What will 6G be like?

We’re only just starting to see significant rollouts of 5G, but there is already a lot of buzz around 6G. Rodrigo Barreto, Darwin’s lead architect, takes a look into this looming mobile generation in this post to see what all this buzz is about.

What makes 6G new?

All new generations of mobile communications start with setting a vision which is not a simple extension of the current generation. An extension would be a .5 release. For example, HSPA was dubbed 3.5G and LTE Advanced is now sometimes called 4.5G. To be considered a new generation, the vision needs to bring to the table new use cases which are underpinned by social and economic needs as well as being supported by technology advancements.

In the past, the vision for new generations of mobile communications was quickly translated into key performance indicators (KPIs). For 5G, famously, the KPI-based promises were that, compared to 4G networks, 5G networks would have data rates between 10 times and 100 times faster, with latencies up to 10 times smaller and 500 times the device density. These were deemed necessary to underpin use cases of enhanced mobile broadband, ultra-reliable low-latency communications and a massive internet of things (IoT).

For 6G, there is a clear effort to step slightly away from pure KPI-driven objectives and increase the focus on societal needs. Such an approach is captured in seminal whitepapers published by the likes of Samsung, the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the 6G Innovation Centre of the University of Surrey, the Next Generation Mobile Network alliance, and EU’s project Hexa-X, to name a few.

If you are interested in reading these whitepapers, the links are provided below:

What these papers have in common is a vision of technology in the service of society, helping in the achievement of sustainable development goals. They also take into account, to different degrees, goals related to economic development, environment, and commercialisation and operations of next-generation services.

What will 6G be used for?

The use cases envisaged to be supported by 6G communications are very exciting. Below is a glimpse of what is to come:

  • Holographic-type communications (HTC). HTC will allow remote users to be projected as a 3D holographic presence at a separate site, in real time, possibly amongst physically present people. Uses for this are wide and varied, ranging from remote troubleshooting and repair applications to training and education, real-time communication, messaging, immersive gaming and entertainment.
  • Extended reality (ER or XR). ER will utilise 3D objects and artificial intelligence (AI), combining real and virtual environments. This will bring together advanced capabilities of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality.
  • Tactile internet. With immersive audiovisual feeds provided by ER or HTC streaming, together with haptic sensing data, a human operator will be able to remotely control machinery in a place surrounded by biological or chemical hazards. Remote robotic surgery could be carried out by doctors from hundreds of miles away.
  • Multi-sense experience. This will extend the tactile internet to enable users to experience real-time interactive, multisensory communication, incorporating hearing, sight, taste, smell and touch.
  • Digital replicas. These are also called digital twins, and they create a digital copy of people, places, systems or objects. Theses digital replicas are useful for computational simulation and analysis of real physical objects of all sizes, saving on costs and time.
  • Collaborative robots (cobots). Cobots are robots that are capable of collaborating with humans. This collaboration is supposed to enhance human abilities in a safe way.
  • Intelligence as a service. This is AI as a service utilising distributed computing resources across the cloud, mobile edge and end devices, and cultivating communication-efficient machine learning (ML) training and inference mechanisms. For example, a humanoid robot would be able to offload its computational load for computer vision, simultaneous localisation and mapping, face and speech recognition, natural language processing, motion control etc. towards edge computing resources, in order to improve accuracy, prolong battery life, and become more lightweight by removing some embedded computing components.
  • Intelligent transport and logistics. By 2030 and beyond, millions of autonomous vehicles and drones will provide safe, efficient and green movement of people and goods.
  • Enhanced onboard communications. 6G is expected to be an integrated system of terrestrial networks, satellite constellations and other aerial platforms to provide seamless 3D coverage, which offers high-quality, low-cost and global-roaming onboard communication services.
  • Global ubiquitous connectivity. By leveraging multiple layers of connectivity (terrestrial, unmanned air vehicles, high-altitude platforms, low and medium Earth orbit satellites and geostationary satellites), as well as integrating with previous-generation communication systems, 6G will be able to provide global ubiquitous connectivity, including areas where it has previously never been economically viable to implement communications infrastructure.

At Darwin, we are very encouraged by the fact that three of the use cases mentioned (intelligent transport and logistics, enhanced onboard communications, and global ubiquitous connectivity) are already at the heart of the services and solutions that we have been developing.

