Planning network evolution to 6G starts with having a clear idea of what services it needs to support, and how we evolve the network to support them.
It may seem like early days to be talking about 6G when it’s still early days for 5G rollouts. According to S&P Global Market Intelligence, 220 operators have launched active commercial 5G services in 85 markets as of August 2022. But this is just a start compared to the total mobile ecosystem, and the benefits promised by 5G in enabling industrial automation will flourish in the coming years.
So why do we need 6G? In a nutshell, the world’s connectivity and data needs are growing, and fast. The demands on mobile networks in 2030 – just eight short years from now – will require them to evolve beyond 5G to an architecture that can enable new kinds of services that serve those demands.
Designing that architecture starts with an understanding of what consumers and enterprises are likely to use it for. In other words, we must look at the trends that are likely to drive mobile data services towards 6G. From there we can look at how the network can evolve to support that vision – not only in terms of performance gains, but also sustainability, security and trustworthiness and inclusion. These are the key value drivers for 6G.
A world that needs 6G
While predicting the future is a tricky business, we can make several educated guesses as to what life will look like in the future hyper-connected ‘digital economy’ and the data requirements involved.
Apart from the metaverse and its accompanying mixed-reality interfaces, we will also see a massive deployment of wireless cameras being used as sensors, leveraging advances in AI and machine vision. Indeed, the most notable aspect of 6G will be its ability to sense the environment, people and objects via the radio waves. In other words, the network will evolve to a point where it is supporting sensors natively. Sensors will also play a role in the development of advanced techniques for security-screening procedures, where security lines give way to simply screening people as they move through crowded areas.
Digital cash and keys will likely become the norm, with transactions in both the physical and digital worlds being conducted via devices. Domestic connected service robots will also be more common. And of course, there will be more self-driving cars on the roads.
That’s just on the consumer side of the coin. On the enterprise side, Industry 4.0 will be well established by 2030, supported by 5G networks providing ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC) and real-time processing in the cloud. But new industrial use cases such as holographic telepresence, dynamic digital twins, and mobile robot swarms and drones in various verticals will up the stakes for network performance.
Meanwhile, healthcare will have undergone significant transformation by 2030, with 24/7 monitoring of vital parameters for both the healthy and the sick through wearable and even implanted devices. In a way, this is an extension of the idea mentioned above that 6G will feature native support for sensors. That will include biosensing capabilities that monitor our health.
Trustworthy and inclusive
Naturally, this raises an important requirement for future networks – they must be trustworthy, reliable and inclusive. Healthcare is an obvious example, but there are many others that are just as important.
Privacy and security are already major issues today where personal data has become a valuable resource for digital businesses (and for bad actors keen on stealing it). This will be even more true over the next decade as the digital economy becomes the norm.
Put simply, a 6G network capable of sensing the world is also capable of tracking the people in it, from their location to their daily habits and intimate health details. The potential benefits of analyzing that data are enormous, but they’re not of much value unless the network is secure, trustworthy and reliable enough to protect the people using them.
And it has to be inclusive. There’s little value in 6G-powered services if only certain groups of people can use them.
The future must be energy-efficient
Another future trend worth mentioning is energy consumption – not least because of the issue of climate change.
While various governments and industries are looking for ways to reduce carbon footprints, the key challenge is that energy consumption is continuing to skyrocket, especially for networks. This growth will be unsustainable unless the network evolves in a way that delivers improved energy efficiency even as future capacity needs grow.
In the case of 6G, this means enabling faster and lower cost per bit connectivity, big data analysis to improve energy efficiency, and turning off components and scaling down capacity when the demand is lower.
The two biggest drivers for 6G
The overall vision of the digital landscape in 2030 can be boiled down into two overarching trends that will be the most impactful drivers of network traffic that will shape the evolution of networks:
- Human augmentation: the internet experience will be a highly immersive one as enhanced human-computer interfaces allow humans to become a part of the Internet, not just users of it. This includes not only AR/VR/MR, but also bio-digital interfaces, exoskeletons etc.
