Comparing 5G vs 6G Networks

February 13, 2024

Written by 6GWorld
Wireless telecom radiation with aerial footage
CATEGORY: Exclusives
TAGS: 6G, 5G

As the digital landscape evolves, so does the technology that underpins it. In 2018, the arrival of 5G marked a significant leap in wireless technology, offering faster speeds and more reliable connections. However, the horizon is already brightening with the promise of 6G, an emerging technology that aims to surpass its predecessor in many ways. 

To understand the difference between these networks, let’s take a deeper dive into a detailed comparison between 5G and 6G networks, exploring key differences in speed, latency, applications, and capabilities, and understanding the technological evolution from 5G to 6G.

What is 5G technology?

5G technology represents the fifth generation of wireless communication systems, marking a significant advancement over its predecessor, 4G. Characterised by its high data speed, increased bandwidth, and reduced latency, 5G was designed to meet the growing data and connectivity requirements of modern society. It achieves speeds up to 20 Gbps, which facilitates faster data downloads and uploads, and supports higher resolution in video streaming. 

Uniquely compared to previous generations of network, 5G was designed with two different modes of operation: 5G Non-Standalone [NSA] and Standalone [SA]. 

5G-NSA added 5G radios to a 4G core network. This was aimed at enabling some of the functionality and speed of 5G without having to add in a new 5G core network at the same time, so would make a useful stepping-stone to full 5G. Cynics might note that it enabled an accelerated deployment of 5G. However, it has also created a drag on full 5G SA deployment, especially as the economic benefits to operators of the 5G-NSA deployments have not been clear. (the GSA – Global mobile Suppliers’ Association – should have some recent stats on how many 5G SA deployments versus 5G NSA there are at the moment) 

What does 5G technology enable?

5G introduced network slicing, in theory allowing for the creation of multiple virtual networks within a single physical 5G network. This enables more efficient use of resources and better user experience, catering to a wide array of use cases from enhanced mobile broadband to massive machine-type communications and ultra-reliable low-latency communications. However, slicing is still largely a matter of testing today rather than being in live commercial networks.

The deployment of 5G has been proposed as a cornerstone for the development of smart cities, the Internet of Things (IoT), and a connected world, revolutionising how we interact with technology in our daily lives. The speed, capacity and number of devices that 5G can cover is a step up from LTE. While mMTC and URLLC may well have use cases and make an impact over time, questions have been raised about how much application these specific examples might have in practice. Hence standards bodies have been developing systems such as 5G Redcap (Reduced Capacity) as a means to interact with devices which are not simple low-energy sensors but also do not carry onerous latency or bandwidth demands. 

What is the speed and bandwidth of 5G?

5G technology brought unprecedented speeds, reaching up to 20 Gbps. This marked a significant improvement over 4G, allowing for smoother streaming, faster downloads, and more efficient data transmission. 

In the right environments 5G can be comparable to a fixed broadband experience; in the UK providers such as Three have been offering 5G-connected Wi-Fi hotspots, for example. However, the higher frequencies affect the ability of 5G to penetrate into buildings. 

What is the latency of 5G?

One of the most notable improvements of 5G over 4G was its reduced latency, with theoretical rates dropping to as low as one millisecond. This improvement was crucial for applications requiring real-time feedback, such as remote surgery or autonomous vehicles. 

What is 6G technology?

6G technology, envisioned as the sixth generation of wireless communication systems, is poised to be a revolutionary leap forward from its predecessor, 5G. Although still in the research and development phase – with an expected roll out in the 2030s – 6G is expected to offer unprecedented outcomes. Perhaps not the ones expected, however.

There is also an undercurrent of expectation that “6G will deliver what 5G promised” – that a growth in capacity and speed will support new applications, including advanced virtual and augmented reality, high-fidelity holographic communication, ubiquitous IoT, ‘the metaverse’ and AI. 

What does 6G technology enable?

The promise of 6G technology is a subject of multifaceted perspectives and diverse expectations. The truth is: it depends on who you ask. Various stakeholders, from governmental bodies to telecom giants and academic researchers, offer their unique visions and priorities for what 6G should enable. 

Let’s delve into the spectrum of possibilities, outlining the social, environmental, and technological outcomes envisioned by different entities and shedding light on the rich tapestry of potential that 6G holds.

