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Exploring the Next Frontier in Mobile Networks

By Chris Pearson, September 2023

Mobile wireless networks are constantly evolving. With new demands on Internet connectivity emerging and mobile data demand doubling every two years, it is an ever-present challenge to build and re-build networks to accommodate the pace of change. Our recently released white paper, “State of Mobile Network Evolution,” serves as the foundation for this exploration.

With 5G-Advanced right around the corner with 3GPP’s impending Release 18 in early 2024, we can expect to see some excellent advances in 5G technologies that will have broad impacts for extended reality, AI, network slicing, and 5G Redcap (Reduced Capability) power-saving devices.  5G has a roadmap of innovation in its future. The 5G-Advanced era will take us from Release 18 through Release 22, somewhere in 2027 or 2028, finishing out a successful generation of wireless cellular that will continue to connect and serve society for decades.

(Source: 3GPP)

Yet, even with the tremendous roadmap of innovation for 5G, work on 6G has already started. Plans for the next generation began around a couple years ago with some excellent international efforts, preparing the world for 6G’s commercial arrival in 2030.

In the U.S., the National Science Foundation (NSF) has teamed up with industry stakeholders to launch the Resilient & Intelligent NextG Systems (RINGS) program. This initiative is a multi-faceted approach to enhancing the security, reliability, and performance of future mobile networks. The RINGS program is focused on creating a robust infrastructure that can handle the complex demands of the future, from IoT to autonomous vehicles.

Canada is also making waves in the 6G arena. The Digital Equity Grid Innovation initiative, led by the non-profit organization Mitacs, is a multi-year project aimed at advancing applied research crucial for a sustainable path to 6G. The initiative has already established a new research and innovation center in Montreal, serving as a hub for technological advancements.

China has been active in 6G research, officially launching its R&D programs back in 2019. The Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) has set up two working groups to fast-track 6G development. These groups are focusing on everything from basic theories to key technologies, aiming to establish China as a global leader in 6G.

The European Union is not sitting idle either. Through its Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe research frameworks, the EU is funding projects like Hexa X and Hexa X II. These initiatives are pioneering the development of 6G visions, use cases, and key technologies. The EU’s approach is collaborative, involving multiple countries and research institutions to create a unified vision for 6G.

South Korea has set an ambitious timeline, planning to commercialize an initial 6G network service by 2028. The government is investing KRW 200 billion between 2021 and 2026 to secure basic 6G technology. South Korea aims to be a first mover in 6G, much like it was in previous generations of mobile networks.

With these various next generation initiatives, there are many technologies being researched, studied and discussed as possibilities toward 6G.  Three technologies that could serve as important building blocks for 6G are: Full Duplex communication (particularly advances in sub-band full duplex), Joint Communication and Sensing (JCAS), and Intelligent Surfaces.

Full Duplex communication is not a new concept, but its application in 6G could be revolutionary. This technology allows for simultaneous data transmission and reception, which is crucial for achieving the low latency and high data rates that future mobile networks will demand. Imagine downloading a full-length HD movie in seconds while streaming a live 4K video—Full Duplex makes this possible.

JCAS is another groundbreaking technology that extends the network’s capabilities from “listen-and-talk” to “see-and-feel.” This will open up new applications in sectors like automotive and healthcare. For instance, JCAS could enable real-time traffic monitoring and management, leading to safer and more efficient roadways. In healthcare, it could facilitate patient monitoring and enhanced healthcare solutions revolutionizing the medical field.

(Source: 5G Americas member company)

Finally, Intelligent Surfaces are designed to manipulate the wireless environment, thereby enhancing the overall network performance. These surfaces can adapt to different conditions, making them a versatile tool in the 6G toolkit. Imagine a world where your home walls boost your wireless cellular signal, or public spaces are equipped with surfaces that optimize network performance—this is the promise of Intelligent Surfaces.

Figure 5. Intelligent surfaces for wireless communications: Enhancement of Coverage (left) and capacity (right) (Source: 5G Americas member company).

The transition to 6G will have far-reaching implications across various industries. In healthcare, faster data speeds and lower latency will enable groundbreaking applications like AI-driven diagnostics and enhanced healthcare solutions. In the automotive sector, 6G will be the backbone of autonomous vehicles, facilitating real-time data processing and decision-making. For consumers, 6G will redefine the digital experience, from ultra-realistic AR/VR to seamless IoT integration.

It is very early in the process for 6G as 5G shows a roadmap of innovation for years to come.  In fact, it is so early that everything is not well known when you consider the options for transitioning to 6G. The transition to 6G could redefine our human interaction with technology depending on the technologies that make it into the final standard. With various national and regional initiatives already underway and promising technological building blocks like Full Duplex, JCAS, and Intelligent Surfaces, the future of mobile networks is incredibly promising. As we continue to explore this exciting new frontier, stay tuned for more updates, research insights, and developments from 5G Americas.

-Chris

What's the current state of mobile wireless evolution?

Research on 6G is happening at several international initiatives. Find out which technologies are leading the pack to be included in emerging standards.

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