Given that 6G is the next step that the telecom industry will take once 5G roll-outs are completed, a lot of re­search and development (R&D) work is already being undertaken by industry leaders towards 6G. While the research is at very early stages at present, 5G advanced technology is establishing the early vision and technical foundation for 6G. Industry experts believe 6G to be the future wireless innovation platform for 2030 and beyond. Further, it will be more than a new radio, expanding artificial intelligence (AI), “sensing” in the connected intelligent edge.

Trends leading the way to 6G

According to Qualcomm, there are three broad market trends that are leading the way for scaling up 6G research and future co­mmercialisation. These are:

  • Core technology advancements: The­se key technology advancements include advanced radio frequency (RF), compute topology, machine learning and AI, extreme disaggregation, multimedia/display, perception/human interface, power management and others.
  • Environmental and societal sustainability: These include the reach of the wireless ecosystem to fuel sustained glo­bal economic growth. Further, there is a need to design systems for consciously mini­mi­sing the environmental impact. An­oth­er key driver is the need for more accessible networks, devices, services to promote digital equality.
  • Enhanced new experiences: The emergence of next-generation experien­ces by fixed and mobile broadband is al­so propelling the demand for 6G networks. Further, digital twins will more accurately model the physical world and will continue to derive new values. More­over, the rising adoption of metaverse will further augment the physical world creating next-level immersivity, which will drive the need for much faster 6G networks.

Envisioning 6G

Globally, countries including Finland, Japan, South Korea, China, the US as well as India have started facilitating research activities to bring the new generation of digital technology into reality by 2030. As per the Broadband India Forum’s (BIF) 6G Compendium released in September 2022, 6G is all about convergence of the physical and the virtual world, the connec­ted world with the hyper-connected wor­ld, the universe with the metaverse, the real with the surreal, and likewise. 6G networks are expected to function as the fabric of the converged physical and digital wor­lds, providing intelligence, limitless connectivity and complete synchronisati­on. A foundational feature for 6G – “sen­sing” is a new channel that would observe, sample and link the physical and biological worlds to the cyberworld.

In the 6G era, we are likely to see app­lications that will not only connect hu­mans with machines besides machines to machines, but also connect humans with the digital world. This is because digital tw­ins of networks, assets, processes and systems will come together at scale and holographic telepresence will become the norm for work and social interaction. Dynamic digital twins with increasingly ac­curate, synchronous updates of the ph­ysical world will be an essential platform for augmenting human intelligence. 6G is predicted to be a disaggregated, virtualised and scalable network comprising smaller network functions with granular functionality, which will enable application-specific protocol processing.

KPIs for 6G

6G will need to be designed to meet en­hanced traditional communication re­qu­ire­ments as well as key performance indicators (KPIs) for new capabilities. 6G networks are expected to feature the following types of KPI associated services:

  • Ubiquitous mobile ultra-broadband (uMUB)
  • Ultra-high speed with low-latency communications (uHSLLC)
  • Massive machine-type communication (mMTC)
  • Ultra-high data density (uHDD)

Further, there is an anticipated heightened focus on energy consumption and en­ergy-saving techniques. 6G systems will also likely demand independent, vendor-agnostic testing and validation.

Satellites key in making 6G a reality

6G will need to rely on the combined benefits of multiple communication technologies for its use cases to be meaningful to so­ciety at large. As such, with key value in­tegrators of satellite communications be­ing ubiquity, continuity, scalability and resilience, technology stands to play a central role in 6G networks. 6G networks will link sensors everywhere to create internet of everything. Due to their location in spa­ce and differing orbits, communicatio­ns satellites are particularly well suited for distributing critical information in 6G networks over wide areas.

Further, use cases revolving around unifying the physical, digital and biological worlds that are expected from 6G will require 6G networks to be highly reliable, resilient and secure. Key mobile operators have already experienced how integrating satellite communications can significantly increase the uptime of their networks and make them more reliable and secure.

Moreover, with 6G being hailed as the internet of everything, its users will de­m­a­nd an unprecedented level of security, trust and authentication. In this regard, the inherent security features of satellite communications make hacking or eavesdropping on data transmission extremely difficult, particularly in point-to-point or private circuit operations.

Standards formation

It is anticipated that global standards orga­nisations such as International Telecom­mu­ni­cation Union (ITU) shall be releasing the IMT-2030 document for 6G in 2030. Other standards organisations such as 3GPP, IEEE and regional standards bo­dies of Korea, Japan and India are working to develop their own standards around the same timelines. The industry expects Pha­se I of standardisation to start from 2025, leading to the first 6G specification to be ready by the 3GPP Release 21 in 2028. It will be followed by commercial de­ployments around 2030.

India trying to gain global competency

Like its global counterparts, India too is working on 6G. The country took the first step towards 6G in 2021. In June 2021, the Telecommunications Standards Develop­me­nt Society, India (TSDSI) submitted its 6G vision with the ITU Radiocommuni­cation sector (ITU-R) to drive the direction of 6G technologies as part of the IMT-2030 vision. The TSDSI claimed to have adopted a two-pronged strategy for its 6G journey. This involved steering re­search in India to serve the goals and continuing engagement with global standards bodies for harmonisation of efforts, inclu­ding ITU WP (International Tele­com­munication Union Working Party) 5D.

During October 2021, the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) had set up a quantum communication lab. Fo­ll­o­wing this, the government asked C-DOT to start working on 6G and other fu­turistic technologies to catch up with the global market in time.

Later, in December 2021, the government set up as many as six academia-driven task forces under the Technology Innova­tion Group (TIG) on 6G technology. The task forces were entrusted with the responsibility of mapping 6G activities and capabilities worldwide, coming out with a white paper on India’s competencies, developing a road map for R&D, pre-standardisation, developing applications and products, and creating action plans for 6G technology.

Among telecom operators, in Reliance Jio’s Estonia unit, Jio Estonia and Univer­sity of Oulu entered into an agreement to collaborate on the development of 6G te­chnology as well as to foster entrepreneurship. Through this collaboration, the University of Oulu is expected to extend Jio’s 5G ca­pa­bilities and will help explore 6G use cases.

Recently, in November 2022, DoT an­nounced that it plans to seek the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) views on opening up spectrum in the 95 GHz–3 THz frequency range to be used for experimental purposes to develop products and solutions based on 6G technology. The spectrum is likely to be allocated for a 10-year term. As per DoT, the move may allow academic institutions, research orga­nisations and the industry to obtain radio waves and undertake studies with a pre-standardisation process. This would enable them to develop products and solutions co­n­verging satellite and terrestrial networks.

Overcoming spectrum barriers to allow future network innovations

As countries across the globe hasten their R&D initiatives in the 6G domain, a lot of new use cases, products and innovative so­l­utions are expected to emerge in the future. While a lot of work remains to ac­tualise the potential of these products and solutions, the industry has enough bandwidth to make it happen. However, one key aspect that needs to be considered is the shortage of spectrum, which ultimately becomes a barrier to newer technologi­es. In this regard, the need of the hour is for all countries to focus on solving the pro­blem related to the dearth of spectrum to allow future network innovations in the 6G domain to thrive.

Kuhu Singh Abbhi