Increased Bandwidth and Accelerating Speed Will Deepen Our Connection with the Digital World
With the global deployment of 5G networks still underway and many areas of the world still using older and less advanced communications networks, researchers and industry leaders are already looking ahead to 6G and its potential benefits. Following the 10-year development timelines of previous cellular technologies, we could expect 6G trials and deployments as early as 2030. But much work is ahead of us in these coming eight years to develop relevant standards that address the needs that are evident today and those that will reveal themselves in the coming years. To this end, the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA) is at the forefront of efforts to define 6G technology.
The high-level vision for 6G is to deepen the connection and integration between the digital, physical, and human worlds. While it’s too early to know what final form 6G will take before it is standardized, we can speculate on the characteristics the next generation network will have, including the technologies that will be included and why they are important.
The 6G Network
As the name suggests, 6G is the successor to 5G communications technologies. Beyond supporting mobile, 6G will support technology like automated cars and smart-home networks, helping create seamless connectivity between the internet and everyday life.
Currently, 5G promises download speeds many times faster than 4G LTE networks and with significantly less latency. Naturally, we can expect 6G networks to use higher frequencies than 5G networks and provide substantially higher capacity and much lower latency. Current projections call for 6G to hit a maximum speed of one terabit per second (Tbps), which is 100-times faster than 5G. In terms of frequency, 6G looks to elevate from 5G’s frequency of 60 kilobits and reach 95 kilobits. 6G will use more advanced radio equipment and a greater volume and diversity of airwaves than 5G, including an extremely high frequency (EHF) spectrum that delivers ultra-high speeds and huge capacity over short distances. All 6G networks will have integrated mobile edge computing technology, not an add-on like current 5G, providing benefits such as improved access to AI capabilities and support for sophisticated mobile devices and systems.
Beyond amplifying applications for better connectivity and performance, tomorrow’s 6G network design should use AI and machine learning (to improve assistance and efficiencies), support greater sustainability outcomes, increase security (to foster trust and reliability), and expand and improve connectivity with remote areas of the world.
The 6G network must be more efficient than 5G and consume less power. Energy efficiency achieved through digitization is critical for a more sustainable mobile industry because of the anticipated growth in data generation. The 6G network can power the applications needed to make this happen.
The network must be more than just secure. It must also be reliable. While privacy is an important component of security, consistent, reliable, and rapid, end-to-end data delivery, such as that needed to support the safe and efficient operation of driverless vehicles without concerns about potentially dangerous latency glitches, is essential.
The COVID-19 pandemic helped clarify the importance that future networks will need to emphasize societal and economic needs by focusing on expanded global access instead of just performance. Many areas worldwide, particularly rural and underprivileged areas, are without broadband access. Future networks will need to serve an ever-increasing number of users and their anticipated network use cost-effectively to achieve the goal of universal wireless communications access. 6G satellite technology, combined with intelligent surfaces capable of reflecting electromagnetic signals, can deliver low latency and multi-gigabit connectivity. This potential could be especially transformative in parts of the world where providing access to conventional mobile networks is too difficult, too expensive, or both. The advances provided by the open radio access network (Open RAN) should also help drive down network costs.
6G and the Transformation of Society
Like the evolution of all technologies, including faster networks and mobile, 6G will further transform how we do business, manage and operate our community infrastructures, and live. Key to the promise of 6G, sensing is the basis for all interaction with and emulation of the physical environment, and its potential extends to autonomous vehicles, smart factories, precision healthcare, and much more.
If 6G were available today, developers would most certainly be eager to leverage its anticipated attributes. 6G’s exceptional data rates, low latency, secure reliability, agility, and dynamic insights will expand the scope of capabilities to support new and innovative applications in wireless connectivity, cognition, sensing, and imaging.
We can already feel the demand pull for 6G by examining the applications being deployed today. For example, technology trends seen with 5G, such as virtualized networks, are setting the stage for 6G by enabling things like specialized deployments. Operators have densified radio networks with more antennas. It is now easier to get a signal, especially indoors. Users now have close access to data storage and processing through cloud technologies and edge computing. Even at scale, latency is much lower.
