The rollout of 5G is now well underway, with predictions that 5G connections will exceed the one billion mark this year.
But, while the world grasps the potential of new network capabilities, the next generation – 6G – is already being explored.
Despite being in its early stages, experts predict 6G will offer higher frequency bands and flexible, cloud-based networking technology to provide unheard-of speeds up to 100x quicker than 5G, and microsecond latency.
According to the 5G Infrastructure Association, 6G will bring ‘a near-instant and unrestricted complete wireless connectivity’, with the technology set to radically reshape the way enterprises operate.
And, if predictions are correct, this transformational tech – which could support technology like automated cars and smart-home networks – could be a reality in the next six to 10 years.
6G: A ‘network of networks’
As tomorrow’s innovative applications, such as the metaverse and extended reality, look set to require ever-increasing connectivity, the utilisation of edge and cloud infrastructure will be key in the deployment of future 6G networks.
“6G is emerging as an edge-centric technology that will bind terrestrial (cellular), spatial (satellite), air (UAV) and maritime communications into a single, highly dimensional ‘network of networks’,” says Ian Goetz, Global Lead - RAN Systems Architect 5G at Dell Technologies.
“The choice of network service assigned to your cell phone (or IoT endpoint) will be dynamically based on the optimal balance of available compute and network resources,” he adds. “The ability to scale such network services up and down elastically is a key benefit of using cloud infrastructure in 6G.”
The benefits that 5G already offers will also be delivered by 6G, with much higher performance, adds Manish Vyas, President, CME Business and CEO, Network Services at Tech Mahindra.
“Beyond that, 6G will enable intelligent, hyperconnected, decentralised, disaggregated, and highly secure networks with extremely high capacity and ubiquitous coverage,” he says.
“6G will use additional frequency bands, mainly in the range of mmWave GHz and sub-THz, with wider bandwidth access to enable capacity of up to 1 terabit per second.
“In addition, 6G will be built on the principles of open interfaces and ecosystems, and AI-native design,” says Vyas. “This means that 6G networks will have access to more advanced AI capabilities and enhanced support for sophisticated mobile devices than 5G.”
Challenges of the move to 6G
“For the next few years, the questions like ‘Is 5G enough?’ or ‘Do we really need 6G or higher data rates, if so, for what use cases?’ will continue to be there,” explains Shamik Mishra, CTO Connectivity and Vice President at Capgemini Engineering.
“As industries, real estates, ports, vehicles etc get connected to the internet through mobile connectivity, wireless technology must be transformed to be more efficient in terms of cost, energy, spectrum and operations.”
6G will be cloud-native from the start with scalability and interoperability as key, says Volker Ziegler, Senior Technology Advisor, Chief Architect at Nokia.
“We see an opportunity to enable greater interaction between communication and computing systems, which have been a bottleneck in this transition because they have been designed separately,” he adds. “New architecture designs are needed in 6G to integrate these core elements, which should be flexible enough to enable services that can be employed across different and distributed cloud platforms, whether they are private or public, edge, core or on-premise.
“Working with vast amounts of data also requires a greater focus on security, and this has been one of the key driving forces of design for 6G networks at Nokia. We’ve carried out immense research to ensure network platforms in the 6G era are properly secured. This includes constant monitoring of micro-services as well as platform and workload integrity protection at boot and during runtime. We are also exploring whether elements of encryption are safe for the upcoming era of quantum computing in the 2030s.”
Rethinking what networks look like
6G will allow new and exciting possibilities in the future, Vyas says, including holographic communications, a tactile internet, intelligent network operations, networking and computing convergence.
“It’s hard to predict what 6G will look like,” he adds, “but from our learnings from 5G and open RAN networks, we know 6G is going to be AI-based, super intelligent, and fully integrated, with ultra-low latency systems with large ecosystems utilising open interfaces.”
And, as mobile networks become larger and more complex, 6G networks will leverage machine learning (ML) at scale, comments Mishra.
“6G will leverage AI/ML at scale for better radio/network design, improved network management, orchestration and resource management,” he adds. “Edge computing/AI-driven applications combined with the sensor network will enable several new intelligent industry use cases through real-time consumption of data.”
“The reality-bending requirements of 6G demand that we rethink what a cellular network looks like,” says Goetz. “One of the first things we did was to drop the traditional ‘cell’ architecture that has long been the fundamental unit of design for cellular; it is, in fact, the ‘cell’ in cellular. 6G will adopt a ‘cell-free’ architecture where no cell and cell boundaries exist.
“The fundamental idea of cell-free is to deploy a large number of distributed radios that are connected to a scale-out, elastic cloud platform. With 6G, the whole network can flex to become as large or as small as it needs to be to serve the user. It becomes more of a living, breathing network.”
New network infrastructure to ensure smooth transition
“We can expect novel use cases when the network will be treated like a platform,” predicts Mishra. “These use cases will bring new traffic patterns, new data rate requirements, higher uplink rates, machine-to-machine communications, etc. This all will drive how 6G wireless radio technologies evolve and how the network architecture is designed.”
“The 6G network architecture will be based on integrating various network functions in cloud environments, leveraging the advancement of AI in all domains, using different types of sub-networks, and enhancing means of exposing data and services to third parties,” adds Ziegler. “Data, connectivity, and computing are key capabilities that 6G systems need to offer to enable and, most importantly, scale for use cases such as automation, AI, metaverse, digital twins and others spanning across key industries.
“Ultimately, when we think about the transition to 6G, we need to understand that this shift is evolutionary, as it has already started with 5G paving the way for fully cloud-native networks,” he explains. “At Nokia, we identified four key aspects to define cloud-nativeness. We expect to see small, stateless microservices architecture running in containers since containers are faster to deploy and upgrade compared to large monolithic applications.
“We also expect cloud agnostic and infrastructure agnostic environments that can be deployed anywhere. Because of abstraction, we will be able to eliminate hardware dependencies. And, finally, it will be all about DevOps for automation and faster time-to-market.”
The migration from 5G to 6G will require comprehensive edge cloud infrastructure, according to Goetz, who predicts a move from “connected things” to “connected intelligence”.
“When we talk about connected intelligence, we understand that we are going beyond personalised communication to realise intelligent connections between people, devices, and resources,” he explains.
“In the 6G era, it is expected that we will be able to interact through high-fidelity extended/mixed reality (XR/MR) interaction and even holographic communication,” concludes Goetz. “The success of such a vision relies on XR fully mobilising the senses of sight, touch, hearing, and smell to make customers enjoy fully immersive holographic experiences such as virtual sports, virtual travel, and virtual games anytime and anywhere.
“To realise these experiences, edge cloud infrastructure is critical.”