By Chris Pearson, President, 5G Americas
In just three short years, the fifth generation of wireless cellular “5G” has swept the world, reaching 429 million connections at the end of Q2 2021 and projected to hit 692 million globally by the end of this year. It all started with the first commercial enterprise 5G network deployments in South Korea in December 2018 and AT&T followed soon thereafter that same month for businesses and consumers.
Generations of wireless cellular often move in 10-year cycles, as they overlap and evolve into the next cresting wave of full capabilities. Indeed, 5G is expected to be a major leap for wireless customers over previous generations that would ultimately be able to achieve increased speed 10 to 100 times faster than 4G LTE, with significantly less network latency, and the ability to manage up to one million devices per square kilometer – at potentially much more efficient power usage per bit of data.
Today’s 5G networks are quickly ramping to achieve these significant milestones and develop even more new ones as 5G eventually turns into 5G Advanced. But even as work to evolve 5G’s capabilities continues, many great technology minds are already starting to look at the next generation of wireless towards the next emerging wave at the end of this decade.
In 5G Americas’ latest white paper “Mobile Communications Towards 2030,” we uncover some of the early work and findings involving the next generation of wireless cellular from the collaborations happening between academia, wireless industry participants, and governments throughout the world. We examine global activities of these organizations, uncover interesting use cases, drill down into the technology requirements and network evolution, and examine the technology enablers and trends that are shaping how this will evolve. We also argue for strong regional leadership in helping to shape the standards that will form the basis for these next generation networks.
In my decades of wireless experience, it’s become all too apparent how much work is involved in getting all these vast stretches of radios, wires, switches, servers, infrastructure, and mobile devices to work together. Not surprisingly, the wireless telecommunications industry requires a lot of – well – *communication* between many different stakeholders who are often competitors, whether they’re in business against each other, or competing nations, or even scientists working hard to uncover the next breakthrough before their colleagues do. Getting to consensus is critical in moving forward with the development of standards necessary to bring these networks to life.
The 5G innovation era has begun with a long roadmap ahead of it. Yet, as 5G networks continue to be enhanced and deployed, the groundwork is already being laid for the next generation. Several US-based academic organizations are looking at terabit and advanced communications, including ComSenTer, NYU, University of Padua, Northeastern University, Purdue, UT Austin, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Arizona, Virginia Tech, and Arizona State University. Government-based programs within agencies like the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology have established collaborative relationships with private sector partners. Additionally, in addition to the work by 5G Americas, industry partnerships in North America include the Next G Alliance, O-RAN Alliance, Open RAN Policy Coalition, and ATIS.
Of course, North America isn’t the only place in the world where this work is going on, additional research efforts and partnerships are happening in China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, while Europe has several European-wide efforts such as Horizon 2020, Hexa-X and REINDEER, as well as regional efforts.
So where’s all this work leading to?
People are rightly excited about the possibilities of what’s beyond 5G, including 5G Advanced, or 6G (or whatever it may be called). Early use cases include multi-sensory telepresence and immersion via extended reality (XR), as well as use of digital twins in Industry 4.0’s cyber-physical systems. Additional use cases include holographic teleportation, tactile/haptic communications, and many more. In vertical industries, there is a lot of talk about use cases for precision crops and livestock, biosensor monitoring in health care, advanced driver assist and autonomous driving for transportation systems, first responder systems that allow rapid data collection from sensors and real-time situational awareness, and government and defense systems utilizing ubiquitous connectivity.
But some of these use cases are very advanced with huge requirements. What we know today is that next gen networks will need very high data rates. For instance, high fidelity holographic immersive services will range from .5 to 1 terabits per second while digital twins and tactile haptic feedback will need more than 100 Gbps and very fast uplink rates. Devices that use LiDAR, for instance, generate a tremendous amount of data in their point maps, which must be updated continuously to keep the device apprised of where it resides in its 3D environment.
Additionally, very wide coverage will be necessary or Smart Agriculture and Livestock use cases, as well as the need for ubiquitous connectivity for many governments and defense-related applications. For rural areas or areas where there is a low density of communication infrastructure (such as wilderness or mountainous areas), connected devices still need to operate and be talking to a network. The next generation will need to look at ways to use low-band spectrum, satellite, or other methods to ensure the needs of these users are met.
With 5G, wireless connectivity is beginning to approach “five nines” (99.999% uptime) of reliability, which is suitable for the vast majority of sophisticated industrial, manufacturing, and even time-sensitive operations in healthcare and transportation. However, next generation networks may need “seven nines” (99.99999% uptime) for intense remote control and digital twin requirements. This will require tremendous levels of network redundancy, so that network fails do not occur. These types of networks will need an extremely high density of endpoints, synchronization of multiple flows of data to many different devices, time-sensitive operations, precise location tracking, and extremely low-power operation to keep far-flung sensors and devices working.
With these types of challenges ahead, how will network builders and the industry ecosystem stay ahead of the curve? Already, discussions are turning towards sophisticated technologies and network improvements may be needed. For instance, AI/ML at the edge and in the RAN may be needed to intelligently route and prioritize significant data. Additionally, more mmWave and THz radio technologies are needed to deliver sufficient spectrum bandwidth, even as new spectrum sharing protocols and new spectrum frequencies are uncovered.
Additionally, other technologies and processes could also be needed, such as co-designing of both sensing and communication in networks, cell free and ultra-massive MIMO, cloud-native and service-based architecture, open interfaces, sub networks, improved transport networks, IP network evolution, increased cybersecurity and trust, quantum computing and cryptography, and convergence of communications and computation.
Every year, it continues to be my privilege to work in such a great industry—-and industry constantly striving for innovative solutions. Wireless telecommunications is truly one of the transformational technologies of our age as it changes and draws from other technologies and industries. Who knows what the future will bring? Will it be 6G? Or some other name? Nobody yet knows, but one thing is certain – if we continue working together as an industry and a community, there’s no stopping the kind of innovation that will help us achieve our dreams.