Hyperconnectivity And The Path To 6G

5G may have just arrived, but there’s lots of room to grow.


Some may view the recent uptick in the news about next-generation wireless networking, specifically 6G, with some healthy skepticism as 5G is “just rolling out.” But when looking at the timelines, it becomes clear why 6G is critical and is also excellent news for electronics, and by extension, the design of semiconductors and systems. The same key elements that transformed the data center to enable hyperscale computing—merging computing, storage, memory, and networking—extend to the more extensive hyperconnected network. Today’s design decisions drive how computing is balanced between devices, near and far edges, local and cloud data centers, as well as where data is stored. In the future, hyperconnectivity will enable the next level of exchange of data, and it goes hand in hand with hyperscale computing. Combined, they will drive new requirements, probably most notably around making the overall environment trustworthy.

For me, 5G is here and is quickly becoming the new normal. Living in tech-spoiled Silicon Valley, I have both 5G wireless and just got 5G fixed-wireless in my house as well. Something is beamforming over my garden, and I may start glowing soon. Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) is a good backup for when my cable provider makes unannounced updates but does not compete in speed. One gets used to a 1Gbit line just as fast as the bits arrive. My current situation reminds me of the heated discussions between advocates of 4G LTE and WiMAX back in 2009 at a “4G Wireless Evolutions” event in Miami. I am sure there will be 5G+ timelines and potentially even a divergence depending on the end applications. A bit more than a decade later, I now have to balance my home wireless network, fed by cable, with the potential of FWA over the air. The geek in me is already evaluating a load-balancing router to combine both sources of data.

A recent talk by Professor Gerhard Fettweiss reminded me of the duality of business and consumer drivers for the various generations of cellular communications. In the 1980s, the focus of 1G was “voice” for business customers, and 2G extended telephony to consumers. In the early 2000s, 3G focused on “data” for businesses, and in the 2010s, the mobile internet fully opened to consumers. For 5G and 6G, we are facing the same situation again. According to Fettweiss, today’s and the future focus of cellular communications will be the “tactile internet,” basically interacting with objects, all the things in the IoT. Yes, for us end consumers, the faster download of movies and the ability to attend Zoom meetings is pretty neat, but 5G’s significant “new” growth is in the industrial and business sectors. 5G is connecting cyber-physical systems (CPS) for industrial automation, for instance. Assuming that, per Twain, history “doesn’t repeat but often rhymes,” 6G will be consumer-focused again.

The target timelines for 6G seem to be 2028-29. A significant milestone will be the big ITU WRC meeting coming up in 2023 to discuss spectrum usage. That means the timelines are pretty close.

So, what are the driving applications? A Samsung Electronics Research white paper on 6G is an inspiring read! It identifies three items as critical drivers for 6G innovation enabling a hyperconnected world. First, immersive extended reality (XR) will enable completely new consumer experiences. Fettweiss offered an example of a soccer game in which the audience could view the game from different players’ perspectives or even the ball’s perspective! Second, high-fidelity mobile holograms offer enhanced user experiences and new ways to interact. Finally, digital replica (i.e., digital twins) can enable everything from a better prediction of maintenance needs to improved health. In Samsung’s view, artificial intelligence is merging humans and machines in the hyper-connected world.

The resulting technical requirements include 10X faster peak data transfer rates of 1,000Gbps (user experienced 1 Gbps), 10X faster than 5G air latency of 0.1ms, and 2X spectral efficiency. Limitations of computing power and battery life will require taking a holistic view of the overall system architecture. “Openness of mobile communications” will be a megatrend toward 6G, further raising the importance of security and trust. Suggested candidate technologies include innovation in the 95GHz to 3,000GHz spectrum and novel antenna technologies to cope with the problematic propagation characteristics of the TeraHertz band.

Ericsson also provides a fascinating outlook on “Ever-present intelligent communication.” As technology elements of 6G networks, Ericsson emphasizes the importance of network adaptability, enhanced end-to-end connectivity, extreme performance and coverage, embedded devices everywhere, cognitive networks, a network compute fabric, and trustworthy systems.

That last point—trustworthiness—is probably the essential item to enable a hyperconnected world. As Fettweiss pointed out in a recent presentation, trustworthiness extends from “things” with hardware and software, through “communication” with data and identity, the “context” for cyber and physical environments to “engineering science” with transparency and responsibility.

Hyperconnectivity, combined with hyperscale computing in data centers, already impacts our lives today. As Ericsson and Omnia outlined in “Harnessing the 5G consumer potential,” there is lots of room for new consumer use cases with 5G and 5G+ technologies today. That’s also excellent news for the electronics space as consumer buying cycles for devices are much shorter—in the 18 to 24-month range. Further increased trustworthiness and the scale of 6G will take that to never-before-possible use cases.

Breathtaking future, here we come!

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