- Digital-physical fusion: By 2030 every physical thing that makes sense to connect digitally will have been connected to the internet or intranets. The evolution of the metaverse will add another digital layer to our physical world via augmented, virtual and missed reality. This will bring enormous changes to the demands placed on networks and to industry as a whole, especially for enterprises.
Both of these trends will generate massive amounts of data that will in turn escalate the need for multi-gigabit speeds and sub-millisecond latencies supporting real-time apps and services. They will also upscale our expectations in terms of network performance, reliability, ubiquity, security, openness, and sustainability. In essence, networks will be expected to be as agile as the cloud as emerging use cases focus on as-a-service models and performance-sensitive applications at the edge.
How this shapes network evolution
All of this is likely to shape network evolution in three ways:
- Extreme performance specialized networks: Specialized and carefully engineered private networks will be built to handle the most stringent industrial applications for extremely low latency and high reliability.
- Network of networks: The 6G network will consist of many layers within and across networks, including macro, ultra-dense small cell and 3GPP-compatible non-terrestrial networks, all working together seamlessly to provide new levels of ubiquity, performance and reliability.
- Network-as-a-Service: Networks will be consumed dynamically and as-a-service, similar to how cloud services work today.
5G-Advanced as a stepping stone to 6G
Realizing this network evolution path to 6G naturally starts with evolving 5G to its fullest potential. That’s already underway with 5G Advanced in 3GPP Releases 18 and 19, which will lay the groundwork for 6G.
5G-Advanced will improve the experience for new interactive use cases, such as mixed reality and cloud gaming. It will also extend 5G to new vertical markets through, for example, enhanced RedCap and expanded capabilities for high accuracy positioning. All of this will be backed by enhanced operational excellence achieved via better network energy efficiency and wide adoption of AI/ML in the RAN and the core.
Technological stepping stones within 5G-Advanced include distributed massive MIMO to increase uplink capacity; an AI-native network fabric in which AI/ML is introduced in layers, functions and domains such as the RAN and core; new radio architectures to support new spectrum bands from 7–15 GHz as well as near-THz bands; and a new cognitive, simplified network architecture involving cloud-based microservice networks with intent-based orchestration and automation.
Meanwhile, 5G-Advanced will also lay the groundwork for enabling the improved energy efficiencies that 6G will require. The 3GPP is currently working on a new energy consumption model for 5G-Advanced that minimizes power use on the uplink and downlink, as well when the network is dynamically transmitting data or passively waiting in standby. That energy efficiency at the RAN will also make 5G-Advanced networks overall more operationally efficient, along with new network slicing and analytics capabilities.
5G-Advanced will be a key focus for 3GPP in Release 18 onwards and will appear in commercial networks starting around 2025. Standards work on 6G should start the following year as part of 3GPP Release 20, with commercial launches expected to start around 2030.
As that evolution progresses, perhaps the most important aspect to consider isn’t the technology, but the unprecedented amount of collaboration required to evolve it.
A flexible approach is needed between centralized, edge, and on-premises clouds interconnected by agile networks to build networks that can support use cases like human augmentation and digital-physical fusion – as well as digitalization of the enterprise in general.
Enabling this will require a completely new level of cooperation and collaboration between (and investment in) the mobile and transport network and cloud platforms and applications, so that these two domains can work together seamlessly with the consumability and programmability currently expected from public cloud services.
So, as we can see, the evolution to 6G is being shaped by the digital trends that are developing now and the evolution of other technologies like cloud, AI and others. The result will be a 6G network that is designed for the needs of 2030 – a network that is not only super-fast, but also enhances human experience beyond the limitations of human perception and physical ability, and is trusted, secure, reliable and sustainable enough to make that vision a reality.
By John Harrington, Head of Asia-Pacific and Japan, Nokia