While 6G is still many years off, industry experts see more resilient, critical, unified, distributed, and automated networks
What exactly will 6G be? Given that current research is taking place among academics and technology partners in the private sector well ahead of formalized discussions within standardization bodies like the 3GPP, that’s hard to say. It’s fair to think it will build on capabilities associated with 5G, straightforward things like less latency, more speed, more embedded intelligence, and so forth, and will tap into new spectrum, and enable new use cases. But perhaps a better way to understand what 6G could be is to assess the state of currently maturing technologies that will likely inform the answer to the above question.
Below we’ll draw on expert commentary from across the telecoms ecosystem to put some stakes in the ground and do a bit of speculation. Let’s start with a pragmatic approach courtesy of AT&T Director of RAN Engineering Sinan Akkaya.
“I think when it comes to 6G, the only thing we need to remember here is that every G is created to address certain problems. So the question here is what challenge or what problem we’re addressing…As a RAN person, I need to understand if my problem or my client’s problem or whatever slice they’re on is either latency, capacity or the data throughput. Once we know collectively where the challenge is, I think 6G is going to address that.”
To understand the problem statement, we turn to Joe Madden. Speaking during the 6G Summit held alongside the recent Big 5G Event, Madden, founder and president of analyst firm Mobile Experts, framed the problem: there’s a disconnect between the continued long-term increase in demand for mobile data and the available capacity of 4G and 5G networks to handle it. “We’re going to see that ongoing growth take place for another 14 years at least,” he said, also noting that the vast majority of mobile data is used from indoor locations. “That’s a human factor that I don’t think will change over the next 14 years. That brings up a conundrum.”
To put some numbers to it, Madden pegs current global demand for IP traffic at less than 2,000 exabytes per month. As a reminder, 1 exabyte is 1 billion gigabytes. In the 2029 to 2030 timeframe, he projects global demand for IP traffic exceeding 3,000 exabytes per month. This is in the same general time frame he projects 4G and 5G capacity leveling out in the same exabyte/month range. Going forward to 2035, 4G and 5G will still be delivering approximately that same amount of capacity while demand will have hockey-sticked up to 16,000 exabytes per month. There’s your problem.
So, rather than attempting a pre-standard definition of what 6G will be as a whole, let’s take a look at some of the characteristics it will likely have.
Orange’s Arnaud Vamparys, senior vice president of seamless wireless access, said that when these networks arrive in around 2030, one of his team’s goals “is to make sure we have more resilient networks. We all know we are putting more and more stuff for our society on the networks so we need to make sure the next generation increases the resilience. And perhaps, as well, the impact to the lower energy consumption…I see incredible things right now from my research team like zero-energy devices.”
Among the private-sector companies working on framing up 6G, Nokia is viewing this as a “critical network,” according to Tanveer Saad, head of edge cloud innovation and ecosystems. “It’s more about providing critical services towards our end costumes. We see disaggregation and openness is one of the building blocks for future networks.”
This gets us into the role of current Open RAN-related activities in showing a path toward what future generations of cellular will look like–disaggregation, virtualization, distributed intelligence, and other components of current Open RAN study and deployment are poised to roll forward.
“As we add more cloud-based architecture and make it more cloud-native, you’re bringing more cloud-native platforms to the edge,” according to Sterlite Technologies Limited CTO of Access Solutions Rajesh Gangadhar. “Which just means that the disaggregation that is required between the hardware component and the software becomes even more critical. The radio unit itself can evolve to a highly-intelligent platform.” In terms of network and element management systems, “What we see is a sort of unification…That unification is what allows the operator to then have more homogeneous applications across a heterogeneous radio access network.”
Keysight Technologies VP and GM of the Commercial Infrastructure Business, Giampaolo Tardioli, described a future where virtualization and openness allow networks to become application platforms, and distribution of AI and ML, combined with CI/CD and continuous testing, enables broad network automation.
“In a 6G future where artificial intelligence-native networks are monitored, optimized and reconfigured automatically…the access to Open RAN infrastructure becomes really a necessity,” Tardioli said. “As the Open RAN ecosystem reaches maturity, we will see a significant shift…The industry progress in the last three years has proven that Open RAN will be a critical component to scale 5G deployments, and it is quite clear it will be the foundation of future 6G networks.”