What to expect from 6G: Here are nine important takeaways from early global research
Designing a new generation mobile system is a very complicated engineering task involving thousands of researchers and developers. Their creativity comes up with novel concepts and they work on designing, testing, agreeing upon and building a truly best-in-class end-to-end cellular system. There really is nothing like it.
Today, although we’re at the beginning of this journey with 6G, the volume and breadth of research activity has already been substantial. Basic research concepts underlying 6G are well understood, and concrete 6G technology roadmaps have been proposed by leading collaborations such as the European Hexa-X project, the North American Next G Alliance (NGA), the Chinese IMT-2030 (6G) Promotion Group. And of course, the road to 6G will change over time as 5G evolves and 6G standards work begins.
We already see the emergence of several promising 6G technology concepts across different vendors, industries, and regions. While the exact technical specifications will be a matter for standardization in 2025 and beyond, we can at least say one thing: by enabling and delivering wireless cyber-physical services, 6G will radically alter the world as we see and experience it.
Ericsson has already assumed a leading role in driving the foundational research agenda for the 6G system, and our early 6G research has had a strong influence in shaping the 6G research direction of the wider ecosystem.
Ericsson’s research outlook towards 6G lays out the vision for a future ubiquitous cyber-physical continuum that will serve as a “trusted platform for intelligence, compute, and spatial data, encouraging innovation and serving as the information backbone of society”.
Achieving this vision will demand future networks that are “capable of connecting multiple experiences over a broad range of devices and locations, where service assurance is guaranteed no matter what is being demanded to make the experience optimal”. This cyber-physical continuum will be developed around the new technical fundaments of critical services, immersive communication, omnipresent IoT, spatio-temporal services, compute-AI services, and global broadband.
But does the wider ecosystem agree? We reviewed various seminal 6G white papers across wireless industries, regional research partnerships and academia to give you the nine key takeaways from the 6G early research phase. As it turns out, these ecosystem takeaways concur very well with our own research outlook towards 6G.
You can find the full list of all white papers referenced at the end of the page.
1. Sustainability goals will be crucial to 6G use case development
Sustainability is of utmost importance for all sectors of society, and wireless networks already play an important role in achieving UN SDGs and other climate action goals. With 6G, Ericsson believes there is clear potential to further accelerate the value of wireless networks in ensuring digital inclusion on a global scale, enabling access to high-end services for socially important institutions such as schools and hospitals, enabling better resource efficiency such as through global end-to-end digital-asset tracking, and supporting new more environmentally friendly ways of living, working, traveling and more through digitalization. .
We also believe that ensuring high network energy performance will continue as a critical design factor in future network platforms, reducing node energy usage to close to zero when not carrying traffic and improving scalability with load adapting to rapid traffic variations.
The University of Oulu’s 6G Flagship project, one of the earliest 6G research projects, compares the shift in focus like going from “5G engineering” to “6G humanity”, and cite an aging population and growing urbanization as some of the challenges which 6G should look to address.
The NGA believes that 6G applications will offer key societal and economic value in achieving high-level goals, for example improving cost efficiency, affordability, access, and societal sustainability when it comes to digital equity. While the European Hexa-X project identifies global service coverage as one example how 6G can contribute to the transformation of society, providing global access to digital services and energy-optimized infrastructures and services.
Given the rising criticality of climate-related action and other sustainability issues, it’s important that all 6G use cases are underpinned by technical and policy solutions that promote sustainability and Net Zero carbon emissions. To address this, the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance (NGMN) believes that monitoring the overall sustainability value of each service or application should be regarded as an important step in future 6G development.
2. 6G will deliver extreme performance
Through immersive communication, 6G will deliver a full telepresence experience, removing distance as a barrier to interaction. To support this and other highly advanced use cases such as remote autonomous robotics, 6G will need to deliver extreme levels of radio access performance in an adaptable fashion - i.e., depending on situational requirements - to a high number of users across a global and pervasive coverage span.
Most stakeholders agree that this will be characterized by an ability to provide high data rates, massive throughput, extremely low latency, seamless multi-access service continuity and ubiquitous connectivity delivered across land, sea and air using terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks.
