Chris Pearson, President, 5G Americas – November 2022
In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan planned and led the Spanish trade expedition to the East Indies across the Pacific Ocean, which led to the first circumnavigation around the world. Part of Magellan’s legacy was adding new place names to previously unmapped areas of the globe, helping to define and bring shape to humankind’s understanding of how we are connected.
Like Magellan in 1519, after an intense period of planning and building the fleet, the wireless cellular industry set forth five hundred years later in 2019 with 5G – the fifth generation of wireless cellular networks.
Today, 5G networks have successfully set sail and have reached the open waters as the foundation for advanced mobile communications. 5G’s mission involves three main targets: data throughput of up to 10 gigabits per second, network latencies of less than 10 milliseconds or less, and the ability to manage up to one million devices per square kilometer. Along the way, to address additional applications and services, we expect to make port in several places, such as Massive Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (mMIMO), standalone 5G, higher frequencies of spectrum, non-terrestrial network capabilities – and much more.
5G welcomes an era of innovation and will be the foundation for the connected world for decades. 5G’s journey is a voyage of continued advancements that will continue to 2030 and even beyond, but after barely leaving port after the initial berth, so many eyes have started to turn to the next expedition: 6G.
In 5G Americas latest white paper, entitled “Mobile Communications Towards 2030,” we take a look at how 6G represents a new future opportunity to extend wireless solutions into almost every facet of human and machine interaction. But first, we must realize it is very early in this process and step back to better understand what is missing in 5G to create a 6G vision and establish future standards.
5G is still very early in its lifecycle and is being evolved and enhanced through upcoming Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) releases while worldwide deployment continues. Indeed, the first full set of 5G specifications only occurred in the summer of 2019, with 3GPP Release 15, that addressed “Phase 1” of 5G, including New Radio, massive machine-type communications, vehicle-to-everything communications enhancements, network slicing, service based architecture, and more.
A few short years later, as of August 2022, there are 233 5G networks deployed supporting a new era of innovation in mobile communications. With 5G connections having reached 813 million through the first half of 2022 and expected to reach 1.1 billion by the end of this year, 5G connections have been on a torrid pace of doubling every year. Clearly, 5G is a success and the early stages of the journey demonstrate just how successful it is becoming.
But nobody is resting on their laurels. Wireless technology must advance and does advance. Additional enhancements and evolution of the current IMT-2020 (5G) technology standards have continued through Releases 16 and 17. Technologies, such as edge computing, cloud services, and network virtualization will continue to develop as new use cases and higher demands on the network are required. Indeed, 5G is still expected to evolve into “5G-Advanced” standards beginning in 2023-2024 with Release 18 all the way through 2026 with Release 22. Expect to see some amazing new progress!
While 5G development continues, it is already informing us as to the kind of recommendations that will go into the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)-defined “IMT” document (IMT-2030) that will set the course for the development of 6G for the next decade. This timeline below from our white paper represents a proposed timeline on the creation of this document, which will be a sort of charter for the next grand wireless expedition.
But with a proposed timeline and understanding of what 5G can and can’t accomplish, what is it that 6G is supposed to do? First off, let’s agree that looking at the crystal ball of technology is a perilous undertaking. A *lot* can and will happen in eight years. Like the intrepid mariners of Magellan’s expedition, we only have vague notions of the various ports, rumors of riches, and tales of mysterious trade routes.
We’re not even 100 percent sure the entire endeavor will be called “6G” – but it’s the leading candidate for now for how it might be marketed.
In our white paper, Mobile Communications Towards 2030, we examine some potential commercial applications, like the Internet of Senses, that look to augment human capabilities using wireless connectivity, to project presence anywhere there’s a connection. Enhancements to audio, visual, tactile (haptic) and cognitive connectivity via Augmented and Mixed Reality (AR/MR) are all possible outcomes. Digital twins help establish a data representation of an object in this cyber-space reality, while Industry 4.0 applications use 5G and 6G’s higher data throughput, lower latencies, better device management, and positioning and energy efficiencies to accelerate manufacturing.
Early specifications and requirements for some use cases are expected for mobile communications applications, including the emergence of holographic communications, imaging and sensing, evolutions of massive IoT (mIoT), smart agriculture, and first responder services among others.
The possibilities seem almost limitless, so it is helpful to start thinking about constraints and technology enablers that will help to steer the conversation towards the right avenues of exploration. 6G will likely have steep requirements for extremely performant, trustworthy, intelligent, cognitive, flexible, and sustainable wireless communication networks. To get to holographic teleportation, you’ll need a good assessment of what you can do today – and begin to anticipate future technologies that can help get you there. Technology enablers like AI/ML in radio access networks (RAN) and edge, millimeter wave (mmWave) and terahertz (THz) radio, joint communication and sensing, spectrum sharing and coexistence, cloud native and service-based network convergence, communication, computing convergence – will all be necessary pieces working together to make it successfully work.
To achieve this, it’s important to start mapping services and use cases to the technological requirements that they engender. Will a certain use case need more reliable connectivity? What about location and positioning? Will it need dense coverage of small cells to deliver the necessary throughput of data? All of these sorts of conversations will be taking place as part of the discussion leading to the development of the IMT-2030 charter.
Fortunately, there are many entities around the world that are already leading the initial discussion on the development of next generation wireless technology. These span from operators, equipment manufacturers, to industry vertical-specific trade associations, government, and academia. In particular, 5G Americas sees activities worldwide, such as in Canada, Germany, and India, as well as activities by the US Department of Defense; the recent US CHIPS Act; and standards activities in the ITU are all significant to the research and future development of 6G.
In North America alone, ComSenTer (Communications Sensing TeraHertz) is part of a sweeping industry/academia partnership between SRC (Semiconductor Research Company) and DARPA. SRC is soliciting proposals from several universities to lead new centers of 6G innovation, including NYU, Northeastern, Purdue, UT Austin, and Arizona State. Other universities working on 6G include Georgia Tech, Arizona, and Virginia Tech. The National Science Foundation is spearheading numerous initiatives, while the Next G Alliance continues to work on next generation activities and promote US leadership in the formation of 6G. Finally, the US Department of Defense is also a leading proponent of wireless cellular security and deployment.
So as we step back half a millennium and see what Magellan’s expedition was able to accomplish, our spirits are buoyed by what 5G – and its successor – will help to unleash for the benefit of mankind. With our sails full of wind and the sky full of stars to guide us, we look towards the intrepid explorers who are already laying the groundwork for the next grand expedition. You can visualize the sea charts. You can hear the navigators talking about what they see through the telescopes and predict with the sextants. The wood is being procured to build the next great seagoing hulls. The hammers are being readied to build the next giant masts.
As we welcome and live in this new era of 5G innovation, let’s ride the waves with preparation and collaboration as we consider the next steps toward 6G. Let’s hope for clear skies ahead.