There is a growing sense 2023 will be a formative year for the next stage of 5G.
With more than one billion 5G connections to date, industry heavyweights are now fixing their gaze on the next version of the technology: 5G-Advanced.
Optimism around this evolution was well-reflected during MWC23 and mobile market experts believe 5G-Advanced will be fundamental to 6G’s arrival, largely expected at the end of the decade.
But with the 3GPP official standardisation for 5G-Advanced in the form of Release-18 not due until March 2024, there is a long way to go until 2030 and indeed any launch of 6G commercially. Even so, governments and the wider industry are already exploring the technology and how it can be deployed.
East, West divide
Dario Talmesio, research director for service provider strategy and regulation at Omdia, observed there is “an unprecedented level” of governmental interest in 6G, with sustainability and AI high up on the agenda.
“The idea of using 6G to foster home-grown technology and national champions and use standards as an economic tool to cast global technological influence is rapidly spreading,” Talmesio explained, while also noting different objectives and priorities between the East and West, escalating the idea of a tech war.
“It has happened before, and we already see signs of it in 5G-Advanced standards,” he added, referring to the differences globally in 5G development pace which led to a split in signal-processing standards in 2016.
Talmesio named South Korea and China as players that are “far ahead of the world in some aspects” of 6G.
Chinese vendor Huawei outlined its 6G visions in early 2022, while South China Morning Post reported this week that one of the country’s leading operators, China Unicom, plans to trial 6G-powered mobile apps in 2025.
The Korean government, meanwhile, has earmarked 2028 for commercial rollout.
In 2021, Samsung demonstrated its first prototype 6G system using terahertz frequencies, a move followed by NTT Docomo earlier this year.
Crossing to European developments, the continent’s flagship 6G project, launched at end-2020, is already in its second phase. At the front of this consortium, dubbed Hexa-X-II, is Nokia. The project involves 44 industry partners, with Ericsson co-piloting as technical manager.
Speaking to Mobile World Live (MWL), Peter Vetter, head of Nokia Bell Labs, said Hexa-X has focused on a common European 6G vision, possible use cases and concept “creation of technology enablers”.
“Hexa-X-II will aim to integrate initial concepts into an overall system view and create a pre-standardised platform,” he added.
Vetter also cited “radio access, future devices, smart network management and flexible infrastructure” as key areas of 6G, alongside cloud-native networks.
Kostas Katsaros, lead 5G technologist at UK innovation agency Digital Catapult, also expects 6G to continue bridging the gap between cellular and non-terrestrial networks: an area which had been the focus of 5G and 5G-Advanced.
Furthermore, Katsaros believes 6G will amplify immersive experiences including metaverse and telepresence.
As part of its project with University of Bristol, Digital Catapult is “demonstrating the potential benefits [of 6G] and is driving significant investment and collaboration across the industry”, he added.
Experts argue the next ‘G’ will offer more than high data rates and low latency, emphasising sustainable design, network sensing and the use of AI within its topology.
“Traditional metrics such as capacity, throughput, reliability, latency and scale will continue to be important. But unlike previous Gs, 6G will go beyond these metrics. Sustainability, trustworthiness and digital inclusion will become key value drivers for the 6G era,” said Vetter.
A recent Nokia Bell Labs report outlined innovations that can support 6G energy efficiency, including technologies that can reduce the network’s baseline power requirements regardless of traffic.
The research arm also cited improvements in power amplifiers, new chipsets that can “eliminate energy waste in computation” and AI power management tools which automatically activate and deactivate radios according to traffic loads.
In a similar vein, Talmesio said “there will be more attention than ever on the sustainability of networks, which means more than just energy consumption”.
He highlighted potential changes in network architecture or “green native network”, which will differ from earlier networks that sought sustainability gains through radio elements.
Improved sensing capabilities are equally marked as 6G’s important breakthrough. Vetter positioned this as an expansion of 5G’s cellular-based mapping: “6G will be able to sense any object with no radio link required. 6G receivers will be able to gather signals bounced off objects, determining their type, shape, relative location, velocity and material properties”, he explained.
This can potentially accelerate industry 4.0 as players in this vertical can find new ways to track and deploy industrial machinery, while preventing physical risks on site.
Other focus areas of 6G include improved integration of satellite networks, massive MIMO and additional features for XR/VR.
So, what should we expect en route to 6G? Talmesio argued industry players will be met with challenges around spectrum management.
“It’s a finite resource, and its management will ultimately need to answer an economic policy question: which companies will benefit the most from resource allocation? Should regulators aim to create a robust national infrastructure of fewer national networks or use spectrum management to inject plurality into the market? At the policy level, we need to be able to answer these questions, and, of course, the deployment scenario will shape accordingly.”
“Today, in 4/5G, many policymakers and regulators are willing to open the market to new entrants, at least for private local deployments. We see some of these discussions already taking place in 6G-related spectrum management,” Talmesio added.
He expects the WRC23 event held by ITU in Dubai later this year to bring more clarity to deployment scenarios and the challenges identified with them. Watch this space.