At Ericsson, we believe that delivering extreme performance across (dense) deployments will require not only access-link technology but also the introduction of packet fronthaul and new wireless transport technologies, such as relay and mesh networking, and further integrated access and backhaul.
There is a consensus across the ecosystem that 6G’s extreme performance will also be derived from a combination of factors, including new spectrum bands and the evolution toward new radio technologies including holographic beamforming, advanced duplexing technologies and advanced (also called ‘gigantic’) massive MIMO technology which the NGA regards as a key enabler of 6G’s fast data rates and wide coverage. Nokia Bell Labs suggests that, in the 6G era, multi-user MIMO could be widely applied in mmWave bands to enable massive-scale, multi-user massive MIMO to exploit the available spectrum and manage network density.
When it comes to spectrum, both existing and new additional spectrum will be necessary to deliver 6G’s extreme performance.
At Ericsson, we believe that spectrum in the sub-1 GHz frequency bands will remain necessary even in the 6G era, while mid-band spectrum will continue to address wide area use cases that require capacity. Spectrum in the mmWave range will continue to provide high capacity in crowded environments. New spectrum in the centimetric (7-15 GHz) will be essential to enabling mobile high capacity 6G use cases, while a complementary sub-THz (92-300 GHz) range will help to deliver required speeds beyond 100Gbps and extremely low latencies of 6G niche use cases.
Nokia Bell Labs also identifies the sub-THz range as being a suitable use case for backhaul networks of the future, with narrow beam point-to-point communication in these bands freeing up spectrum for access in mmWave bands. Nokia Bell Labs also believe that spectrum assignment could change as we enter the 6G era, moving away from a static split between operators and services toward much more dynamic AI-based spectrum access in time, frequency, and space.
3. 6G networks will offer sensing capabilities
Leading network vendors agree that accurate spatial mapping through detailed sensing and high-precision positioning technologies will serve as one of the key pillars of the future 6G system.
This essentially means that 6G networks will be designed with the integrated capability to gain accurate spatial knowledge of physical surroundings, such as through radar-like technologies and other interesting research areas. Sensing can be achieved by observing the characteristics of received signals already present for the communication or using the communication equipment to send additional signals and observe their reflections on objects.
At Ericsson, we believe that reusing cellular systems for sensing can result in both a more cost-efficient sensing system and broader coverage than what can be provided by dedicated sensing systems.
While there are technical challenges, integrated sensing combined with other technologies, such as digital twins, and high-precision localization, will open many possible use cases. This includes improving the performance of the network itself, but also providing new, exciting sensing services to external users and applications.
At Ericsson, we have identified use cases such as environment modeling, road traffic detection, or alarm detection systems. Huawei have identified other interesting use cases including: high-accuracy localization and tracking, such as automatic docking, multi-robot collaboration and even AI-based semantic localization with context awareness and dynamic address resolution; simultaneous imaging, mapping, and localization, such as autonomous vehicles, robots and AGVs with the capability to perform well in crowded spaces and even see around corners; augmented human senses, which can help to make the invisible visible; and gesture and activity recognition, that could be key to unlocking future human-computer interfaces. Nokia Bell Labs also identifies fault detection in extrusion manufacturing processes and other possible use case scenarios.
Achieving fully immersive sensing and joint communication in the networks will require significant technology advances in many areas. For example, Nokia Bell Labs identify a need to advance technologies such as AI/ML, and new software and knowledge systems to be able to interpret what the networks see, feed the information into digital twins, and enable wireless industries to build the applications and services that will act upon that data.
Ericsson has teamed up with NXP Semiconductors to investigate potential new use cases for a network where communication and sensing functionalities are fully integrated into the same transmission/reception nodes. Learn more about their vision here.
4. 6G will support trillions of embeddable devices
Digital twins and applications like smart cities will not only benefit from 6G's spatial mapping technologies, it also requires input from a large number of embedded sensors as well as the possibility to send information to actuators. 6G will therefore support trillions of embeddable devices with trustworthy connections that are available all the time. Low-cost deployment and energy supply to these devices are two of many aspects that are important to address.
At Ericsson, we believe energy harvesting will become one of the key technology enablers for supporting a massive number of embedded devices in 6G. This technology area, which enables devices to operate without batteries, will make it possible to harvest ambient energy from vibrations, light, temperature gradients, or even from the radio-frequency waves themselves. Deploying such "zero energy devices" will remove existing use case limitations associated with battery replacement or charging requirements.
