The Next Horizon: What Lies Beneath the 6 Pillars of 6G?
From connecting people and things across the globe, to placing a wealth of information in the palm of your hand, wireless mobile communications have revolutionized the world. While 3G introduced mobile Internet access to the masses, allowing us to browse websites and send emails on the go, 4G accelerated everything, bringing streaming services and wired-like speeds into our daily lives.
And 5G? That’s taken things a step further still, opening up the possibilities for a fully connected, intelligent world. But where do we go from there? What further innovations could 6G bring? And what are the underlying technologies and architectures that will enable it to reach its full potential?
Building on the pervasive connectivity that 5G has already made possible — including the widespread application of the Internet of Things (IoT), for example — 6G will push further, toward connecting intelligence itself. Combining physical, biological, and cyber worlds, 6G will strive to realize the true, green Intelligence of Everything.
However, while all of this sounds great, the technology and architecture behind 6G first needs time to build up. And that will require collaborative efforts from carriers around the world. So where should their focus lie?
Huawei has outlined six key pillars to support 6G development:
- Native Artificial Intelligence (AI)
- Networked Sensing
- Extreme Connectivity
- Integrated Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTNs)
- Native Trustworthiness
But the pillars’ true strength resides in what lies beneath: their foundation and those underlying technologies that will undergo paradigm shifts to drive 6G’s success.
Significant transformation to Air Interface design
To realize the Intelligence of Everything, AI — the key to pillar one — is clearly going to play a critical role. Indeed, the air interface design of 6G must embrace intelligence at its core, with inherent AI features built in to enable intelligent Physical Layer (PHY) and Media Access Control (MAC). AI will also facilitate the addition of sensing and positioning capabilities, as well as Machine Learning (ML) for network and User Equipment (UE) nodes, radically improving system capacity, the UE experience, and power consumption.
Evolving from a software-defined air interface — commonly observed in 5G — to an intelligent air interface powered by model- and data-driven AI capabilities, 6G air interfaces will be customizable at the UE level, improving the overall experience and slashing latency, all without sacrificing system capacity.
In line with pillar six, sustainable technologies are also going to be a core element of 6G development, placing precise focus on lower power consumption. This means doing away with optional, add-on power saving features. Instead, these features will be built-in, default operation modes of 6G air interfaces, backed by intelligent management systems that dramatically improve power utilization efficiency.
In addition, sensing, AI, and advanced positioning capabilities will significantly improve beam management, replacing conventional beam sweeping, beam failure detection, and beam recovery approaches to allow for the better alignment of transmitter and receiver beams, ultimately in order to enhance the UE experience and overall system performance.
In terms of reliability, obtaining accurate channel information is essential, but doing so in real time has consistently proven difficult. 6G changes that, with the potential for AI-powered sensing-assisted and positioning-assisted channel sounding. This will help to transform pilot-based channel acquisition into location-aware channel acquisition, simplifying the beam search process while providing channel information in real time.
Unlike 5G, where satellite networks are separate systems, 6G will integrate terrestrial and non-terrestrial systems, converting satellites into new network nodes. The result? More efficient multi-connection joint operations, more flexible functionality sharing, and faster cross-connection switching, ultimately helping to achieve universal coverage and on-demand capacity.
6G will also require more frequency bands to cope with foreseeable surges in data rates. But higher frequencies are prone to greater path loss and atmospheric absorption. Designing 6G with intelligent spectrum utilization and channel resource management will resolve such issues.
Finally, current baseband protocols and algorithms are often designed without Radio Frequency (RF) and analog components, due to their lack of linearity and just how difficult it is to model their impairments. However, given 6G’s innate AI capabilities, joint baseband and RF optimization may prove feasible in the future.
Changing the network architecture design to support countless nodes
Pillar one is clearly essential to 6G development. Indeed, AI will be not be exclusive to air interface design, but also find itself embedded in the network architecture itself.
Traditionally, in 5G networks, AI services are found in a central cloud at the application layer. In 6G, however, AI’s roots will run much deeper, supporting the transformation from cloud AI to network AI, in turn enabling real-time AI functions. And the implications of this transformation go far beyond mere performance. Putting AI services closer to end users means that data ownership and privacy concerns may no longer need an intervening authority — giving you better control of your own data.
6G will also enjoy task-oriented communication, thanks to its AI and sensing services. Instead of information-centric connections being made between end users and the services they want to use, 6G will see numerous distributed nodes — terminals, radio access nodes, network equipment, and more — executing tasks in a coordinated, prompt way, all in order to deliver optimal performance.
In addition, as networks essentially manage the state of each UE or end user — and with these states set to skyrocket under 6G — the need for a user-centric design becomes increasingly important. Ideally, in a 6G environment, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) exists for each user, optimizing network performance at the user level.
Turning to trust, the key to pillar five, and the development of quantum computing and application of new technologies in 6G — such as AI and ML — allied to a security-by-design framework, will give rise to a fundamental shift from simple security to native trustworthiness.
With intelligence at the core, 6G networks will follow a participatory approach to networking and service provisioning, with built-in data ownership, privacy, and trust models, supported by automated Operations, Administration, and Management (OA&M). Whereas previous networks followed an operator-centric view, 6G will welcome every system participant to both produce and consume resources and services, hence, a “prosumer” approach.
The 6G milestone is within reach
Witnessing the commercial rollout of 5G in 2019 and 4G ten years before that, it’s clear that cellular networks take time to develop and evolve, with contributions coming from many parties. Indeed, collaboration and healthy competition between telecommunications providers around the world can only lead to one thing: success.
From embedding AI, sensing technologies, native trustworthiness, and sustainability into 6G infrastructure, to optimizing network performance and services throughout the entire network, particularly at the user level, these are just some of the features that 6G will require to reach its true potential. And by upgrading the air interface and network architecture designs of 6G, its pillars will have the foundation they need to stand strong.
Read the previous posts in the series 6G: The Next Horizon 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.