6G social and environmental outcomes

Various national and regional governments put forward their visions for what 6G (Or Beyond-5G) should deliver for them. Coming off the back of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments were acutely aware of the divisions in opportunity and outcome between connected and unconnected, both in their own countries and between countries.

As a result, they have tended to prioritise social and environmental outcomes, including:

  • Reducing or eliminating digital divides (In other words, making sure everyone has access to broadband).
  • Ensuring resilient and universal connections (In other words, making sure that access remains constant and secure no matter where the user is).
  • Reducing the energy usage and/or environmental impact of the telecoms system as a whole as well as enabling other industries to reduce their impact.
  • Enabling more flexible and digitised workplaces, training, and industries, including support for digital twins, XR for business applications such as immersive remote meetings and learning.

Key value indicators (KVIs) for 6G progress tracking

As a result of these pressures, organisations such as the EU-backed SNS-PPP and the ITU have proposed setting up and measuring Key Value Indicators [KVIs] which would enable the tracking of achievement against these goals. While there is work being done to establish KVIs, it is currently unclear how accountability for delivering against them would be assigned or what incentives there would be to achieve them.

6G telecoms service provider enablement

Telecoms service providers, championed by organisations such as the NGMN, have set out their own requirements for the next generation, largely to break cycles of massive investment followed by uncertain opportunities to recoup those costs.

They are calling for no, or minimal, new infrastructure over and above that already anticipated by the introduction of 5G-SA, open or distributed RAN and a move towards edge computing. This is largely a reaction to the huge investments made in 5G caused by overblown expectations.

“In its role to meet the expected goals, 6G will involve enabling a seamless and ubiquitous experience, and service continuity, considering efficiency and affordability. Sustainability that includes energy efficiency and adoption of green technologies and green energy, towards carbon neutrality is a key focus of NGMN, for this decade and beyond, and should be a fundamental design consideration for 6G. This can only succeed with a holistic approach by the entire ecosystem, including global standards, ecosystem design, service footprint, metering and monitoring, and deployment strategies, among other factors. Beyond network infrastructure, this holistic approach must involve user terminal design, to foster upgrades, reusability, repairability and recycling with the goal to extend their life, as well as service / applications design to optimize the amount of data to be exchanged over the networks.”

NGNM – 6G Drivers and Vision

Want to learn more? Check out our expert webinar Future Network Infrastructure – Who Pays and How?

Service provider 6G priorities

When it comes to 6G, service providers are also keen to involve:

  • Sustainability as a key element of 6G, not least because it reduces their energy bills.
  • Software-based networks, including automation and autonomous activity throughout the networks to manage complexity and reduce downtime.
  • Integration of non-terrestrial networks [NTNs] to deliver improvements in coverage. Less frequently discussed but potentially as important may be integration and seamless roaming between mobile and Wi-Fi networks to support indoor services.
  • Higher frequency bands and new methods to use and aggregate available spectrum, allowing for greater capacity. There has been talk of deployment of sub-THz spectrum (typically in the 0.1 to 0.3 THz range), largely because it provides a huge amount of capacity which is currently uncontested. However, the propagation characteristics of such high frequencies make it challenging to deploy over a wide area, and it will likely be used for very specific situations and indoor environments as a result. There are also discussions exploring use cases for optical wavelengths, centimeter waves, mmWave and lower frequencies.

6G technological advancements envisioned by service providers

There is also an undercurrent of expectation that “6G will deliver what 5G promised” – that a growth in capacity and speed will support new applications, including advanced virtual and augmented reality, high-fidelity holographic communication, ubiquitous IoT, ‘the metaverse’ and AI.

Research and academic concepts for 6G advancements

Meanwhile, researchers and academics have been developing a variety of concepts which may or may not arrive in standards but which could offer value, such as:

  • Integrated Sensing and Communications [ISAC]. This covers a broad range of different technical scenarios, from combining inputs from existing 5G and camera networks (for example, security surveillance cameras) to using one signal for both sensing and communications simultaneously.
  • Network of Networks. The principle is simply that a customer’s device should be able to use whatever the best possible resource is at any given place and time to deliver the service required, whether this belongs to a rival, a private network, a satellite player or Wi-Fi. Communicating from device to device using a mesh network is also a potential way forward. In theory this is something which could be implemented through 5G, 4G and other generations too. This would demand advancements in orchestration, roaming and operational support systems, but the commercial implications may also pose significant challenges.
  • All-optical Networking. Fibre cables use light to transmit data, while their connectors, routers and other network elements use electronics. This means that data packets are continually being converted between electrons and photons. There is an argument that, by eliminating the need to convert the photons to electrons, it can reduce latency and also reduce energy consumption. 
  • Deterministic Networks. These would change the delivery of packets from a best-effort service to something with a predictable and specific latency. This would support systems requiring very specific timing and coordination, including some industrial and defence uses. This is not a concept which is new to 6G.

