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27 September 2022

Convergence of many connectivity efforts will be critical to 6G

Special Report: Emerging ‘6G’ enablers

We are starting to engage in the early conversations about how 5G will evolve to 6G towards the end of this decade, or indeed, whether ‘6G’ will need to be a completely new platform that will have limited backwards compatibility with the previous 3GPP generations and will be largely driven by the Internet industry rather than the telecoms sector.

The outcomes are unknowable at this early stage, but it is still important for major stakeholders, including big telecoms operators and suppliers, standards bodies, and hyperscalers, to discuss requirements and scenarios for the presumed ‘metaverse generation’. The exact technological components of 6G are also largely unknown, though some engineering progressions are predictable (which does not mean simple), including radios that can work efficiently, and with affordable components, in very high frequency spectrum; as well as greater convergence and embedded AI than is envisaged for the coming releases of 5G.

There are visions, of varying degrees of caution versus sci-fi, of what a future massive cloud/connectivity platform could enable in terms of user experiences and the way we run businesses and our lives. But bringing that down to earth, there are some enablers that will be essential whatever the scenario, if we really are to see the Internet evolve into something that is fully 3D, holistic and tactile. These include convergence of many types of connectivity in a seamless, dynamic way, meaning that every user and device can be automatically linked to the best protocol and connection for its purpose at any one time, and network and cloud resources can be endlessly sliced and re-sliced to support different applications and devices.

That vision of automatic, dynamic, always-best-connected slicing has been with us for more than a decade already, which has only demonstrated just how hard it will be to implement at scale, and even harder to monetize, at least for conventional service providers.

But the very challenge has accelerated progress in enabling true convergence, which has involved contributions from companies and standards groups well beyond the mobile world itself. The fixed broadband industry, via organizations such as the Broadband Forum and CableLabs, has increasingly worked on fixed/mobile convergence specifications that will evolve to be key enablers of converged ‘6G’. Last week, for instance, saw the latest paper from ETSI’s Fixed 5G group, which looks ahead to a dramatic network transformation.

In the IoT, which is expected to be a key driver of 6G hyper-densification, it has long been accepted that many protocols are needed to support the wide diversity of applications and connectivity requirements, and so initiatives, such as the Matter effort, that enable interworking between different protocols are becoming business-critical.

But none of this is to dismiss the importance of continuing cellular network evolution as a critical element of the wider 6G platform, and a key enabler of emerging experiences and applications. Even before the 5G-Advanced releases are defined, many mobile vendors, operators and industry groups are starting to discuss their R&D projects and technical breakthroughs in fundamental areas such as modulation, multiplexing and spectral efficiency, with an eye to higher frequencies than 5G has touched. This is not just a game for large organizations – specialists such as Cohere Technologies, which is profiled today, are also vital for moving the tide of innovation forwards, towards something that, by 2030, we may call 6G.