What can we expect from 6G?

By Roger Nichols
Roger Nichols, 6G program manager at Keysight Technologies, breaks down the opportunities and challenges as tech firms and telcos look beyond 5G.

In the innovation age, technology advancements are always in development, and it’s expected that 6G will offer download speeds approaching 1 terabit per second, one microsecond latency, and unlimited bandwidth. This will enable ingenious ways for people to interact with their surroundings, including instantaneous communication, connected robotics and autonomous systems and wireless artificial intelligent interactions.  

The Vision for 6G

Much of what is being described today looks like “5G, but better” and some of that will be the case.

It is a bit early to speculate on the “biggest application opportunity” but the use-models range from holographic communications, making digital twins far more sophisticated and thorough, to changing the way that we leverage data through machine learning (ML) and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI). There is also an intent to leverage 6G for sophisticated emergency and disaster management, as well as huge scientific applications. 

Regarding latency, 6G will make two advancements on time-sensitive networking. First, the maximum latency KPI for critical applications for 6G is as low as 100 microseconds. This will have a significant impact on new use-cases that are not just about getting information there quickly, but also leveraging location-based services that are more precise. 

Second is the concept of a minimum latency requirement; in other words, precise timing of information transfer even if the latency is long. Some information can arrive too soon to be useful, so time-engineering in networks means knowing that a message may arrive before a certain amount of time passes, as well as the ability to plan exactly when the information will arrive. 

The Challenges Facing 6G

There are several technical challenges that span the five areas of technical investment: next generation radio, integrated multi-heterogeneous technology networks (ITU’s ManyNets), time-engineering in networks, AI-enabled and optimised networks. With each of these areas posing enormous challenges. 

There is also then the matter of security. Can somebody break it? Can they get in and get your data? Will you even know if they did? How quickly will your network recover? Even for 5G, the security situation is not mature, and much work is required. Given that the security threat surface for 5G is far beyond that of previous generations, one can expect that 6G will be even more so.  

Government and private entities have teams of smart innovative people developing malicious intrusion capability for networks and that level of innovation is constant. So, the challenges are to make the network secure at all levels, to know when someone is trying to breach it, and to recover quickly.

6G Impacting Daily Life

6G will not be reserved for just business or military, or just for a few commercial use cases; this would make investment in the technology unaffordable because the resulting use will not scale for the payoff.

6G is about mobile wireless being an integral part of society.  One could argue that this is the case with 4G, but most societies' adoption of 4G is constrained to entertainment and advertising. Try to think of mobile wireless as being a fundamental part of driving to work, making your evening meals, educating your children, gaining access to your health care needs, shopping, banking, mining, manufacturing everything from staples - to paint - to jet aircraft engines, and research in all fields….the list goes on.  Think of what it was like in 1905 when Charles Howard could not sell a single car in San Francisco. Now, the automobile pervades life.

Time Frame and the Implications of 5G

Most are targeting a 2030 commercialisation timeframe. Like 5G, we could see commercial launches happen before the turn of the decade. This will be determined by that magical mix of technology, policy, and business model. 

In any case, like all previous generations, commercialisation will start from small regional implementations to nation-wide networks with all the fits and starts of any new system.  Also, like 5G, the first manifestations of 6G will be a far cry from today’s vision - we are a good five years away from seeing 5G in full, based on vision-setting that was completed eight years ago.

But it is still not too soon to begin the 6G conversation, these evolutions take time. The technical hurdles are significant, and many innovators must contribute to overcome these hurdles and develop systems that will work consistently around the world. People my age were in their ‘20s before the idea of carrying a radio in your pocket to communicate with someone in another country moved from science fiction to reality.  It may not seem that long, but the 10-20 years that it takes to work out a new generation means you start working before the previous generation is mature and sometimes before it is mainstream.

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