With each generation of communication technology, the focus of the network changes. The 2G and 3G eras focused on human-to-human communication through voice and text. 4G was a fundamental shift to massive data consumption, while the 5G era has focused on connecting the Internet of Things (IoT) and industrial automation systems.
In the 6G era, the digital, physical and human worlds will merge to create exceptional experiences. While there is still a lot of innovation in 5G, with the 5G Advanced release of the new standards, Nokia Bell Labs has already started researching 6G to make it commercially available by 2030.
Just as today’s applications are built on the foundation of multimedia, we see future applications using digital worlds as a framework. Dynamic digital twin worlds are accurate, high-resolution representations of the physical world and/or representations of virtual worlds.
How will the 6G era benefit us?
Literally, any improvement in network connectivity that 5G will bring to the end user will be further perfected with 6G. Be it smart cities, farms, factories and robotics, 6G will take it to the next level. Much of that is powered by 5G Advanced, the next advancement for 5G. It comes with improved efficiency and expanded features and improved user experience.
Looking at the past, it is clear that each generation optimizes the use cases of the previous generation and introduces new ones. This will continue. 6G will build on the technology and use case aspects of 5G, driving its adoption at scale through optimization and cost reduction. At the same time, 6G will enable new use cases.
We will connect the physical world to our own human world, thanks to the massive deployment of sensors and artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) with digital twin models and real-time synchronous updates. These digital twin models are crucial because they allow us to analyze what is happening in the physical world, simulate possible outcomes, anticipate needs and then take productive actions back into the physical world.
Digital twin models are already being used with 5G. With 6G, we can expect these technologies to work on a much larger scale. Digital twins can be found not only in factories, but also in wide area networks of cities and even digital twins of people, which will have a major impact on the network architecture.
While the smartphone will remain an important device in the 6G era, new human-machine interfaces will make it easier to consume and control information. Touchscreen typing is gradually being replaced by gestures and voice control and devices are getting smaller. Healthcare will be a key accelerator as wearables enable 24/7 monitoring of vital signs.
The maturation of AI and machine vision and their ability to recognize people and objects will turn wireless cameras into universal sensors. Radio and other sensing modalities such as acoustics will collect information about the environment. Digital money and keys are becoming the norm. We may even start relying on brain sensors to power machines.
6G will also promote sustainability in several ways. By enabling lower connectivity costs, it could support data collection and closed loop control from many different devices. The data can be analyzed using advanced tools to improve energy efficiency in industries. The advanced multi-sensory telepresence created with very high data rates will reduce the need for travel through the introduction of mixed reality multi-modal telepresence and remote collaboration.
6G will be significantly more energy efficient, powering down components and reducing capacity when demand is lower. Energy efficiency will be an important design criterion in 6G, along with the other metrics such as capacity, peak data rate, latency and reliability.
The 6G network
6G calls for a change in the way communication networks are designed. Several key requirements must be reconciled: to serve the booming traffic and the exploding number of devices and markets, while meeting the highest possible standards of performance, energy efficiency and strong security, enabling sustainable growth in a reliable way.
5G Advanced is an important stepping stone to some of the capabilities we want to enable at scale in 6G. It will further develop 5G to its full capability over the next half-decade. In the 5G era, the way networks are designed and deployed requires a new level of intelligence, one that can be managed over a disaggregated network and powered by AI and Closed Loop Automation to handle the growth of traffic. The evolution to 5G Advanced also requires optimal support for critical network applications, whether through communications service providers (CSPs) or as industrial private wireless networks.
Six technology areas that will characterize 6G
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning – AI/ML techniques, especially deep learning, have advanced rapidly over the past decade and have already been deployed in various domains related to image classification and computer vision, ranging from social networking to security. 5G will unleash the true potential of these technologies, and the approaches in 5G Advanced will introduce AI/ML into many parts of the network at many layers and functions. From beamforming optimization in the radio layer to planning at the collocation with self optimizing networks, all using AI/ML to achieve better performance at lower complexity.
