With 5G deployments well underway around the world and the technology beginning the shift from its first, Non Standalone iteration to end-to-end 5G, the focus of standards work continues to look ahead to enhancements yet to be achieved in this generation, while researchers and industry testing and collaboration around as- yet-unstandardized 6G systems has already begun.
In a recent conversation during the Test and Measurement Forum virtual eventRoger Nichols, 6G program manager for Keysight Technologies, discussed both what the industry will yet accomplish in 5G as well as some of the early indicators around what 6G will someday be.
5G is still in its relatively early days, Nichols acknowledged. It’s also a simple reality that the implementation of features in commercial networks and devices lags, sometimes considerably, behind the work by 3GPP which established related technical specifications. While 3GPP just recently completed Release 17 (Release 15 was the first set of specs for 5G), Nichols pointed out, “Some of the Release 16 features are only now becoming manifest in production networks. It takes time, and it’s a complex thing, and it has to be grown over time. It’s not the sort of thing you can do overnight. ”
The overarching focus for the fifth generation of mobile technology, he explains, is to expand the use of mobile communications into vertical markets, beyond traditional smartphone applications. There is substantial focus on the industrial sector. Release 16, he adds, brings in the Service Enabler Architecture Layer, or SEAL, which restructures the architecture at the network core level in order to expand capabilities beyond traditional mobile communications use cases, plus protocols and capabilities for lower latency, high reliability and sidelink. communications for vehicular communications, as well as mission-critical communications uses. In Releases 17 and 18, he goes on, the SEAL is enhanced, but there is also considerable focus on location and positioning, as well as the first standards for interconnecting terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks and standards associated with edge computing.
All of that work adds up to a formula for “expanding the network and its capabilities for use in other industries, and making it even more programmable, with standards associated with system optimization and that sort of thing,” he adds. Release 18 will build upon this with continued enhancements as well as what Nichols says is the “first serious work in adding artificial intelligence to 5G” through an initial focus on the air interface.
The extent to which AI is integrated in the overall system will be one of the defining differences between 5G and 6G, Nichols says. 6G will bring in AI from its inception — not bring it in later as an add-on or enhancement. Overall, Nichols goes on, 6G will offer an even more software-centric and programmable type of network, one that extends not only to industrial / enterprise verticals but is designed so that it is “super flexible and can be used by a much broader range of society. ” He sees the possibility for automation of the global supply chain, as well as “immersive telepresence” so that people or machines in remote locations can interact in ways that combine simulation / emulation and real-time operations. “It’s all about merging that compute and that communications with society to make it work better.” [and] optimize systems that, right now, don’t use mobile communications. ”
Such systems will demand more reliability, more resilience and even more security, Nichols adds, including the need for them to be “quantum-proof” so that their security measures cannot be foiled by future ubiquitous quantum computing resources that could crack traditional encryption techniques in a reasonable amount of time. Generally, he continues, as important as the actual radio-related technologies will be to 6G systems, it’s very likely that the non-RF parts of 6G will be at least as important, if not more: For example, network software will have to be able to coordinate seamlessly across multiple radio access and technology systems, and continuing standards work around highly precise timing, synchronization, location information and lower latency will become even more important in that context.
While work around many aspects of potential 6G technologies is going on right now, there is still much work to be done, Nichols says, and a lot of maturation has to happen across a number of technology domains. In terms of AI, he offers, “It feels like it’s going to solve every problem, but there’s a lot of work still to be done in AI to get it to be reliable and sustainable and secure.” If AI is to be used so pervasively, he continues, humans have to be able to trust that AI systems are making decisions that are appropriate, that improve upon human capability and are also used in an ethical way.
There are also real risks to 6G development that very much represent the human element at work behind the technology — namely, that there may be fragmentation in the technology that reflects geopolitical tensions and competing desires for technology leadership. Nichols points out that 5G is the first truly global standard that doesn’t have a competitor, as in past generations with GSM and CDMA, or LTE and WiMAX. He sees little risk, at this point, that there will be a split in 5G as it continues to evolve, but “the risk of bifurcation in 6G is real,” he concludes. Governments are paying much more attention to the early development of 6G than they have to previous standards, Nichols says, and they increasingly consider mobile communications tech to be part of national identity and national security, in addition to the economic benefits of being a leader in. globally adopted technology.
A global 6G technology split would pose a risk for network and device costs to increase as economies of scale are lost; and possibly for the ability to use devices around the world, which both consumers and businesses have become accustomed to; and for technology advancement overall, if the costs of that R&D are spread over fewer ecosystem participants. Still, Nichols says that he is optimistic that 6G will be something that the entire world can come together on — because of the powerful push in almost every 6G-related conversation that Keysight is part of around the world, to focus on sustainability and universal access. .
“It comes up in almost every conversation, and those conversations are happening everywhere on the planet. It’s not unique to any particular country or area, ”he says. “I see things that given me hope that the better angels of our nature are going to ensure that we keep this work focused on universal benefit. “I am still optimistic that we will keep things consistent, because it really is in our best interest as a global community.”