This is also known as extremely low power communication (ELPC) and the Vivo Communications Research Institute agree that it will be one of the key technologies to realize ubiquitous connectivity, as well as enable the interconnection between the physical and the digital worlds.
They identify both wide-area and local-area scenarios as suitable use cases. Wide area includes logistics and warehousing, environmental monitoring, smart agriculture, railroad operation and maintenance, powerline inspection, and industrial IoT; while local area includes smart home, wearable devices, low power health monitoring, and implantable medical.
Vivo also identify two possible network architectures for such ELPC device use cases: In the first option, extremely low power devices do not access the core network. Instead, the core network only provides data transfer between the extremely low power devices and an application server. The application server records the entity which transfers data to the extremely low power device and forwards the downlink data that is destined to the low power device to the entity. In the second option, the mobile network operator provides a reader and proxies the extremely low power device to access the core network, meaning it is not necessary for the device to support NAS protocol stacks – reducing energy consumption.
At Ericsson, we have identified several research challenges that must be addressed before zero-energy or extremely low power devices can become a reality. This includes energy harvesting and storage and a system design handling a very large number of devices. New physical-layer designs may even be required as traditional transmission schemes may not be feasible given the minuscule amounts of energy possible to harvest.
5. Network resilience will be a key design element of 6G systems
As a key component of future societies, ensuring a continued high level of network reliability, availability, and resilience (NRAR) will remain a key design element of future network evolution. This will be necessary to ensure service continuation against a potential rise of natural disasters, local disturbances, societal breakdowns, and malicious attacks.
At Ericsson, we believe that network resilience will need to be addressed from multiple perspectives. Ensuring the development of a distributed architecture, for example, will be key in ensuring that not all information (and risk) is centralized among a few parties.
While radio resilience can be improved by the provisioning of adequate capacity, redundancy of coverage, and the use of the diversity of connectivity and medium access control. We also believe that resource provisioning for critical services across RAN, transport, and core should be designed to allow service differentiation to meet future requirements of industrial- and other critical control functions.
Hexa-X agrees that it is important to allow regional network portions to continue operation even when central functions may fail and would be key to ensuring service continuation of critical use cases e.g., emergency health care.
As the demand for potentially life-critical connectivity increases, Nokia Bell Labs believes that the development of 6G sub-networks could serve to ensure high data rates, extreme low latency, and high reliability, where 6G security and resilience features can be enforced to the lowest level of devices in the sub-network.
Then there is the high impact of AI and real-time analytics which will also play a prominent role in ensuring 6G system resilience against dynamic changes in traffic load and radio environments. For example, automated recovery mechanisms can be implemented by analyzing and aggregating data through a distributed and hierarchical approach, ensuring improved observability of performance and real-time requirement validation of services and applications.
Huawei calls this ‘smart resilience’ and believes that situation awareness and big data analytics can be leveraged in 6G systems to identify and then avoid or transfer risks.
6. 6G network architecture will be more adaptable and dynamic
As we move toward the 6G era, networks will need to become more adaptable and dynamic to address expected future challenges in areas of deployment costs, energy consumption, network development and expansion, and management and operations.
The Japanese mobile phone operator NTT Docomo identifies the key drivers for this, both in Advanced 5G and 6G eras, as being owed to many factors including: a dramatic increase in traffic from advanced cyber-physical systems, a diversification and increase of devices such as wearables, a rapid implementation of new services in response to rapid market changes, and the need to provide a strong defense against advanced cyberattacks.
Nokia Bell Labs also believes that 6G systems will be heterogenous from a technology and business model perspective with services that can be consumed seamlessly and operated in an efficient and highly automated manner. They define the concept as a “network of networks” made up of critical 6G sub-networks, ubiquitous RANaaS, and “360° connectivity” through novel multi-connectivity mechanisms across different layers. In terms of topology evolution, Nokia Bell Labs also point to advances in slicing and virtualization, where slices can become highly specialized, potentially with separate software stacks in each slice for different functional treatment of the flows and leading to further disaggregation of RAN functions.
