There is a proliferation of reports on the potential technologies and use cases that will be part of the 6G roll-out, but little distinction between what’s real and what’s hype. STL Partners identify what 6G is most likely to emerge by 2030 and what telcos and vendors should prioritise now.
Who’s driving the 6G discussion?
There already are numerous 6G visions, suggested use-cases and proposed technical elements. Many reflect vendors’ or universities’ existing specialist research domains or IPR in wireless or look to entrench and extend existing commercial models and “locked-in” legacy technology stacks.
Others start from broad visions of UN development goals and policymakers’ desires for connected societies and try to use these to frame and underpin 6G targets, even if the reality is that they will often be delivered by 5G, fibre or other technologies.
The stakeholder groups involved in creating 6G are wider than for 5G – governments, cloud hyperscalers / techcos, industrial specialists, NGOs, and many other groups seem more prominent than in the past when the main drivers came from MNOs, large vendors and key academic clusters.
Over time, a process of iteration and “triangulation” will occur for 6G, initially starting with a wide funnel of ideas, which are now beginning to coalesce into common requirements – and then to specific standards and underlying technical innovations. By around 2024-25, there should be more clarity, but at present, there are still many directions that 6G could take.
What are they saying?
Discussions with and available material from parties interested in 6G discusses a wide range of new technologies (e.g. ultra-massive MIMO) and design goals (e.g. speeds of 1Tbps). These can be organised into six categories to provide a high-level set of futuristic statements that underpin the concept of 6G, as articulated by the various 6G consortia and governing bodies:
- Provision of ultra-high data rate and ultra-low latency: Provision of up to 1Tbps speeds and as low as 1-microsecond latency – outdoors and – implicitly at least – indoors.
- Use of new frequencies and interconnection of new network types: Efficient use of the high, medium, and low-frequency bands, potentially including visible light and >100GHz and even THz spectrum. This will include possible coordination between non-terrestrial networks and other existing networks and new types of radio and antenna to provide ubiquitous coverage in a dispersed “fabric” concept, rather than traditional discrete “cells”.
- Ultra-massive MIMO and ultra-flexible physical and control layers: The combination of ultra-large antenna arrays, intelligent surfaces, AI and new sensing technologies working in a range of frequency bands. This will depend on the deployment of a range of new technologies in the physical and control layers to increase coverage and speed while reducing cost and power consumption.
- High-resolution location: The ability to improve locational accuracy, potentially to centimetre-level resolutions, as well as the ability to find and describe objects in 3D orientation.
- Improved sensing capabilities: Ability to use 6Gradio signals for direct sensing applications such as radar and communications.
- General network concepts: A variety of topics, including the concept of a distributed network architecture and a “network of networks” to improve network performance and coverage. This also includes more conceptual topics such as micro-networks and computing-aware networks. Finally, there is discussion on tailoring 6Gfor use of / deployment by other industries beyond traditional telcos (“verticals”), such as enhancements for sectors including rail, broadcast, agriculture, and utilities, among others, which may require specific features for coverage, sector-specific protocols or legacy interoperability.
How is 6G different to 5G?
In reality, the boundaries between later versions of 5G and 6G are likely to be blurred, both in terms of the technology standards development and in the ways marketers present network products and services. As with 5G, the development of 6G will take time to reach many of the goals above. From 3GPP Release 18 onwards, 5G is officially being renamed “5G Advanced”, mirroring a similar move in the later stages of 4G/LTE development. Rel18 standards are expected to be completed around the end of 2023, with preliminary Rel19 studies also currently underway. Rel20 and Rel21 will continue the evolution.
However, from 2024 onwards, the work done at 3GPP meetings and in its various groups will gradually shift from enhancing 5G to starting the groundwork for 6G – initially defining requirements in 2024-25, then creating “study items” in 2025-26. During that time, new additions to 5G in Rel20/21/22 will get progressively thinner as resources are devoted to 6G preparations.
The heavy lifting efforts on “work items” for 6G will probably start around 2026-27, with 5G Advanced output then dwindling to minor enhancements or maintenance releases. It is still unclear what will get included in 5G Advanced versus held over until 6G, but the main emphasis for 6G is likely to be on:
- Greater performance and efficiency for mobile broadband, with attention paid to MIMO techniques, better uplink mechanisms and improved cell-to-cell handover
- Additional features for specific verticals, as well as V2X deployments and IoT
- Support of new spectrum bands
- Improvements in mapping and positioning
- Enhanced coverage and backhaul, for instance, by establishing “daisy-chains” of cell sites, extensions and repeaters, including using 5Gfor backhaul and access.
- More intelligence and automation in the 5Gnetwork core, including improvements to slicing and orchestration
- Better integration of non-terrestrial networks, typically using satellites or high-altitude platforms.
- Capabilities specifically aimed at AR/VR/XR.
- Direct device-to-device connections (also called “sidelink”) that allow communication without the need to go via a cell tower.
We can expect these 5G Advanced areas to also progress from requirements to study and work items from 2022-27.
However, these features will mostly be an evolution of 5G rather than a revolution by 5G. While there may be a few early moves in areas such as wireless sensing, Releases 18-21 are unlikely to include any radical breakthroughs. The topics we discuss in this report, such as the potential use of terahertz bands, blending of O-RAN principles of disaggregation, and new technology domains such as smart surfaces will be solidly in the 6G era.
An important point is that the official ITU standard for next-gen wireless, likely to be called IMT2030, is not the same as 3GPP’s branding of the cellular “generation” or individual MNOs service names. There may well be early versions of 6G cellular, driven by market demand, that don’t match the ITU requirements. Ultimately 3GPP is an industry-led organisation, so it may follow the path of expediency if there are urgent commercial opportunities or challenges.
In addition, based on the experience of 4G and 5G launches, it is probable that at least one MNO will try to call a 5G Advanced launch “6G” in their marketing. AT&T caused huge controversy – and even lawsuits – by calling a late version of LTE “5Ge” (5G evolution), including the icons on some phones’ screens, while Verizon’s early 5G FWA systems were actually a proprietary pre-standard version of the technology.
If you’re a purist about these things – as we at STL Partners are – prepare to be howling in frustration around 2027-28 and describing new services as “fake 6G”.
You can request an extract of the report here.
Related article: The 6G vision is quickly forming – but it seems oddly familiar