InterDigital is in the cat-bird’s seat when it comes to 6G thanks to the company’s early research and innovation on wireless tech, work with academic partners and its money-generating patents and licensing for it intellectual property (IP).

While InterDigital may be working hard on 6G tech, so far the wireless industry has shown very little enthusiasm for that next “G,” which is not surprising, considering operators are still facing challenges monetizing their 5G networks — 5G network slicing anyone? Indeed, we’ve all lived through the hype of 5G and the subsequent trough of disillusionment.

But what comes after disillusionment? The next big thing. Is that 6G? Perhaps so, according to Milind Kulkarni, VP and head of wireless at InterDigital. He told Fierce that there are three things that will be new in 6G that were not part of 5G.

The first should be of no surprise to anyone — it’s artificial intelligence (AI).

“Today in 5G, most of the AI has been implemented in the devices or base stations to improve efficiencies, but it’s not standardized. There is some AI in applications, but between the stacks of the radio network and the core network, there is not much AI used.” Kulkarni said, That will change with 6G.

6G will also address satellite communications directly to handsets, and it will also add sensing capabilities. 6G sensing will be “a lot more accurate than current methods in 5G,” he noted.

InterDigital was instrumental in getting Integrated Sensing and Communications (ISAC) — which combines wireless communications with RF sensing — included as part of 3GPP Release 19. ISAC will enable new position-based use cases where wireless networks will be able to sense various objects.

Kulkarni explained that there are a lot of sensors in devices, but they aren’t connected with the wireless network in an integral way.

“Let’s say you have an autonomous vehicle; it has lidars and cameras and distance sensors. But all of that sensory input is not in the network. By bringing that capability in the network you’re able to create a situation that fosters augmented reality. You could think about a car as a device that will connect to the 6G network,” he said.

However, analyst Joe Madden threw cold water on the idea of integrated sensing in his October column for Fierce Wireless.

“Using the 6G radio signal to detect position is interesting to engineers, as they imagine use cases where robots are steered by the network itself. It’s a nerdy thrill to get a ‘two-fer,’ with the radio serving two purposes,” he wrote.

The 5G disillusionment

At last year’s MWC 2023 there wasn’t much interest in 6G, and some people even questioned if we need it at all for the near future. Again, operators are currently struggling to recoup their capital investments in 5G. 

But Kulkarni thinks that mindset is shifting because operators still have never-ending pressure to come up with new ideas and ways to sell their services. “That’s something integrated sensing will do,” he said. “And AI will do that and also make the network more efficient and reduce energy.”

Doug Castor, head of wireless research at InterDigital, said 6G is not just about the new things like AI, integrated sensing and satellite connectivity. It’s also a necessary evolution of 5G. And it will include things such as making MIMO more efficient, thus saving costs for operators.

3GPP and ITU

So, when can we expect 6G to show its face? The next 3GPP Release 19 will provide a bridge to 6G. But Release 19 has just started, and each release takes about 18 months before it’s published. That means in approximately mid-2025, the 3GPP will start working on Release 20, which will be the first release dedicated to 6G.

While the 3GPP leads the release process, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) also has a responsibility. The worldwide telecom group specifies what uses cases must be supported in each release and acts as a representative for all the countries that will be affected by the wireless standards.

“It’s tied to spectrum regulation, and that’s an important role for ITU,” said Kulkarni.

Right now, the spectrum conversation is around a new band called FR 3, which covers the range from 7 GHz in the upper mid-band to 24 GHz, which is borderline mmWave. 

“Many countries have different availability within that range,” said Kulkarni. “How do you make sure there is a single standard or single frequency we could make available worldwide?”

He said people are focusing on the 12-14 GHz spectrum as a possible band that could be used worldwide for 6G.

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