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6G networks explained: Everything you need to know

In this essential guide, we investigate the prospects for the next generation of mobile communications: 6G. We look at why 6G networks are necessary, and what applications and services are likely to be based on 6G networks

Just as the 5G juggernaut rolls on across the world, the comms industry is gearing up for – and exploring the potential opportunities from – the next generation of wireless: 6G.

Since the onset of the transformational 3G mobile standard in 2001, the world of communications has become used to the arrival of a new generation in mobile networking every decade. Each new-generation wireless has been designed to provide substantially higher capacity and much lower latency than its predecessor, bringing in a new range of applications and use cases that were not previously supported. 6G will be no exception.

Work to create future 6G network specifications is already being planned by standards body 3GPP, with initial 6G networks built on the foundations of 5G. 6G networks are expected to run in the very high GHz and 1THz frequency bands, offering throughput speeds of well over 10Gbps through up to three 160MHz channels leading to potential microsecond latencies.

Why is 6G necessary?

The saying goes that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. To these two you could almost certainly add increased traffic on communications networks. Everything is being connected, and as this is happening, data traffic is increasing massively. With the heightening demand for cellular data, 6G networks will meet the expected data rush and significantly advance digitisation.

6G is designed to revolutionise how consumers, networks and devices communicate with and among each other. It’s built to change how networks perform tasks such as joint communication, sensing and positioning. It promises to build critical bridges between physical and virtual spaces to enable new use cases while optimising industry operations.

The opportunities offered by 6G will form the basis of 2030 societies and businesses, with the new and integrated features potentially advancing digitisation.

What is the difference between 5G and 6G?

5G networks, driven by the soon-to-arrive evolutionary 5G-Advanced, are fundamentally designed to bring continuous enhancements in mobile network capabilities such as higher data throughputs, massively increased capacity and low latency. They already support applications such as extended reality (XR) and promise monetary opportunities to both the consumer markets, with use cases such as gaming and video streaming, and enterprise opportunities, such as remote working and virtual training.

Unlike 5G and previous generations of wireless technologies aimed at driving network performance towards higher bandwidth, lower latency and greater reliability, 6G is designed to meet higher requirements of global coverage, greater spectral efficiency and lower carbon footprints. 6G will significantly differ from 5G by integrating data communications, device positioning and radio-based sensing of the environment into the same radio network.

What applications and services will 6G support?

Among other areas of relevance, 6G is seen as an enabling platform for innovations in computing, artificial intelligence (AI), connectivity, sensors and virtualisation.

It will likely be seen as the bedrock of smart city infrastructures; self-driving vehicles; smart traffic; new work environments; smart health; defence and security; sustainable development goals (SDGs); and virtual/artificial/mixed/extended reality (VR/AR/MR/XR), particularly in the industrial metaverse.

When are 6G networks likely to be launched?

As trials of 6G continue apace, 6G internet is expected to be introduced commercially in 2030. Work is underway to develop technical performance and requirements for 6G with these projected to be defined by 2027.

Final specification for the standard, known as IMT-2030, is forecast to be completed at the end of 2029. The first 6G proof of concept devices have already been in development, and the first “networks” are expected in 2025, with 6G standardisation work beginning in 2026.

What is needed to stimulate growth of 6G networks?

Looking at the development of the 6G market in general, analyst Juniper Research identified non-terrestrial networks (NTNs) and sub-1THz frequency bands as key technologies that must be at the centre of initial trials and tests of 6G networks, to provide increased data capabilities over existing 5G networks.

The research also noted that the increased cost generated by the use of satellites for NTNs and the acquisition costs of high-frequency spectrum would create longer timelines for securing return on 6G investment for operators. As a result, it urged the telecommunications industry to form partnerships with specialists in non-terrestrial connectivity, thus benefitting from lower investment costs into 6G networks.

In addition, developing a comprehensive roadmap for new commercially available radio spectrum is absolutely necessary to ensure the successful deployment of 6G infrastructures.

In December 2023, the trade body for the global mobile communications industry, the GSMA, welcomed a decision made at the World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23) that saw governments agree on new mobile low-band spectrum (below 1GHz), and mid-band spectrum in the 3.5GHz and 6GHz ranges, shaping the future of mobile communications.

Where is 6G research and development taking place?

The 6G industry and technology ecosystem is truly global. Current major 6G research programmes are taking place in Japan, the US, South Korea, Germany and the wider European Union (EU). Yet it could be argued that if one country could be singled out as a leader it would be Finland.

Repeating the work it did for previous generations of mobile systems, the University of Oulu has embarked on the 6GFlagship, which it calls the world’s first 6G research programme. Co-funded by the university together with the Research Council of Finland, the programme envisages 6G as supporting a data-driven sustainable future society enabled by near-instant, unlimited wireless connectivity.

With Nokia engineers and researchers onsite and tapping into the resources of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland located across the road from the university campus, the flagship programme has a number of key strategic research areas (SRAs): wireless connectivity offerings; device and circuit technologies; distributed intelligent wireless computing; and sustainable human-centric services and applications. Its research has now entered a second phase, and after establishing 6G technology enablers, it is now working on a 6GTest Network (6GTN) and 6G vertical applications, resulting finally in what it hopes will be 6G vision leadership.

Oulu is also a base for the 6G-Sandbox project, a project undertaken by the EU dedicated to providing clear and tangible contributions towards an experimentation ecosystem for 6G in Europe. It aims to bring what it says will be a complete and modular facility for a European experimentation ecosystem that the institution expects to provide support for the next decade of technology and research validation processes needed in the pathway towards 6G.

The 6G-Sandbox Trial Networks – being built in Oulu as well as Malaga, Athens and Berlin – incorporate infrastructures distributed in the EU, and will offer third parties automated experimentation capabilities through an extensible toolbox. These are meant to create a tangible and long-term impact.

The 6G KPIs and KVIs that will be quantified with the facility will be released to any interested party, while the set of developments and application programming interfaces that will be produced are intended to feed an open repository and define a European 6G library. 

Which technology companies are working on 6G equipment?

The ecosystem of technical suppliers for 6G networks is growing, yet the usual suspects, such as Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei and Samsung, are the comms tech and services providers leading the charge in developing the underlying essential systems that 6G will run on.

In 2022, Ericsson established a 6G research unit in the UK, committing to invest tens of millions of pounds over the next 10 years, in a UK-based programme that will focus on 6G research and breakthrough innovations, and boost the country’s future wireless connectivity capabilities.

Indicating the extent of the 6G ecosystem in the unit, researchers are working alongside academics, communications service providers and industry partners to lead 6G research projects that contribute to the development of global technology, network innovation and new product services. Research areas will include network resilience and security, AI, cognitive networks and energy efficiency.

In a project led by Keysight Technologies, the 6G-Sandbox project recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) to foster collaboration between European and Taiwanese companies for 6G research.

The collaboration will link 6G-Sandbox testbeds with Taiwan’s telecommunications ecosystem to focus on advanced 6G research topics such as joint communications and sensing, and reconfigurable intelligent surfaces.

Serving as a catalyst in the Taiwanese ecosystem, ITRI will actively invite companies to participate in the collaboration. 

Mobile phone generation technology timeline

1G 1980-1991

2G 1990-2002

3G 1998-2010

4G 2008-2020

5G 2018-present day

6G Expected 2030

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