTO, Europe for Nokia. “By enabling faster and lower cost per bit connectivity, it will be able to support data collection and closed-loop control of numerous appliances. The data can be analysed using sophisticated tools to improve energy efficiency in industries.”

    At the same time, 6G networks themselves are more energy efficient due to their ability to turn off components and scale down capacity when demand is lower. “Energy efficiency will be a major design criteria in 6G along with metrics such as capacity, peak data rate, latency and reliability,” Aslam says.

    A 6G reality

    It is with these benefits in mind that multiple 6G initiatives and proof of concepts are underway. Nokia, DOCOMO and NTT have embarked on a proof of concept that introduces AI and machine learning into the radio air interface. “This development will give 6G radios the ability to learn,” says Barry.

    Meanwhile, the UK’s first national 6G research centre will soon open its doors at Sheffield University, and Analog Devices recently announced a collaboration with Keysight to advance 6G technology design and development, Barry adds.

    Nokia has already identified several research areas for 6G: “Each one of these will have early precursors in 5G-Advanced – which is an important stepping stone for some of the capabilities we want to enable at a larger scale,” Aslam explains.

    Building momentum

    Momentum is certainly building, so when will 6G start to become a reality? Experts agree the emergence of the technology is around a decade away, in 2030. But as Webb points out, 5G services will still be evolving well beyond that point.

    “Next generation technology can be in development for a decade or so before it becomes commercial reality, so it’s not surprising that 6G preparation is already underway,” he says. “It will continue to progress in the background while 5G holds the main stage for another five years at least.”

    Of course, work on 6G’s specifications will start sooner. Assuming 3GPP remains the de-facto specifications group for a global standard, the first work will begin around 2025, says Roger Nichols, 6G Program Manager at Keysight Technologies. 3GPP is not the only specifications body that will contribute to 6G, he points out. “Changes will have to be made by IETF, several parts of ETSI, and O-RAN.”

    Standards also depend on the technological advances needed to realise 6G’s vision. “The list is not only long, but each item has many levels of complexity and will require innovation,” says Nichols.

    New architecture

    Indeed, in the move from 5G to 5G-Advanced and leading up to 6G, the entire communications fabric will need to be architected differently, says Aslam. “6G will encompass many different technologies, each with its own set of technical challenges.”

    Another issue is security. As each new technology innovation is introduced, it brings with it a host of security concerns, Kelvin Chaffer, CEO of Lifecycle Software points out. “A key theme seen around 6G is connecting everything in our daily lives and business, so an attack on these systems could wreak serious havoc.”

    At the same time, more bandwidth will be required. The industry is looking at the 7-20GHz and Sub THz regions for 6G, says Barry. “The 7-20GHz region brings the promise of wider bandwidth channels, but has challenges in terms of propagation characteristics. The sub THz region offers extremely wide bandwidths, yet even more difficult propagation characteristics.”

    Beyond network challenges, operators will need to go much further to overhaul their commercial strategies and identities to fit the upcoming 6G era, Webb says. “They will need to continue to evolve from telco to ‘techco.’ In the time leading up to 6G, operators will need to understand how to develop and sell value-added digital services, based on differentiated connectivity.”