November 22, 2022 / Posted By: Milind Kulkarni

The prospect of a new G — and 6G in particular — is exciting for industry. The evolution of wireless generations and infrastructure brings with it new features, new applications, and new opportunities in the endless quest for innovation.

The first and second generations of wireless fostered communications with analog voice and digital text, and then came data-driven 3G and 4G, which further enhanced communications through images and videos. As we settle into the 5G era, our connected world is beginning to enjoy new capabilities enabled by its novel architecture models, heightened flexibility, and improvements to enhanced mobile broadband communications (eMBB), massive machine type communications (mMTC) and ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC).

Like those that came before, 6G will inevitably build on this strong foundation.

Expanding upon the promise of 5G, 6G will reach a much wider set of use cases with even greater market diversity. As it appears today, 6G is shaping up to be a super-powered version of 5G.

In addition to hybrid use cases that arise from the intersection of eMBB, mMTC and URLLC, there are also use cases that exist at the extremes. Specifically, at the extreme of eMBB, 6G will deliver major increases in capacity, coverage, and mobility. At the extreme of mMTC, 6G will deliver massive battery savings and low power operations for distributed networks of connected devices, while 6G's extreme of URLLC will deliver ultra-low latency that will unlock real-time immersive experience not possible today.

New Use Cases for 6G

While it’s still early to clearly visualize specific applications for 6G, a few categories are coming into sharper focus:

  1. Multi-sensory extended reality and haptics: Though these capabilities are present to a certain degree in 5G, 6G will improve on them. The augmented, extended, and mixed realities supported by 5G today will be enhanced and improved in 6G tomorrow, with greater functionality and support for different devices, higher data rates, and much lower latency.
  2. Volumetric media, streaming and holographic telepresence: When Princess Leia’s holographic image pleaded “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope” in the first Star Wars movie in 1977, most viewers imagined it was purely science fiction. Now, we project 6G will be able to support volumetric content, 3D datasets, and holographic presence that could pave the way to realize more futuristic technologies.
  3. Connected industries and automation: This realm is increasingly supported by 5G-enabled use cases and applications, though many have yet to be commercialized. While progress has been made in this area, more work can be done to support industrial IoT and massive machine-type communications in areas like mechanized agriculture and telemedicine. Where 5G might be defined by its ability to connect massive networks and industries, 6G will be characterized by its ability to layer automation and other functionalities atop these robust connectivity networks to help bridge the physical, digital, and human worlds.
  4. Autonomous vehicles and swarm systems: Another sector increasingly supported by 5G and 5G-enabled use cases, V2X communications, connected cars, drones and robots will be enhanced and evolve under the proposed 6G capabilities.
  5. Extreme coverage and connecting the unconnected: Many earnestly aspire to the unattained goal to digitally connect all the people and places in the world with wireless technology. As we move closer to a more connected reality, many standards bodies have turned their attention to non-terrestrial networks and efforts to bridge the "digital divide." In addition to connecting those in remote, rural, and underserved areas, ubiquitous connection under 6G could enable communication with ships at sea, researchers in hard-to-reach environments, and others in need.
  6. Ultra-low power and zero energy: As 6G evolves to support swarm systems and connected ecosystems and provide immersive content to a broader swath of connected users, the amount of energy required to support these efforts is significant. Today, companies like InterDigital are developing technologies capable of harvesting energy directly from radio waves, with revolutionary implications for IoT as sensors are able to operate for years, or indefinitely, without a battery change.

Enabling Trends

To make these exciting new use cases a reality, there are critical technology trends at play that are shaping the undercurrent of development and will ultimately give 6G its detail.

  1. AI and wireless fusion: As AI and machine learning garner greater focus in the wireless standards body 3GPP, key discussions have arisen around how AI/ML integration with 6G might foster air interfaces and network functions, and improve processes like beamforming, channel state information (CSI) compression, and positioning.
  2. New spectrum ranges from 7-24 GHz and >100 Ghz: Sub-terahertz and 7 to 24 Ghz frequencies will enable new possibilities for 6G technologies as the new spectrum engagement will drive performance gains in speed, network capacity and bandwidth while reducing network interference.
  3. Integrated communication and sensing: These otherwise discrete functions are beginning to converge to uplift indoor deployments. The combination of communication and sensing functions, supported by very high frequencies and signal reflection from various surfaces, can send better information about the indoor space, range, barriers, and positioning for the network.
  4. Advanced MIMO and reflective surfaces: Using various materials that can support myriad active and passive reflective surfaces, this new approach can control and manipulate radio waves electrically or magnetically to achieve more efficient and effective beam management.
  5. Zero energy transceivers: Another exciting research area focused on new technologies capable of harvesting energy over the airwaves that will enable extremely low-power applications in a variety of use cases.
  6. Distributed computing and communications: While the disaggregation of the core network and base stations has begun in 5G, the advent of 6G will drive more deployments “on premises” at enterprise locations using off-the-shelf hardware and software-defined-networking to deliver lower latency and support higher data throughputs.

Next Steps Toward 6G

With the commercialization of 6G expected to begin around 2030, InterDigital is proud to be at the forefront of research and innovation shaping the contours of this new technology ecosystem.

Looking ahead, the ITU will release a roadmap that details various technology, spectrum, and other challenges and how to address them to drive the 6G development process. Next, industry will begin a 6G "informative" stage that will include several 6G study items, after which 3GPP will select work items for standardization, followed by an evaluation period, and later approval to commercially launch 6G.

To reach this future, we must meaningfully use our time to address a few critical issues.

First, industry funding for research and innovation to realize and test these technologies is imperative. As we move up the chain of wireless evolution from 4G to 5G to 6G, our innovations become increasingly complex, and expensive to solve. We have an opportunity to better leverage expertise in industry, universities, and private laboratory environments, with funding from both public and private sources to fuel this innovation cycle.

Next, the potential for 6G innovation will also bring new privacy and security challenges and demand new solutions and approaches. As commercial cellular technologies are leveraged for defense and national security applications, governments around the world are increasingly invested in a strong wireless privacy and security posture.

Lastly but just as critically, the geopolitical landscape of today adds a layer of uncertainty to tomorrow. Tension in places like Ukraine and Taiwan reflect shifting tides of global political power structures, and it is imperative that our industry and developing 6G ecosystem, which depends on global cooperation and collaboration, navigate these waters carefully to preserve a global wireless communications standard.

As we look ahead to the road toward 6G, we are excited and committed to realize the potential of this new technology and all that it will enable.

Hear more about my view on the 6G Vision and its opportunities below.

Milind Kulkarni is Vice President and Head of InterDigital’s Wireless Labs, responsible for overseeing research and standardization. He brings more than 35 years of advanced technology product development experience and expertise in areas relevant to mobile networks, like radio access networks, cloud-native design, edge computing, and network management and service orchestration.