6G (sixth-generation wireless) is the successor to 5G cellular technology -- 6G networks will be able to use higher frequencies than 5G networks and provide substantially higher capacity and much lower latency. One of the goals of the 6G Internet will be to support one micro-second latency communications, representing 1,000 times faster -- or 1/1000th the latency -- than one millisecond throughput.

The 6G technology market is expected to facilitate large improvements in the areas of imaging, presence technology and location awareness. Working in conjunction with artificial intelligence (AI), the computational infrastructure of 6G will be able to autonomously determine the best location for computing to occur; this includes decisions about data storage, processing and sharing

Advantages of 6G over 5G

6G is expected to support data rates of 1 terabyte per second (Tbps). This level of capacity and latency will be unprecedented and will extend the performance of 5G applications along with expanding the scope of capabilities in support of increasingly new and innovative applications across the realms of wireless connectivity, cognition, sensing and imaging. 6G's higher frequencies will enable much faster sampling rates in addition to providing significantly better throughput and higher data rates. The combination of sub-mm Wave (e.g. wavelengths smaller than one millimeter) and the use of frequency selectivity to determine relative electromagnetic absorption rates is expected to lead to potentially significant advances in wireless sensing technology.

Additionally, whereas the addition of mobile edge computing (MEC) is a point of consideration as an addition to 5G networks, MEC will be built into all 6G networks. Edge and core computing will become much more seamlessly integrated as part of a combined communications/computation infrastructure framework by the time 6G networks are deployed. This will provide many potential advantages as 6G technology becomes operational, including improved access to artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities.

When to expect 6G

6G is expected to launch commercially in 2030. 6G is being developed in response to the increasingly distributed radio access network (RAN) and the desire to take advantage of the terahertz (THz) spectrum to increase capacity, lower latency and improve spectrum sharing efficiency. While some early discussions have taken place to define 6G, research and development (R&D) activities will start in earnest in 2020. Many of the problems associated with deploying millimeter wave (MM wave) radio for 5G new radio are expected to be solved in time for network designers to address the challenges of 6G.

What 6G will look like

It's expected that 6G wireless sensing solutions will selectively use different frequencies to measure absorption and adjust frequencies accordingly. This is possible because atoms and molecules emit and absorb electromagnetic radiation at characteristic frequencies and the emission and absorption frequencies are the same for any given substance.

6G will have big implications for many government and industry solutions in public safety and critical asset protection such as:

  • Threat detection
  • Health monitoring
  • Feature and facial recognition
  • Decision making (in areas like law enforcement and social credit systems)
  • Air quality measurements
  • Gas and toxicity sensing

Improvements in these fields would also enable improvements in emerging technology such as smart cities, autonomous vehicles and virtual reality. 

Do we even need 6G?

More than ever before, the sixth generation of cellular networks will integrate a set of previously disparate technologies, including deep learning and big data analytics. The introduction of 5G paves the way for much of this convergence.

The need to deploy edge computing to ensure overall throughput and low latency for ultra-reliable, low latency communications solutions is an important driver for 6G, as is the need to support machine-to-machine communication in the internet of things (IoT).  Furthermore, a strong relationship has been identified between future 6G solutions and high-performance computing (HPC). While some of the IoT and mobile device data will be handled by edge computing resources, much of it will require processing by more centralized HPC resources.

This diagram illustrates some of the capabilities that 6G is expected to provide. 

Capabilities of 6G
This chart details some of the capabilities which 6G is expected to provide

Who is working on it?

The race to 6G will draw the attention of many industry constituents, such as major test and measurement vendor Keysight Technologies who has also indicated a commitment to its development. This may very well make the race to reach 5G look minor compared to the wait to see which countries can dominate the 6G technology market and its related applications, services and solutions.

  • The University of Oulu in Finland is committed to a 6G research initiative referred to as 6Genesis. The project will be conducted for the next eight years and will develop a vision for 2037.
  • South Korea’s Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute is conducting research on the Terahertz frequency band for 6G and envisions data speeds 100 times faster than 4G LTE networks and 5 times faster than 5G networks.
  • The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) in China is directly investing and monitoring the research and development process.
  • The United States is planning to open up 6G frequency for R&D purposes pending approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for frequencies over 95 gigahertz (GHz) to 3 THz.

In terms of vendor commitments to 6G, major infrastructure companies such as Huawei, Nokia and Samsung have all signaled that they have R&D in the works.

Future scope

About ten years ago, the phrase 'Beyond 4G' (B4G) was coined to refer to the need to move beyond what was currently envisioned as part of the evolution for 4G via the LTE standard. Since it was not clear what 5G might entail, and only pre-standards R&D level prototypes were in the works at the time, the term B4G lasted for a while, referring to what could be possible and potentially useful beyond 4G. Somewhat ironically, the LTE standard is still evolving itself and some aspects will be used in 5G.

In the same vein as B4G, Beyond 5G (B5G) can be seen as a pathway to 6G technologies that will render fifth generation capabilities and 5G applications pale in comparison. One of the ways in which 5G is laying the groundwork for 6G solutions is the many private wireless implementations involving evolved LTE, 5G and edge computing for enterprise and industrial customers. Next generation 6G wireless networks will take this one step further with a web of communications providers -- many of which will be self-providers -- much in the way that photovoltaic (PV) solar power has engendered co-generation within the smart grid

Datacenters are already faced with big changes due to 5G such as virtualization, programmable networks (PNs), edge computing and issues surrounding simultaneous support of public and private networks. For example, some business customers may want a combination of on premise RAN with hybrid on premise and hosted computing -- for edge and core computing respectively -- and datacenter hosted core network elements for private business networks and/or alternative service providers.

6G radio networks will provide the means of communication and data gathering necessary to accumulate information, but a systems approach will be required for the 6G technology market as a whole involving data analytics, artificial intelligence, and next generation computation capabilities via HPC and quantum computing.

In addition to profound changes within the RAN, the core communications network fabric will also transform as many new technologies converge with 6G. Most notably, AI will take center stage with 6G. There is discussion regarding the potential for a so called “nano-core” to emerge as a common computing core that encompasses elements of both HPC and AI. Assuming this potential vision is realized, the nano-core does not need to be a physical network element, but rather a logical collection comprised of a web of computational resources, shared by many networks and systems.

With substantially more data created by 6G than 5G networks, and the evolution of computing to include coordination between edge and core platforms, the need for datacenter evolution will be paramount. Next generation 6G capabilities in the areas of sensing, imaging and location determination will generate vast amounts of data that must be managed on behalf of the network owners, service providers and data owners.

This was last updated in August 2020

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