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Digitisation is all around us and is more prevalent every day as people discover all the things they can do remotely, after being forced to do so during the Covid-19 pandemic.
To this end, tech teams in the technology hotbed of Grenoble, France, are preparing for a paradigm shift brought about by 6G technology.
Much of the foundation of this progress is digital connectivity. 5G is rolling out now and will probably take several more years to be fully deployed. In the meantime, there will be an increase in demand for bandwidth and services.
Much of this demand will come from internet of things (IoT) applications and the growing number of robotic devices, which will far surpass the number of devices used directly by human beings.
People are dreaming up new services every day. Many of these services require very high bandwidth and low deterministic latency – which means the signals will be propagated not only quickly but predictably. The metaverse is just one example of a new paradigm that will require a much closer connection between the human and digital worlds.
“In terms of telecommunications, we are seeing a phenomenon that we saw in the past,” said Sebastien Dauvé, CEO of institute for applied research CEA-Leti. “When new connectivity technology is rolled out, industry adopts the paradigm and quickly imagines new services.
“This process heightens the demand and very often gives rise to new requirements. It creates a kind of feedback loop, where the better the network services, the more demanding industry becomes.”
Dauvé added: “So even as 5G is rolling out, it is already being surpassed by some of the latest needs. We will have to develop the foundations of a new wireless standard by about three years from now. This is not so surprising when you look at what has happened in the past. We experienced the same phenomenon between 3G and 4G and between 4G and 5G. But 6G will also massively benefit from progress in digital process, namely AI [artificial ingtelligence].”
The 5G standard already provides a set of services dedicated to sector-specific applications, with dedicated connectivity – a so-called “slice of bandwidth” – and a high level of security and performance. But over the next decade, industry will become dependent on massive connectivity for applications as diverse as remote control, optimised logistics and remote surgery.
A new generation of wireless networks is needed to take connectivity a step further to meet future needs. This new generation will make connections even faster, with lower and more deterministic latency.
New applications with new needs
Consumer applications will require a closer interaction between people and devices. Smart glasses and other devices that create a platform for new applications will need network services. Low latency will be required to interact with digital robots, or “things” in an internet of things. 5G already has a very challenging latency target – one millisecond.
The next-generation networks will need to do 10 to 100 times better in terms of latency. A much higher bandwidth will also be required – and that, too, will require new technology.
“There is a physical limitation on bandwidth today,” said Dauvé. “If you want more bandwidth, it has to operate at higher frequencies. Today, we’re talking about adding frequency bands between 100 and 300 Gigahertz for 6G. At these frequencies, you have to change everything in your hardware – including the materials you use, the packaging of the components and the architecture of the antenna. You also need changes in the way base stations are operated.”
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“In the new frequency bands introduced in 6G, signal propagation will have to be totally different than in 4G and 5G. For example, you will have very focused beams, as opposed to omnidirectional signalling. Focused beams already exist in 5G, but on a very small scale to meet only the highest bandwidth requirements. It will be more prevalent with 6G, which needs to provide very, very high data rates. Also, focused beams will greatly help to increase power efficiency by accurately focusing RF power in the direction of interest.”
Dauvé added: “To deliver this level of service, 6G will rely on a new kind of antenna, using something called ‘reconfigurable intelligent surfaces’ – a kind of propagation delivery that doesn’t exist today. The new antennas will be completely passive, so they will require very little energy to receive and transmit beams. They will be able to conduct signals and drive the beam in the optimal direction.
“The technology to do these things – things from hardware panels to complex algorithms – does not exist today. We will be relying on breakthroughs in both materials and in architecture.”
New ecosystem already developing around 6G
As an institute for applied research, CEA-Leti looks for ways to support industry through the latest innovations. It is one of the main contributors to European R&D behind 6G, taking part in the most important European projects in the technology. The research institute also started an initiative called NEW-6G, which brings together players across the value chain, including not only those in the semiconductor industry, but also operators, device manufacturers and end-users.
“The idea behind NEW-6G is to facilitate exchanges on services, technologies and networks,” said Dauvé. “By getting these different groups to talk, we will come up with the best solutions to provide the services.
“We had an important conference in June 2022, the European Conference on Networks and Communications, which was dedicated to the topic of 6G. It was mostly a scientific conference for Europeans, but it also included people from industry. We talked about many kinds of new technologies, knowing that 6G will rely on breakthroughs. This is a very different situation than with the previous two generations or wireless networks – 4G and 5G were conceived with technology that already existed.”
Dauvé added: “Another very important challenge that 6G will address is sustainability. The growth in digitisation comes with a growing carbon footprint, especially when it comes to telecommunications. 6G will set very clear goals for sustainability – addressing the kinds of materials used, the components and the overall architecture.”
Roll-out of 6G is expected to begin in 2030.