The Next Horizon: Key Drivers & Technical Pillars that Will Shape 6G

BySamuel Winfield D’Arcy

July 29, 2022

Samuel Winfield D’Arcy

The 6G: The Next Horizon White Paper presents a holistic view of our 6G vision, exploring 6G key capabilities, new use cases and requirements, new building blocks, and paradigm shifts in air interface and network architecture designs. In part 2 of this series, we look at the key drivers and technical pillars that will shape 6G.

Underpinned by these drivers and pillars, 6G is expected to build on 4G and 5G, which respectively connected people and things, and achieve “connected intelligence”.

Read previous posts:

1. 6G: The Next Horizon

Key drivers

In the white paper, we outline three key drivers that are leading mobile communications toward a new era of connected intelligence.

Driver 1: New applications and new business

Each mobile generation has been driven by the needs of certain typical applications. 1G was characterized by voice calls, 2G by text messaging, 3G by multimedia, 4G by bandwidth-hungry applications such as video streaming, and finally 5G by applications requiring massive connectivity and low latency, such as IoT and VR/AR. Similarly, 6G will be defined by a new generation of applications with all-new needs. Such applications will include:

  • Next-generation extended reality (XR): Haptic feedback and holographic display will be major features of next-generation XR applications — especially in scenarios such as the metaverse — and will have exponentially higher requirements on bandwidth and latency.
  • Automation: Big data required for training AI algorithms will further drive the need for orders-of-magnitude higher throughput.

Driver 2: Proliferation of intelligence

Future business and economic models will be increasingly dependent on “pervasive intelligence”; that is, the use of machine learning (ML), brute-force computing, and big data analytics in more and more scenarios. This will require 6G networks to provide four native capabilities:

  • Native AI support: To improve performance while meeting data ownership requirements, AI will need to be run at the edge. This will need to be fully considered in the 6G network architecture, ultimately achieving “Networked AI”.
  • Native data protection: To empower users with full control and operation of their data, data protection will need to be baked into the 6G design.
  • Native trustworthiness: The 6G design will need to ensure trustworthiness can be customized, verified, and measured, and take into account the many-party, many-player, and many-actor nature of network ownership and operation.
  • Native diversified ecosystem: A universal ICT framework will need to be created to enable all industries to benefit from the rollout of 6G.

Driver 3: Sustainability & social responsibility

As the whole world focuses on achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 6G networks will be designed to be cost- and energy-efficient when it comes to deployment, operations, monitoring, and management. This will ensure that the increasingly heterogeneous services 6G will support can run without hindering the sustainability and social commitments being made by industries and countries worldwide.

Overall vision and capabilities

Guided by the three key drivers described above, 6G will need to develop six key capabilities, which we refer to as “pillars”.

Pillar 1: Native AI

AI will be both a service and a native feature in the 6G communications system. This is better explained by two concepts, “AI for Network (AI4NET)” and “Network for AI (NET4AI)”:

  • AI4NET: AI will be built into the 6G air interface and network designs, customizing the optimization and automated operations, administration, and management (OA&M).
  • NET4AI: Each 6G network element will natively integrate communication, computing, and sensing capabilities, replacing centralized intelligence in the cloud with ubiquitous intelligence at the edge. This is also known as “AI as a Service (AIaaS)”.

Pillar 2: Networked Sensing

6G systems will integrate wireless signal sensing and communication, each enhancing the other. This covers two concepts:

  • Network as a sensor: the communication system will act as a sensor to give us greater understanding of the physical world. Key use cases will include high-accuracy localization and tracking; simultaneous imaging, mapping, and localization; augmented human senses; and gesture and activity recognition.
  • Sensing-assisted communication: high-accuracy localization, imaging, and environment reconstruction capabilities could help improve communication performance; for example, achieving more accurate beamforming.

Pillar 3: Extreme Connectivity

6G will build on 5G by making comprehensive improvements in all metrics, delivering order-of-magnitude improvements to peak rate (1 Tbit/s), experienced rate (10-100 Gbit/s), latency (sub-ms), connection density (10x 5G), localization accuracy (cm-level), and much more. These improvements will be made possible as 6G moves into uncharted spectrums such as THz and even visible light.

Pillar 4: Integrated NTN

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in satellite communication as we try to connect even the most remote corners of the earth. However, such non-terrestrial networks (NTNs) have so far been entirely separate from their terrestrial counterparts. This will all change with 6G, which will fully integrate all types of terrestrial networks and NTNs — including satellites, drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and high-altitude platform stations (HAPSs) — for unified billing as well as ultimate experience by selecting the optimal access point at any one time.

Pillar 5: Native Trustworthiness

6G will integrate numerous capabilities, including communication, sensing, computing, and intelligence, requiring a new network architecture to be defined. In this architecture, trustworthiness — the overarching term for security, privacy, resilience, safety, and reliability — must be a native feature. This will be achieved with native features such as new data governance architectures that support data compliance and monetization, as well as advanced privacy protection and quantum attack defense technologies.

Pillar 6: Sustainability

To stay ahead of global sustainability initiatives while delivering optimal service performance and experience, 6G aims to improve energy efficiency (defined in bits per Joule) 100-fold across the network and keep total energy consumption (measured in Joules) lower than 5G. 6G will achieve this through major upgrades in terms of architectures, materials, hardware components, algorithms, software, and protocols. For example, dense network deployment could lead to a shorter propagation distance, while a centralized RAN architecture would result in fewer cell sites and higher resource efficiency.

Wrapping Up

In this post, I gave a brief overview of the three key drivers and six technical pillars that will pave the way for 6G. In the following posts, we will take a deeper dive into some of the potential real-world use case of 6G, to give you a clearer picture of the true impact of 6G.

Subscribe to this blog to keep pace with this series on 6G – as well as the latest tech – and download the white paper: 6G: The Next Horizon – From Connected Things to Connected Intelligence.


Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.

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Samuel Winfield D’Arcy

Senior Technical Writer, Huawei

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