Since 1979, when NTT launched the first generation of cellular networks in Tokyo, mobile connectivity has come a long way. 1G was rapidly followed by 2G and 3G. These were networks centered on voice and text communication. The more contemporary 4G and 5G enabled advanced content and massive data consumption.
By 2023, more than four decades since it all began, mobile operators, telcos and providers are back at the design table again, shaping the ultimate generation of mobile networks: 6G.
What is 6G?
6G is a term reserved for the sixth generation of mobile networks. Why do networks evolve? Technology innovations and the amount of data that needs to flow from data centers to devices have risen exponentially. Furthermore, networks improve more than bandwidth. They decrease the latency or delay and the energy consumed during data transmissions while enhancing reliability, security and performance.
As of 2023, 5G networks are rapidly being rolled out worldwide. The virtualization of network hardware — now operating in the cloud with Open RAN standards — is streamlining deployment. But, 5G is expected to become outdated soon, as the digital and physical world begins to merge with virtual reality and augmented reality. Additionally, the Internet of Things and Industrial IoT are rising to serve the fourth industrial revolution.
These new technologies and the amount of data that needs to be instantly communicated between devices requires a faster, more reliable and more robust generation of mobile networks — enter 6G.
SEE: From 5G to 6G: The race for innovation and disruption (TechRepublic)
6G is still in the research and development phase and, like all mobile networks, will operate with radio transmissions. 6G is also expected to expand connectivity to rural and remote areas, impacting populations affected by the digital divide. The technology, in theory, will connect the space and satellite sector as well thanks to its powerful capacity and low cost.
However, to exceed the performance of 5G while providing large capacity, low latency and connectivity, 6G needs to use new high-frequency bands, such as sub-terahertz bands above 100 GHz. These radio waves are more sensitive to obstacles, presenting technological challenges that still need to be solved.
Mobile networks are built in engineering network areas where antennas, nodes, edge centers, gateways and Open RAN virtual machines running in the cloud are used to connect devices. As radio waves require a line of sight for transmission to be successful, several factors need to be considered, like urban blockage, refraction, diffraction, scattering, absorption and reflection of radio waves.
To solve these obstacles, the industry plans to create multipath environments for sensible high-frequency waves to transit without losing strength, consuming too much power and providing low latency. Artificial intelligence computing applications will be key to calculating the shortest and most optimal paths for 6G radio waves.
Benefits of 6G
6G offers enhanced connectivity
The most direct and evident benefit of 6G is that it will supercharge connectivity providing instantaneous communications for any device, smartphone, computer, wearables, robotics and IoT. For the industrial sector — on a digital acceleration, deploying smart factories, production and distribution systems — 6G will connect industrial IoT devices and drive the fourth industrial revolution with a core structure of automation and intelligence.
Every industry will benefit from enhanced connectivity. For example, healthcare, remote and robotic surgery and telehealth is expected to be revolutionized with 6G. In similar ways, sectors that are going through a profound digitalization and modernization journey — finance, retail, manufacturing and others — will leverage 6G to continue disruptive transformations.
6G will drive technological innovation
6G mobile networks are a make-or-break component of innovation. With supercomputers, quantum computing, machine learning, AI, global cloud data centers, the metaverse and new devices, the technologies of the future will only be able to operate thanks to 6G connectivity.
6G is low energy and energy efficient
Low energy and energy efficiency are critical benefits of 6G. Organizations and businesses are striving to reach net-zero emission targets and working to reduce energy consumption motivated by economic and environmental reasons. The energy economy of 6G has become attractive for all industries. Additionally, low-energy connections are necessary to extend the battery life of IoT and mobile devices.
6G offers low latency
6G is going to benefit society with incredibly low latency. Latency refers to the delay a digital system has when transferring data. The more data, the bigger the effort required by the network; therefore, the risks of latency increase. But thanks to 6G innovation, connectivity is expected to be instantaneous.
Drawbacks of 6G
6G may sound like the promise of the future, but it still faces many challenges.
6G is still in the development phase
At the time, 6G technology is in the development phase — this being its most significant drawback. While companies like Nokia, NTT and others have plans to test small 6G networks, these are just pilot projects. 6G is expected to roll out globally in 2030. For now, it is still very much a theoretical technology.
SEE: NTT develops world’s fastest wireless communication area estimation technology (TechRepublic)
Massive investment and effort is needed for global 6G deployment
The second most crucial drawback of 6G is global deployment. Recently with 5G, the world witnessed the many hurdles that occur when constructing and operating a new generation of mobile networks.
A massive amount of investment and effort is needed for mobile networks to become mainstream in every continent. Coordination, standardization and collaboration in the industry are essential. Telco, mobile providers and hardware makers are used to working in competition, not in partnership, and 5G and 6G require a shift in these business models.
6G requires the development of new network architectures
6G presents a wide range of technical difficulties that need to be solved before it can enter the production and operation phases. Designing new network architectures, combining AI, nodes, the edge and the cloud to engineer 6G connectivity continues to perplex even the greatest minds in the industry.
Smartphones, computers and IoT devices must also be reimagined at the hardware and software level to be 6G capable. Once again, standardization and cross-industry collaboration are vital.
Initial 6G investment costs are high
Another challenge is to deliver the value of 6G as a very low-cost connectivity technology. Down the road, 6G may reduce costs for end users compared to 5G, but the initial investment required globally to reach that point is monumental. Other technical challenges include energy efficiency, optimizing terahertz sensitive frequency paths, stabilizing visible light communication tech and optimizing the AI, ML and advanced computing resources needed to operate these futuristic networks.
6G requires rethinking traditional cybersecurity
Security is a top priority for 6G development. With the redesign of networks, cybersecurity and privacy features need to be reimagined, strengthened and adapted. Traditional cybersecurity methods will become obsolete, and developers must innovate in authentication, encryption, access control, communication and malicious activity detection to ensure robust security postures for 6G users.
SEE: Why 5G (and even 6G) could put your business at risk for a cyberattack (TechRepublic)
Key features of 6G
High performance and low latency
The global demand for data transfer is the main driver behind 6G. From AR and VR to smart cities and the fourth industrial revolution, 6G will enable automation and data flows of unprecedented levels. Future networks will need to move big data with agility, speed and reliability instantly.
With every new generation of mobile networks, the cost and price of connectivity for end users have decreased. 6G is expected to be the most accessible and open network ever built. This will help the world combat the digital divide, drive economies and create new business opportunities.
The energy factor is central in 6G technology. Not only is it aligned with clean energy and carbon emission milestones, but its optimization is absolutely necessary if 6G is to provide low-cost, efficient services. Keeping energy usage down is vital to delivering the expected battery life cycles that industrial IoT, IoT, new wearables, smartphones and computers require.
Cyberattacks targeting networks are on the rise with the endless expansion of the digital surface and the addition of billions of endpoints and devices. Creating a larger, faster and better network is a double-edged sword. Cybercriminals will use the power of 6G to their advantage. Thus, 6G will require new security protocols, new standards of encryption and a new generation of firewalls and intrusion detection security solutions.
6G will not only drive innovation but require it to function. The advanced and complex architecture of 6G mobile network areas will use AI, ML and supercomputing processes on a daily basis to ensure connectivity and security.
The rise of 6G
The race for 6G is well on its way, with leading global operators already moving to testing phases. Without a doubt, 6G is inevitable. However, 6G is not a one-person, one-company endeavor. To build the next generation of connectivity, a multitude of companies, organizations and developers must come together.
Read more about this subject as NTT announced last month the development of a new wave propagation simulation technology, essential to the future of communications, 6G, IoT and other sectors.