For all intents and purposes, 5G is still in its infancy. But why set your sights on 6G?
In 2022, the wireless industry is deploying 5G infrastructure, rolling out more and more 5G devices, and adding subscribers apace. 5G technology that supports 3GPP Release 16 (their second release of 5G specifications) is making its way into the marketplace, but for all intents and purposes, 5G is still in its infancy. So why set your sights on 6G?
Wireless generations up to this point have followed a ten-year cycle. The diagram below shows a simplified version of what a typical cycle looks like.
In The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) – comprising seven telecommunications standard development organizations which develop protocols for mobile telecommunications, requirements for 6G will start to be gathered in the Release 19 timeframe, the first study items for 6G are being discussed for inclusion in Release 20, and this would lead to having the first work items for 6G in Release 21.
Today, 3GPP is working on Release 18 after freezing Release 17 back in March. If they continue to make progress at this rate, the work for Release 20 will begin in earnest in 2024. A typical 3GPP release takes 12 to 18 months to complete, and another 12 to 18 months to then be implemented in production networks. This means that early 6G demonstrations could happen in 2026.
Despite the standard being 6 years away, the research and technology trends emerging for 6G have more visibility than previous generations at this stage of the lifecycle.
This is the reason why it makes sense to keep your sights on 6G.
6G: Trends to Look For
There are 4 attention-catching trends in 6G —new spectrum technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), the pervasive use of digital twins, and new network architectures.
New Spectrum Technologies: 6G will push into sub-THz frequency bands, unlocking new applications like joint communications and sensing. 6G will continue to make use of the spectrum below 6 GHz and the industry will continue the innovation we have seen at FR2 bands. There is also significant research under way exploring the “upper-mid-band” between 10 and 24 GHz. It’s a well-known secret that spectral efficiency gains have been modest over the last 20 years so 6G will continue to evolve multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) like ultra-massive and distributed MIMO techniques, to address this.
AI and ML Networks: Artificial intelligence (AI), especially in the guise of machine learning (ML) is making its way into 5G systems already, aiding in the design of radio frequency (RF) front ends, assisting with MIMO pre-coding, and even assisting radio access network (RAN) layout planning. This work will continue, but 6G presents the opportunity for us to use ML not only for optimization but for the creation of the entire physical layer (PHY). This could give us a dynamic PHY that could adjust modulation and coding, for example, based on channel conditions. AI and ML are also of interest to look at network orchestration. They can look at usage patterns to determine when cells can be turned off or when additional resources are needed to support heavy usage like for sporting events. Even security-related applications can be improved, given AI’s ability to detect anomalies in large data sets.
Digital Twins: This modern form of advanced simulation will provide a high-fidelity digital environment for testing new features to reduce the risks that come with deploying software and even new hardware on a live network.
New Network Architectures: The decentralization and cloudification of the RAN being driven by the Open RAN movement will continue in 6G. But other, maybe less obvious, new (and not so new) network topologies will make their way into 6G as well. For example, work for non-terrestrial networks (NTN) made tremendous progress in Release 17 but implementation is still in the future. Announcements from Apple to include satellite emergency texting with its latest iPhone and the collaboration between T-Mobile and Starlink are good indications that NTN is a desirable feature and likely to see continued investment going forward.
NTN is one of several great examples of a technology that started in 5G but is now looking like a 6G technology. What will be 5G versus what will be 6G may be a little unclear today, but to some extent, not so important. Wireless standards, use cases, and technology has been advancing since they were first invented and will continue to do so. 6G gives us a nice opportunity to break backward compatibility and introduce new innovations; but thinking there is a hard and fast line in differentiating 5G and 6G is incorrect. 6G will be both an evolution of the work started in 5G and a revolution beyond anything we have seen before.
6G: Why Get Excited About It?
The societal benefits and advances that this new generation of communication will bring, are reasons to get excited. While often not easily predictable at first, each new communication standard has found a way to profoundly touch the way we live, work, and interact. 6G will follow the same path.
About the Author
Dr. Giampaolo Tardioli leads Keysight’s 6G and related growth initiatives, including quantum computing. Giampaolo joined Hewlett-Packard in 1998 as a test engineer and has served over the last 20 years in a variety of senior management roles in planning, R&D, quality, and operations—both at the division and business unit levels. He holds an M.Sc., in Electrical Engineering from the Universita’ Politecnica delle Marche, Italy, and a Ph.D. in Computational Electromagnetics from the University of Victoria, Canada.