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3 May 2022

Qualcomm sets out its vision of 6G, with roots firmly in the 5G present

One of the most interesting industry events to take place this year was the Brooklyn 6G Summit, hosted by Nokia and NYU, the latter a pioneer in making very high frequency spectrum usable for mass market applications – one of the few capabilities that most stakeholders agree will be part of 6G, even before standards work has begun.

Including ‘6G’ in the title of a conference can signal either hype or a very blue-sky approach, but in fact, this event took a down-to-earth view, with speakers mapping out the early assumptions for an evolution from 5G to 6G as credibly as they can at this preliminary stage, while also sharing some cutting edge technology ideas related to next generation mobile and cloud platforms.

Qualcomm’s SVP of engineering, John Smee, was one of the speakers, highlighting how the chip company habitually takes a leading role in devising the next generation of mobile standards, in the interests of boosting both its modem and its licensing businesses, by retaining the leadership it has enjoyed at the start of every cellular generation since its CDMA technology was adopted into the mainstream.

Against that context, it was natural that Smee focused on 6G as the next stage in an ongoing evolution of mobile standards, underpinned by foundational chips, patents and capabilities. The 3GPP 5G standards process, to which Qualcomm has been a major contributor, has just reached the end of Release 17 specifications, and is starting to define Release 18, the first to be labelled ‘5G-Advanced’. That will be followed by two more 5G-Advanced releases and then Release 21 is expected to deliver the first set of 6G radio standards around 2029 or 2030.

The 5G-Advanced releases will build on some of the most important foundations of 5G, including Massive MIMO, and will greatly increase the integration of AI/ML and extended reality technologies into the heart of the cellular network and device standards. Smee also pointed to ongoing work in areas such as “integrated access and backhaul or new approaches for repeaters, to extend that topology into more flexible frameworks”.

In 6G, technologies like AI/ML, and enablers of the metaverse, will be built natively into the fully cloud-based networks and also into the devices – a particular area of interest for Qualcomm of course, with its dominance of the system-on-chip market for advanced cellular devices, and its considerable investment in supporting AI functions on the handset or car rather than all on the network or cloud side.

“In the physical world that we’re in today, so many more devices are being connected,” Smee said. “But that data on those devices is also being digitized. That’s giving a huge amount of new traffic from the artificial intelligence and machine learning data itself being exchanged. That digitization and the formation of digital twins is also creating a huge need for communication.”

One of the few aspects of 6G that most people agree on is that it will use even higher frequency spectrum bands than 5G’s millimeter wave, though Smee also dwelt on the development of very efficient coordination methods for dynamic use of large numbers of bands in 6G, “whether it’s 140 GHz in sub-terahertz or even evolving how we’re able to use bands already in use today, whether it’s sub-6 GHz, 7 GHz, bands between 10 and 15 GHz or mmWave”, he said.

For Qualcomm, advances in silicon and materials science, as well as in power management, will be critical to enable it to design the most efficient advanced chipsets that it can. “And we have to put all of that together with an evolving compute topology framework,” said Smee. “What is being virtualized? What is being containerized? How can we have end-to-end updating?”

But before all this, there are the three 5G-Advanced releases to come, with Release 18 due next year. “With Release 18 we enter the second phase of 5G. We have already approved something called ‘5G-Advanced’ starting with Release 18,” Qualcomm’s senior director of technology, Wanshi Chen, the chair of the 3GPP RAN Plenary, said last year.

The key themes of Release 18 are:

  • Network designs featuring edge and cloud computing.
  • New radio designs that support highly efficient technologies such as full-duplex communications.
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) technologies.
  • Coordinated spectrum sharing techniques.
  • Services that merge the physical and digital worlds (XR).
  • Energy efficiency.

To support these overall trends, there will be a long list of specific projects that will enhance 5G further, while starting to look ahead to a roadmap to 6G.

Presentations from over 500 organizations were considered when deciding on the projects for Release 18, when the 3GPP held its first Rel-18 workshop in July.

Juan Montojo, VP of technical standards at Qualcomm and the chip giant’s new 3GPP 5G technical lead, said in an interview that Releases 16 and 17 were mainly charged with expanding 5G to address new verticals, but Release 18 has a new purpose – “to really find a good balance between not only the evolution mobile broadband with other verticals, but also evolution or edification of shorter-term goals with a little bit of a longer term 5G vision”.

That will mean looking into next generation topics within the broad areas listed above, such as AI/ML in both the network and the air interface. “The one for the air interface starts effectively with a clean sheet of paper, where 3GPP is going to try and define how basically we could embrace any resolution or any problem-solving for air interface involving AI/ML,” Montojo said when the roadmap was announced. The standards body has chosen three use cases where AI/ML can deliver improved support for air interface functions – channel state information (CSI) and feedback enhancements, positioning, and beam management.

Another important effort in Release 18 will be to move further towards full duplex, in which transmission and reception can happen at the same time in the same channel, rather than separated by time or frequency as in current TDD and FDD schemes. Several companies, such as Kumu Networks, have developed full duplex technology for wireless and wireline networks, but it has not been standardized for cellular. For mass adoption, the 3GPP needs to simplify the implementation, believes Montojo, and one piece of work will be to create “a non-overlapping frequency where transmission and reception, even though they’re in the same channel, would actually occur adjacent in frequency,” he said.

Improving extended reality (XR) on the radio side will benefit from recently developed modelling of how XR devices and applications affect traffic, and requirements such as data rates and latency. “Now we have a suite of traffic models for all of those applications including online gaming, we can ask what could the radio do differently to better suit those traffic models?” said Montojo.

Other Release 18 efforts will focus on network operations improvements including advanced uplink/downlink for 5G Massive MIMO, advanced dynamic spectrum sharing and carrier aggregation.  Improvements to IAB, and smart repeaters, are also in scope. Smart repeaters would amplify signal selectively based on time, frequency or direction without creating unnecessary interference by turning off when not active, which will be important in dense environments such as mmWave hotzones.

There will also be projects to extend 5G to low-earth orbit satellites and drones, allowing LEOsat to use standard 5G handsets. And a project called NR-Lite, or RedCap, aims to enable bandwidth to be scaled down to as little as 5 MHz for reduced capability 5G devices.