April 15, 2024

Is it time for 6G yet? Traffic analysis says yes • The Register

Comment If you think 5G networks haven’t lived up to their promise, you’re not alone. But the technology is still in the early stages of implementation, although some in the mobile industry are already looking at what could come next.

The first full set of 5G standards arrived with 3GPP Release 15 in 2017, and specifications were officially frozen in 2018. The first network deployments occurred the following year, and many of the world’s operators are still busy deploying them until today. today.

Some might say that 5G has not lived up to the initial hype surrounding the technology. It was touted not only as a dramatic change in download speeds, but was expected to enable a host of new applications such as extended reality (XR) and usher in a new era of connected devices.

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But as we wrote late last year, 5G is still at a relatively early stage of its rollout, with many networks – especially in the UK – initially deploying it by adding 5G radio antennas to existing infrastructure. As the network core is upgraded to support what is called standalone 5G, 5G networks will improve.

Gartner analyst Bill Menezes told us at the time: “As operators continue to upgrade their networks for standalone 5G technology, users will increasingly experience the promised improvements in speed and reliability.” He added that it takes three to five years to fully implement a new generation of mobile phones.

5G, at least, offers higher speeds, depending on location. Although the average speeds that users in the UK are likely to see are lower than what they are theoretically capable of achieving (between 75Mbps and 240Mbps by some estimates), this is several times faster than 4G.

Meanwhile, the industry has not stood still and 3GPP version 18 marks the start of 5G-Advanced, which is expected to freeze in early 2024 and end in the summer. This is expected to bring a number of evolutionary improvements, as well as new features, that may address the limitations of the initial 5G launches.

5G-Advanced introduces support for non-terrestrial networks (such as satellite connections) that increase coverage in remote and rural areas, and is claimed to offer better uplink speeds.

While mobile broadband and the Internet of Things (IoT) were presented as 5G use cases, 5G-Advanced promises to improve mobile broadband performance, support for new applications and drive smart grid automation, at least according to a technical document commissioned by the telecommunications company Ericsson. .

The additional performance comes from increased MIMO (multiple input multiple output) signal capacity on both the uplink and downlink with support for improved demodulation reference symbols.

The new applications being touted are extended reality (again) for uses including remote control and industrial automation, as well as indoor positioning and IoT. According to Ericsson, the performance of extended reality services comes from support in the core of the 5G network for data rate adaptation using the low-latency, low-loss (L4S) system.

We are told that smart grid automation should make use of artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to improve network performance, in a similar vein to AIOps in data centers. According to the whitepaper, advances in the core 5G network architecture for data collection and analysis should serve as a good foundation for AI/ML-based techniques.

Chinese tech giant Huawei claimed in June that next year it will release all the kit a network operator needs to run a 5G-Advanced network, although for some reason it is labeling the technology as 5.5G, to the irritation of some in the industry. . .

But perhaps 5.5G isn’t such a bad name: Ericsson sees 5G-Advanced as a stepping stone to future 6G network standards. That next-generation technology is a long way off, with specifications likely not set until around 2028, with initial deployments tentatively planned for 2030.

However, standards body 3GPP (actually a group of seven global telecom standards organizations) is likely to start working on 6G in 2024.

So what can we expect from 6G networks? At first glance it would seem like more of the same: higher speeds, more ubiquitous networks, more support for demanding applications like extended reality. So do we really need the industry to offer yet another networking standard?

According to Peter Vetter, president of Bell Labs Core Research at Nokia, we certainly do, if only for the greater energy efficiency that the industry aims to deliver for 6G networks.

“This is an important research question because we can see that mobile traffic will increase over the next decade by a factor of 10 or even 20. So if we do nothing, base station power consumption will increase by a factor 10 or 20,” Vetter said. Register.

The goal is to halve the total energy consumption of mobile networks with 6G, meaning that energy efficiency will have to improve by a factor of 40, if network traffic increases by a factor of 20.

“This requires some fundamental research, and even if there are people who say we don’t need 6G, we say ‘yes, you need 6G’ because traffic analysis shows that 5G will run out of steam by the end of the decade,” Vetter said. This, he emphasized, means that 5G networks will not have the capacity to cope with the increase in traffic.

Nokia is advocating for 6G spectrum just above the current mid-band range for 5G (1-6 GHz) because that will allow deployment from existing cell sites, he added, and this will require large-scale antenna arrays that can better direct power. electromagnetic.

(A key topic of discussion at the recent ITU World Radiocommunication Conference, WRC-23, was said to be the use of the 7-15 GHz band as the primary spectrum for 6G.)

“We need new concepts like hybrid beamforming, new algorithms and antenna sleep and squelch modes,” Vetter said, “so there are all kinds of concepts to improve energy efficiency in absolute numbers.” According to Telefónica, 5G networks are already up to 90 percent more energy efficient per unit of traffic than older networks, with up to 70 percent of all network energy consumption in the radio access network (RAN). ).

One idea for energy efficiency is the use of AI to manage infrastructure, as promoted in 5G-Advanced networks. This will not only address the core network, but also the wireless air interface at the base stations, where it can be used to learn about channel conditions and how to adjust settings for optimal performance.

Vetter says Nokia has already tested a proof of concept for this, showing that networks can get 30 percent more capacity on the same radio channel using AI in base stations.

Nokia is the lead developer of 6G-ANNA, a German government-funded “lighthouse project” aimed at driving global pre-standardization activities for 6G. Other companies participating are Vodafone, Siemens, Ericsson and Bosch.

Early concepts for 6G under this project envision maximum data rates exceeding 100 Gbps, depending on the spectrum used, but this may vary depending on the spectrum available in different regions.

Other concepts for future 6G networks include network sensing and even greater connectivity for IoT and industrial automation projects. Network sensing involves the network using its own radio signals to monitor the environment, Vetter said.

“All those radio systems around us can also be used as sensors. If you’re smart about it, you can use existing base stations to monitor people and things to optimize movement in an airport or a city environment,” he said. .

Nokia has built a proof of concept, using an existing 5G base station hacked to function as radar, and researchers were able to locate people and detect movement with an accuracy of less than one meter, Vetter said.

When it comes to connectivity, Nokia believes that wireless networks will eventually replace wired connectivity, even in business and industrial sectors, which may place greater demands on them to support all those devices. For this reason, plans are for 6G to support 10 times more connected devices than 5G, Vetter said.

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Overall, concepts for 6G so far appear to focus on mobile networks becoming more ubiquitous and creating capacity and performance for demanding applications like telepresence, as well as connecting countless sensors and devices beyond phones.

But all this costs money in terms of investment in research and development, as well as building and deploying the infrastructure. A recent article in the Financial Times estimates that network operator spending will slow next year and that operators want to see better returns on their existing 5G investments before considering costly new network upgrades.

And here comes the problem: That position may prove unsustainable as operators feel pressure to continue investing for fear of falling behind their rivals, the same dynamic as in previous launches in the mobile network industry.

However, it would be nice if everyone could get a decent 5G Advanced signal in their area, before the industry starts inflating the next-generation network’s hype bubble. ®

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