Connecting the human and digital worlds with 6G

The world has entered the 5G era, especially as 2022 is expected to see 1 billion connections exceeded worldwide. Amidst this evolution, Asia-Pacific is targeted, given that it is expected to become the top market for 5G adoption in the next few years. As 5G takes hold in the region, it won’t be long before we start to see a rich fabric of advanced technologies powering smart cities, factories, precision agriculture, the Internet of Things (IoT) and robotics.

Yet, although 5G enables unprecedented connectivity speeds, the growing demand for 5G-enabled applications will inevitably put pressure on networks. This would then require a new highly agile and cognitive architecture that would automatically deploy new services perfectly adapted to these applications. This future architecture must also push the boundaries of supporting ultra-low latency, massive capacity, and widespread connectivity.

Meeting these expectations – and even going beyond them by re-framing the very concept of networked communications – is why we must begin to pave the way for the sixth generation of connectivity (6G).

6G vs 5G – what’s the difference?

5G demonstrates a striking aspect: the blending of the physical and human world. 5G already enables the widespread proliferation of sensors and artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML). By combining digital twin models and real-time synchronous updates, the study of the physical world is enabled, as well as the anticipation of possible outcomes and the initiation of appropriate actions. It is transformative on many levels; factories can achieve new levels of automation, urban utilities can be made more crisis-resilient, and provide students with immersive learning experiences – to name a few.

5G has huge potential, but 6G takes it to a whole new level. For example, digital twin models (which are already in use with 5G) will be deployed on a much larger scale and with much higher accuracy for a wide range of applications ranging from digital twins for industrial sites, cities and humans. This is made possible by several factors: 6G will operate on terahertz frequency bands to deliver superior performance, delivering a peak data rate of 1000 Gbps and is expected to deliver a network speed 100 times faster than the 5G.

Imagining a 6G future

While 6G follows in the footsteps of previous generations, it will differentiate itself with a bouquet of unique technologies that will shape the future of communications. Nokia’s research arm, Nokia Bell Labs, has identified the following potential innovations that can be enhanced by 6G:

  • Network detection: The ubiquitous network becomes a source of situational awareness, gathering signals bouncing off objects and determining type and shape, relative location, speed, and perhaps even material properties. This sensing mode can help create a digital twin, or “mirror”, of the physical world in combination with other sensing modalities.
  • Extreme Connectivity: 6G will further refine the ultra-reliable low latency communication service (URLLC). This helps meet extreme connectivity requirements in highly specialized subnets at the edges of WANs.
  • Cognitive, automated and specialized architectures: 6G – with its new network orchestration and service solutions – combined with fully cloud-native principles and advancements in AI/ML across all network functions will result in automation and agility unprecedented network. This will provide the most optimal service at the lowest possible operating costs.
  • Security and trust: 6G networks will be designed to deliver trusted services over a zero-trust infrastructure and protect against these larger-scale traditional threats, in addition to new threats such as jamming of critical private networks. Privacy issues will also need to be considered once new mixed reality worlds, combining digital representations of real and virtual objects, are created.

5G-Advanced – paving the way to 6G

But what will bridge the 5G and 6G eras? The springboard for the next generation of connectivity will be 5G-Advanced, the next standard enhancements for 5G. This will be a key focus for 3GPP in Release 18 and later, and will come with expanded capabilities, improved efficiency, and improved user experience.

With 5G-Advanced, significantly greater capabilities than previous 5G versions will be enabled. It will also improve the user experience in several ways by reducing latency, expanding bandwidth, and improving reliability when the user is both stationary and on the move. Indeed, it will extend 5G beyond just data communication to significantly improve centimeter-level positioning accuracy, which is particularly useful when satellite signals are not available (i.e. installations interior and underground).

5G-Advanced would therefore help realize all the capabilities of 5G; it will provide a crucial launch pad that will scale the industry’s usability capabilities in the 6G era. Here, localization can reach new heights as 6G could then exploit the broad spectrum and new spectral ranges down to the terahertz level.

Proactively building for the future of connectivity

While 6G is not expected to arrive until 2030, research into the next generation of wireless networks must take place now to facilitate the transition from 5G. Even though many Asia-Pacific markets have yet to deploy 5G – let alone launch services that can fully benefit from it – this smooth transition will be necessary to support continued human and economic development, especially in the post-pandemic world. In light of this, countries like South Korea are already looking to take a leading market position in the race for 6G.

But reaching the 6G era requires a collaborative effort. Here, initiatives such as Hexa-X are helping to spur 6G research to meet people’s needs to communicate anywhere, anytime. Realizing the future of 6G will therefore rely on the critical roles of key stakeholders in the telecommunications industry, those involved in future connectivity solutions (i.e. network providers, operators, vertical markets and technology providers), as well as research organizations – all of which must work in concert with each other.

Norma A. Roth