With its advanced capabilities, 6G is expected not just to enhance existing applications but to enable a plethora of new technological possibilities, shaping the future of connectivity and transforming the way we interact with the digital world. 

What is the speed and bandwidth of 6G?

6G is expected to be a game-changer, potentially offering speeds up to 100 Gbps or more. This quantum leap in speed will enable even more demanding applications, including advanced virtual reality experiences and high-speed mobile internet that could rival fibre optic cable speeds.

What is the latency of 6G?

6G also aims to achieve ultra-low latency, possibly in the sub-millisecond range, which is essential for applications demanding instantaneous response. This ultra-low latency could revolutionise industries, allowing for near-instantaneous communication and enabling technologies like real-time remote control of devices and advanced robotics.

Why 6G will surpass 5G

There are debates over whether 6G should or could be an incremental growth from 5G. From a commercial perspective there is little or no desire to see a large-scale rip-and-replace of technologies from 5G to 6G, but rather a gradual evolution.

While some capabilities will be genuinely new, in many ways the biggest change is likely to be one of the underlying philosophy. 

Up to and including 5G, each generation has been a generation of mobile technology. Taking into consideration the desire for universal and consistent coverage, arguably 6G can and should be the first generation of truly unified communications technology. A service provider’s “6G service” might be delivered over Wi-Fi, 4G, overhead drone, or piggybacking off a nearby phone, so long as the service works. 

10 key differences between 5G and 6G

So, now that we’ve outlined all the characteristics of 5G vs 6G, let’s analyse what makes them different from each other. The advent of 6G technology marks a new era in the evolution of wireless communications, building upon the foundation laid by 5G. While 5G has already deepened the way we connect and interact with the digital world, 6G promises to take this transformation to an entirely new level. Here are the 10 key differences we can surmise:

  1. Speed: While 5G offers speeds up to 20 Gbps, 6G is expected to reach or exceed 100 Gbps, enabling even faster data transmission and processing.
  2. Latency: 6G aims to achieve sub-millisecond latency, significantly lower than the 1 ms latency of 5G, offering near-instantaneous communication for time-sensitive applications.
  3. Frequency Bands: 6G is likely to use higher frequency bands, such as terahertz waves, which can carry more data, thus providing greater bandwidth and capacity.
  4. Network Intelligence: 6G will heavily integrate artificial intelligence for network operations, enhancing capabilities like predictive maintenance, automated network optimization, and intelligent resource allocation.
  5. Advanced Applications: 6G is expected to enable more advanced applications, such as high-fidelity holographic communications, sophisticated augmented and virtual reality experiences, and seamless IoT connectivity.
  6. Global Coverage: 6G could integrate satellite and terrestrial networks, offering truly global coverage, even in remote and previously unreachable areas.
  7. Energy Efficiency: With advancements in technology, 6G networks are anticipated to be more energy-efficient than 5G, which is crucial for sustainable development and operation.
  8. Device Connectivity: 6G will expand the scope and scale of device connectivity, supporting the IoE, where virtually every device is interconnected in an intelligent way.
  9. Reliability and Security: Enhanced reliability and security measures are expected in 6G to address the increasing demands for secure and robust communication, especially in critical applications.
  10. New Architectures: 6G may introduce new network architectures, including decentralised and user-centric designs, offering more flexible and efficient network management.

Looking to a 6G-enabled future

Overall, the transition from 5G to 6G represents a significant leap in wireless technology. With its promise of higher speeds, lower latency, and wider applications, 6G is poised to redefine what is possible in the realm of wireless communication. As we stand on the cusp of this new era, it’s clear that the future of connectivity is not just about speed, but about creating a seamlessly interconnected world that transcends current limitations.

For more information on the future of 6G, keep an eye on 6G World’s insights.

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