Like Ericsson, NTT Docomo and Nokia Bell Labs also underline the importance cloud native architectures and simplification. We believe that an important step towards these directions is keeping business essential, standardized interfaces separate from implementation and deployment aspects. This provides flexibility for efficient implementations, is the natural way to leverage the increasingly virtualized and cloud-native infrastructure and allows different deployment decisions in different types of networks.
7. 6G networks will have the ability to learn and act autonomously
It will not be possible to enable and support the expected scale and versatility of 6G services without new levels of network intelligence and autonomy. This paradigm shift will take place gradually over the coming years, resulting in 6G networks that are fully cognitive with the ability to observe, reason, acquire new knowledge, and act autonomously. Such cognitive networks will also be crucial in enabling energy efficiencies, optimal performance, and high service availability.
At Ericsson, we believe that the key enablers for this evolution will be data-driven operations, distributed intelligence, continuous learning, intent-based automation, and explainable and trustworthy AI – and will be required to work in synergy across different aspects of functional architecture, deployment scenarios and responsibility areas of different vendors and communication service providers.
NGMN refers to it as ‘seamless hyper-automation’ and shares the view that a complete automation framework would allow fully automated life-cycle management by communication service providers across services, networks, and business/policy domains – requiring end-to-end system visibility and relying on fully integrated AI functionality.
Cognitive networks, together with a transition to data-driven network and service operations, will enable a high degree of automation, performance, efficiency, and insight. For communication service providers, this will inevitably have a significant positive impact on operating- (OPEX) and capital (CAPEX) expenditure, as well as average revenue per user (ARPU) and overall net promoter score (NPS).
There is broad consensus in early 6G research about the key role of AI in 6G systems. Autonomous, cognitive networks require AI capabilities across the end-to-end network architecture to be able to adjust to its environment, and constantly observe and learn from previous actions. AI must therefore be integrated both as a service and a native feature in the 6G system.
Nokia Bell Labs agrees and raises the notion that 6G could be designed in a way that ML/AI could modify parts of the physical and medium access control layers, making a dynamic AI/ML-defined native air interface a key component of 6G networking in the future. The resulting ‘AI-AI’ will serve an application with the data it needs in the most efficient way by considering the constraints of the available hardware and the radio environment. Nokia Bell Labs say that this plays into a greater need to revisit classical approaches, so that new theories can be developed, and technological breakthroughs achieved.
Going even further, 6G networks may also provide AI-as-a-service (AIaaS) which can support applications and leverage high-quality data from the ubiquitous generation of raw network intelligence at the edge.
Huawei identifies distributed learning and inference as a key use case for AIaaS, stating that massive data could be provided to deep learning algorithms to generate deep neural network (DNN) models for each application. Huawei also believes that AIaaS for distributed learning and inference applications in 6G networks will be key to meeting the real-time and large-scale learning and inference requirements of society and vertical industries in the future.
8. An integrated network compute fabric will fuel 6G network evolution
Future 6G use cases such as the Internet of Senses and Cyber-Physical Systems will require a new set of capabilities beyond connectivity. Consequently, 6G systems will be designed with the capability to deliver an integrated network compute fabric – transforming the network into a pervasive, globally interconnected compute and storage platform that facilitates optimized handling of application components while giving the impression of locality. – transforming the network into a pervasive, globally interconnected compute and storage platform that facilitates optimized handling of application components while giving the impression of locality.
Real-time infrastructure and services together with unified data access are core elements of the network compute fabric, as well as enabling other key capabilities such as intelligent operations, simplification, and serviceability.
The evolution of the compute and storage paradigm forms a central theme in early 6G research. In their early 6G research, Nokia Bell Labs identify compute as one of the ‘essential dimensions driving the design of the new communications system’.
The NGA agree that the convergence of mobile communications and cloud computing will be one of the key drivers of network evolution, resulting in a 6G system that provides a wide-area cloud with ubiquitous computing across devices, network nodes and data centers. Consequently, the 6G system will fundamentally expand mobile system capabilities and services from being communication-centric to becoming communication-computing-data centric. The NGA believes this will enable new service subscription models e.g., Everything as a Service (XaaS) for the benefit of mobile users, mobile device vendors, application providers, cloud-service providers, etc.