What is needed for 6G?

The development of 6G will be fuelled by advancements of existing technology, and by technologies that don’t yet exist or have just about been demonstrated in laboratories. These include:

  • Pervasive intelligence. Artificial intelligence, and more specifically machine learning, will be used in multiple areas of 6G networks. AI (and ML) use will include physical layer optimisation, medium access resource allocation and control, security, performance management, operations and preventive maintenance.
  • Reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are a category of programmable and reconfigurable material sheets that are capable of adaptively modifying their radio-reflecting characteristics. When attached to environmental surfaces, e.g. walls, glass, ceilings etc., RIS enables the conversion of parts of the wireless environment into smart reconfigurable reflectors, known as smart radio environment (SRE). These can be exploited for a passive beamforming that can significantly improve communication at low costs of implementation and power consumption.
  • Non-terrestrial communications. Though non-terrestrial network (NTN) integration with terrestrial mobile communications is part of the 5G vision, in 6G it will be central to building a three-dimensional network that leverages multi-connectivity (with base stations at ground, aerial and orbit levels) for service continuity, traffic offloading and backhauling.
  • Terahertz communications. The data rates, latency, reliability and synchronicity required by 6G use cases will demand wide spectrum bandwidth which will be found on the terahertz spectrum. The terahertz spectrum sits between millimetre waves and free optical communications and hasn’t yet been fully explored. Its development will require advancements in network architecture and in transceiver design, propagation and channel modelling. It will also require studies supporting regulation for health and safety.
  • Quantum computing and communications. Pervasive use of machine learning in 6G will require superior computing capabilities at different points in the network. Quantum computing, leveraging new materials such as graphene-based semiconductors, will deliver these computing capabilities. Quantum behaviour, such as entanglement and optical switching, will also be leveraged for ultra-fast, ultra-low-latency communication.
  • Extreme massive MIMO. MIMO stands for ‘multiple-input, multiple-output’. 6G base stations will transmit and receive data using extremely massive numbers of antennas. Metasurface materials will underpin this by creating the required low cost and low power requirement conditions for mass-scale industrialisation.
  • Blockchain and distributed ledger technology. Integration of blockchain into 6G will enable the network to monitor and manage resource utilisation and sharing efficiently.
  • Ambient backscatter communications. These will leverage existing radio frequency signals, such as radio, television and legacy mobile telephony, to transmit data without a battery or power grid connection. Device antennas will pick up an existing signal and convert it into tens to hundreds of microwatts of electricity. That power will be used to modify and reflect the signal with encoded data.

When is 6G coming, and how is it being developed?

With so much at stake in terms of developing technology leadership and reaping the benefits that the new use cases of 6G will deliver, it is no surprise to see substantial geopolitics at play. Having been isolated in its ability to sell 5G technology to developed countries, China seems to be doubling down on 6G research and claims to have already filed more than 35% of the essential patents for 6G. Not to be left behind, the United States is launching a coordinated effort with industry and academia, spearhead by the Alliance of Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) through its Next G Alliance, and has recently announced a $4.5 billion joint investment with Japan for development of 6G technology.  Europe has launched several projects under its framework for funding of research and innovation, and has recently announced it will invest €900 million into 5G deployment and 6G research. Individual European countries also have their own programmes, with Germany pledging investments of €700 million in 6G research, and Finland and India announcing collaboration in 6G research. Korea, another leading country for mobile technologies, has announced investments equivalent to $180 million in 6G technology research.

But a next-generation mobile technology does not get developed by a country or bloc in isolation. Strong imperatives around economies of scale and interconnection dictate that a new generation of mobile communications be developed in a collaborative manner and following common standards. This process starts with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) developing the vision and a common set of objectives and principles, and the 3GPP taking on the role of developing the technical requirements and standards.

The ITU has already formed the ITU-R 6G Vision Group, which is working on the initial drafts of the report ‘IMT towards 2030 and beyond (6G)’. At the level of 3GPP, it is anticipated that study items for 6G will start to be proposed from 2022 and will be part of Release 19 packet approval sometime in 2023. In all likelihood, concrete 6G standardisation work will start from 3GPP Release 20, and it is anticipated that initial trial deployments of 6G will happen from 2028.

Rodrigo Barreto, Darwin Lead Architect

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