5G has reached fever pitch, with commercial network deployments of the next generation wireless technology being rolled out across the globe. With that in mind, it might seem premature to start talking about 6G. However, if we’ve learned anything from initial 5G implementations, it’s that demand for connectivity is increasing at an exponential rate. Wireless communications are now essential to support a variety of use cases; everything from self-driving cars to factories full of robots, and smart sensors that monitor critical medical conditions. The power of wireless connectivity is pushing our world ever forward.
The promise for what 5G can deliver is huge; from the expansion of IoT and smart cities, to the realization of sophisticated VR and AR applications. 5G is also the first generation to attract substantial interest from the enterprise sector, with some industrialists even deploying their own private 5G networks to enable a variety of use cases, many of which will happen at the edge. 5G coupled with edge architectures will be crucial for ultra-low latency and mission-critical comms, something that has forced operators to rethink how they deploy and manage services.
Those invested in 5G have also explored the benefits of open radio access networks, or Open RAN, to help network operators achieve greater network flexibility. These critical developments will pave the way for 6G and the significant step change in what wireless communications can enable has many technologists rubbing their hands together in excitement for what 6G can achieve.
The pursuit of innovation – a look ahead at 6G
Businesses across industries are constantly innovating, relying on the communications network more than ever as a key enabler in their digital transformation. As automation surges and the use of virtual reality expands, the need for faster, more secure communication has grown. Trends in hyperconnectivity have sparked demand for speed and power, as each new use case and implementation of a new technology puts greater strain on the network and available processing power.
Technologies such as industrial and medical uses of robotics, the proliferation of Industrial IoT, and smart buildings, campuses, and cities, are being implemented in new and ever more powerful ways. As data complexity and the amount of data produced by a device or system increases, communication requirements of the network change too. The 6G revolution will focus on how to connect and control the billions of machines – macro to micro to nano – in our digital future.
Two key drivers for building 6G are increased speeds and even lower latency than we’ll see 5G accomplish. Already the industry is talking about one terabyte-per-second speeds with 6G. To put that into perspective, with 5G you can download a movie in under a minute. With 6G, you’ll be able to download more than 140 hours of movies in that same minute. Additionally, dramatic improvements in latency will enhance network reliability and allow for real-time processing of data, enabling organisations to fully harness technologies like AI for neural networking, on the fly decision-making and self-healing networks. Now is the time to start defining the 6G standard that will meet the evolving needs of the hyper-connected world.
Imagining a 6G World
6G will transform our business environments, changing the way we work and meet to create truly virtual meetings and interactions with people. Think for a second of the possibility of having high-resolution holograms at the touch of a button, potentially eliminating the need for long-distance business travel and large in-person conferences. 6G can be hugely transformative in closing the gap in access to medical care, enabling faster emergency responses across wider coverage areas, diagnosing and prescribing treatment across continents.
With 5G the focus has thus far been on the enterprise, seen by the majority of telcos as the sector of the market where they will recoup their $1trillion investment in the network. While the enterprise is likely to still be the priority with 6G, one significant consumer use case that benefits from ultra-low latency communications is gaming. With the speed of 6G, online games and competitions can be transformed into truly immersive Extended Reality (XR) experiences, complete with smart wearables, headsets, and even implants.
These revolutionary use cases will be achievable thanks to 6G’s massive leap forward in performance, even when compared with 5G networks. Already we’re looking at a mobile network that will be 50 times faster than 5G, 100 times more reliable, with wider coverage supporting ten times more devices per square kilometer. 6G may also include optimizations that improve network design and overcome the current limitations of mobile devices. Advanced edge computing and powerful AI systems will leverage 6G’s lightning-fast speed and instantaneous latency to coordinate complex systems like road traffic and stock markets, and even advance space exploration.
When can we expect 6G to become a reality?
Inevitably there will be challenges and hurdles to overcome in the road ahead particularly in 6G design and standardization. High-spectrum path loss, high computation requirements, and massive amounts of real-time information will mean the appropriate network architectures and infrastructure will be critical to ensure seamless 6G coverage. Collaboration, co-creation of joint solutions, ecosystem orchestration, openness, and an increased reliance on cloud technology across a wide range of industries, will prove fundamental in meeting those challenges.
With billions of machines connecting to each other, AI will play an ever larger and more important role in managing many aspects of 6G systems and infrastructure. Building these AI systems will be challenging but the payoffs will be increased performance, lowered costs, and a wider range of useful services. Developers should already be looking to infuse systems with AI, through a DevSecOps AI-first approach to systems development.
Starting the process with 5G will ease the transition in in the 6G era. So, when can we expect 6G? With past network rollouts occurring every ten years, we anticipate a 6G standard in 2028, with larger commercial deployments available in 2030.
Current developments in 5G are paving the way for 6G. Telcos are pursuing opportunities to achieve greater network flexibility through distributed edge architectures and AI-first systems that will give rise to the use cases that will be fully enhanced in the 6G era. Telco might want to consider preparing for 6G, by engaging with the early stages of standardization, openness, and ecosystem commercialization to fully capitalize on the 6G proposition. The 6G revolution is still some years away, but the constant pursuit of innovation and the rapid evolution of technology will soon see us envisioning a 6G future.