Spectrum is a critical element in providing radio connectivity. Each new mobile generation requires a new pioneering spectrum that helps to fully exploit the benefits of a new technology. Redesigning the existing spectrum for mobile communication from the old technology to the new generation will also become essential. The new pioneer spectrum blocks for 6G are expected to be on mid bands 7 – 20 GHz for urban outdoor cells, enabling higher capacity through extreme MIMO, low bands 460 – 694 MHz for extreme coverage and sub-THz for peak data rates in excess of 100 Gbps . While 5G Advanced will extend 5G beyond data communications and significantly improve positioning accuracy down to the centimeter level, especially for indoor and underground facilities where satellite signals are not available, 6G will take localization to the next level by using a broad spectrum and the new spectral goes all the way up to terahertz.
The Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC) service that began with 5G will be refined and enhanced in 6G to meet extreme connectivity requirements, including sub-millisecond latency. Network reliability can be increased through simultaneous transmission, multiple wireless hops, M2M connections and AI/ML. Enhanced mobile broadband combined with lower latency and improved reliability will enhance the experience of real-time video communications, holographic experiences or even digital twin models updated in real-time through the deployment of video sensors.
In the 6G era, we can expect use cases with networks that have specific requirements in sub-networks, creating networks of networks with networks as endpoints. Machine area networks such as an auto area network or a body area network can have hundreds of sensors over an area of less than 100 meters. These sensors must communicate with extremely high reliability within 100 microseconds for the operation of that machine system. Making networks in cars or on robots truly wireless opens a new era for the designers of those devices, as they no longer have to install long and bulky cable systems.
New network architectures, 5G is the first system designed to work in the business/industrial environment, replacing wired connectivity. As demand and pressure on the network increase, industries will require even more sophisticated architectures that can support greater flexibility and specialization.
5G introduces a services-based architecture in the core and cloud native deployments that will extend to parts of the RAN, and the network will be deployed across heterogeneous cloud environments with a mix of private, public and hybrid clouds. In addition, as the core becomes more distributed and the higher layers of the RAN become more centralized, there will be opportunities to reduce costs by merging functions. New network and service orchestration solutions leveraging advances in AI/ML will result in an unprecedented level of network automation that will lower operating costs.
Security and trust
Networks of all types are increasingly becoming the target of cyber-attacks. The dynamic nature of the threats makes it necessary to deploy robust security mechanisms. 6G networks will be designed to protect against threats such as jamming. Privacy issues must be taken into account when new mixed reality worlds are created that combine digital representations of real and virtual objects.
Towards Industry 5.0
Over the past few decades, a series of technological improvements have fueled the rise of smart factories. However, connectivity has remained a major issue. 5G has kick-started the fourth industrial revolution with a host of modern technologies. The advancement to Industry 5.0 will gain even more momentum with the widespread adoption of 6G.
The co-design of communication and control will enable lower costs and higher data rates and increase the number of use cases. The 6G network as a sensor enables joint communication, sensing and localization that will meet the needs of industries with a single system, reducing costs.
New zero-power or battery-less devices can be enabled in 6G using backscatter communications that enable massive scaling of data collection for analysis and closed loop control. There will be extensive use of mobile robot swarms and drones in various industries such as hospitality, hospitals, warehouses and parcel delivery.
Steps to 6G
The rollout of 5G and then 5G Advanced couldn’t have come at a better time as global resources are scarce. Communications technology will play a vital role in increasing productivity and helping to pursue a comprehensive green policy. 6G will build on the successes of 5G by enhancing human well-being and revealing new possibilities that we cannot yet define or imagine.
6G systems are expected to enter the market commercially by 2030, following the typical 10-year cycle between generations. Standardization phase 1 is likely to start from 2026 as part of 3GPP Release 20.
Meanwhile, 5G will be enhanced by 5G Advanced, which will be a major focus for 3GPP from release 18 and will power commercial networks from 2025, well before 6G arrives at the end of the decade.
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