Hexa-X, which refers to ‘Compute-as-a-service’, believes that delegating ‘workloads to powerful nodes at the network will be essential for the stability of a closed loop system involving measurement capturing, processing, issuing an actuation policy and implementing it’. In its white paper, it identifies three use cases which can potentially benefit from the CaaS concept: industrial maintenance setting where computing workloads need to be processed in a reliable and timely fashion; remote data collection and processing; and multi-player gaming, where complex computer games may be processed on computational resources in the network, addressing high computation load requirements and meeting low latency requirements.
At Ericsson, we also believe that such a compute and storage fabric can only be realized with the collaboration of a broad set of actors working in the same globally federated ecosystem, including network and cloud providers, application developers, service providers, and device and equipment vendors. This will be critical in unlocking the expected innovation potential of 6G systems.
9. 6G will be built to ensure trustworthiness in a new age
The architectural changes foreseen by 6G systems will present a range of new complex and sophisticated cyber security challenges. The threat analysis of future 6G use cases will include new angles such as potential on-body sensors/actuators, extensive AI, and sophisticated 3D+audio content spoofing. In addition, new data privacy- and cryptographic aspects in a new quantum computing era will add further challenges to an already-complex technology area.
Consequently, there has been a lot of focus in early 6G research to ensure the trustworthiness and dependability of future 6G systems, both by strengthening security controls for well-known threats and disruptions, as well as exploring new aspects.
The ability to withstand, detect, respond to, and recover from attacks and unintentional disturbances is a cornerstone in designing trustworthy systems.
At Ericsson, we believe that confidential computing, secure identities and protocols, service availability, and security assurance and defense will continue to be the four crucial building blocks for trustworthy 6G systems and should be further developed in coming years. Confidential computing, for example, has the potential to not only protect the privacy of future cloud users, but also to enhance the security of future network slices through cryptographic isolation.
The Beyond 5G Promotion Consortium (B5G), based in Japan, identify AI security, automated software creation, quantum-safe cryptography, physical layer security, and jamming protection as key components of any future cyber-resilience framework. In addition to confidential computing, B5G also identify multiparty computation, federated learning, artificial data synthesis using digital twins, and homomorphic encryption as key future technologies in the privacy paradigm.
The NGA also state that new tools will be needed to allow the 6G system to learn, detect, and respond to threats autonomously. One of those tools will be AI, which the NGA identifies as playing a key role in ensuring network trustworthiness.
To address the prospect of more frequent and sophisticated cyber-attacks and security breaches, Hexa-X also identifies the need to develop new and efficient security and privacy schemes, i.e., applying AI to predict problems, detect and automatically resolve attacks that are caused by either classical or AI-based approaches. Another approach identified by Hexa-X includes embedding resilience and security-enabled trustworthiness in both the corresponding software and hardware implementations of future network technologies.
Collective efforts to research and define 6G are ongoing and, as you can see in the roadmap below, will continue in the coming years.
Some of the notable activities include ongoing research and industrial projects, such as the second phase of the EU’s Hexa-X project [Hexa-X-II] starting now in 2023 with a focus on the systemization of 6G. Parallel to this, there is also ongoing work in the ITU-R with regard to spectrum processes as well as vision and KPI activities.
Ericsson’s view is that 3GPP will begin work on 6G requirements as early as next year, in 2024, with work on technical standardization beginning the following year in 2025. The aim is to have implementable specifications ready by 2028.
A lot of work remains but the coming years will for sure be very interesting!
Visit Ericsson’s 6G resource center
Read Ericsson’s 6G white paper: Connecting a cyber-physical world
List of referenced white papers
5GIA white paper: European vision for the 6G network ecosystem
B5GPC white paper: Beyond 5G white paper – Message to the 2030s
Hexa-X white paper: 6G vision, value, use cases and technologies
Hexa-X white paper: Expanded 6G vision, use cases and societal values
Huawei white paper: 6G - The next horizon
NGMN Alliance white paper: 6G drivers and vision
NGMN Alliance white paper: 6G use cases and analysis
Nokia white paper: Communications in the 6G era
Nokia white paper: Technology innovations for 6G system architecture
Nokia white paper: Joint design of communication and sensing for beyond 5G and 6G systems
NTT docomo white paper: 5G evolution and 6G
vivo white paper: 6G services, capabilities and enabling technologies
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