The 5G platform already harnesses AI for optimization, dynamic resource allocation, and data processing. But extremely low latency of less than one millisecond and distributed architecture mean that 6G will be able to deliver global, integrated intelligence. 6G will propel the fourth industrial revolution, enabled largely by the industrial Internet of Things (IoT) services integrated with AI and machine learning.
6G wireless sensing solutions will impact government and industry approaches to public safety and critical asset protection, such as threat detection, health monitoring, and air quality measurements. We can anticipate greater decision-making capabilities using real-time information, improving the responsiveness of law enforcement officials and first responders.
Autonomous driving is one of the main use cases in which 6G is expected to play a critical role by enabling greater accuracy and reliability. The recently released IEEE 2846, a new standard for autonomous vehicle (AV) safety, provides an important step in advancing the mass testing of AVs in the U.S. Looking further ahead, 6G and future networks will be needed to drive an AV society. For example, it’s easy to understand that data speed with complete coverage will be required to enable thousands of AVs to navigate traffic in a geographical area. But it will also be needed for connection with a network of sensors that can direct the AV to an open parking spot close to the desired end of the route.
An essential part of AV navigation systems will be sophisticated maps, successors to GIS on the ground. The future includes the advent of real-time 4D maps, which everyone, including government organizations, will use to monitor, manage, and operate infrastructure, including traffic largely comprised of autonomous vehicles. A vast sensor network, aggregating data from ground and air inputs, will be used to map everything from traffic to weather conditions. With 4D mapping, we may see how we manage all space, including the air space above us.
6G will also enable immersive communication experiences through location and context-aware digital services, sensory experiences, such as truly immersive extended reality (XR), and high-fidelity holograms. Look for virtual reality, which usually requires a cumbersome headset, to be replaced with augmented reality. Holographic technology will be integrated into many applications, including communication, telemedicine, architecture, interior design, and gaming. Instead of today’s video conferences, it will be possible to speak to people in real-time in virtual reality (VR), using wearable sensors allowing users to have the physical sensation of being in the same room together.
Because 6G is more power-efficient than 5G, it may even be possible for low-power IoT devices to be charged over the network. This efficiency would transform the economics of mass deployments and aid sustainability. But beyond the network, 6G will also drive the technologies that can make our world more sustainable through global sensors measuring inputs from vast ecosystems, including forests, oceans, cities, and homes. At the most granular level, a smart home could pull intelligence from sensors inside and outside the home to learn from and adapt to your behaviors, such as when to turn on HVAC systems and when to put them on pause or shut them down.
We also can look forward to advances in precision healthcare, in which data science, analytics, and biomedicine are combined to create a learning system that conducts research in the context of clinical care while also optimizing tools and information to provide better outcomes for patients. Precision healthcare can include the use of tiny nodes that measure body functions tied to devices that can medicate and assist patients.
Leveraging satellite and other technologies, the 6G network has the potential to empower tremendous intelligence and limitless connectivity and connect all aspects of our physical and digital worlds – holistically, what some call the metaverse. The launch of 6G could fuel a massive increase in IoT adoption, allowing the transmission of data to update its digital representation, such as climate sensors in a factory or scattered throughout a city, in real time. With 6G, applications will be developed to observe and analyze events, provide more reliable predictions about likely outcomes, and automatically program response actions.
In a personal and relatable example for most everyone, 6G will provide terabit speeds that will inevitably make streaming more enjoyable and video calls less painful.
How IEEE SA Supports the Development and Launch of 6G
Through our Connectivity & Telecom Practice, IEEE SA is building an ecosystem of interested stakeholders from across the globe to address the need for robust, responsible, and affordable wired/wireless platforms focused on providing improved and reliable connectivity to meet the ever-increasing data needs. The technologies and societal issues envisioned for 6G technology that are part of the focus of our efforts include virtualized RAN (Open RAN), universal connectivity, energy savings, cybersecurity, IoT, augmented reality, and a sustainable future. We welcome the involvement of participants from academia, government, and industry. For more information or to join the standards activity, please visit the Connectivity & Telecom Practice webpage.