Adoption of 5G is continuing at such a rapid pace, analysts now predict that 5G connections will reach nearly 2 billion worldwide by the end of this year. With such a successful track record for 5G, are we really ready to start talking about another G? The short answer is “yes.”
6G will build on top of today’s functionality, enhancing energy efficiency flexibility and high reliability. Plus, 6G technology will enable growth to handle all the variances — known and unknown — with minimal human intervention. That is because to deliver on all that 6G promises, next-generation mobile networks will require a higher level of automation, virtualization and flexibility.
Hopes for 6G technology are already high, with expectations for holographic and virtual reality (VR) functions, as well as 3D touch and intelligence powered by machine learning (ML) algorithms. All this places greater demands on the network, requiring lower latency, higher capacity, faster speeds, and support for an ever-increasing number of users enabling a more immersed digital experience like digital replication or “twinning” or advancements in robotics and health. That means another network evolution may be in the works… but not in the way we might expect.
6G degrees of separation
Ultimately, the purpose of all these 6G technological advancements is to make mobility more human-centric; ironically, that requires lots of automation and virtualization. And it is not just virtualization in terms of moving software off dedicated hardware, but also striking the right balance between physical network functions (PNFs) and virtual network functions (VNFs). For example, some functions will make sense to virtualize near the edge, while others will be virtualized in the core. On the other hand, some functions will only make sense as a PNF on the local network. In other words: virtualize where you can; rely on physical network elements where you must.
Demands on infrastructure increase with virtualization regardless of where in the network the compute resides. This means networks will have to change based on demands and where heavy versus light compute functions are needed, whether at the edge or the core. As a result, greater automation will be needed to improve flexibility for dynamic allocation of resources. Adding to all this, 5G is moving towards being more cloud-native. In fact, by the time 6G arrives, it will be the norm with clouds overlaid on each other creating a bit of a cloud city across metro networks.
Virtualization will also bring to light functions that have classically been in the background. The abstraction layer will be one of the key components “hiding” in the hardware from the upper functions, such as the operating system. Moreover, greater reliance on ML and artificial intelligence (AI) will be required for managing and optimizing key performance indicators (KPIs). Interestingly, the location of AI/ML functions may not be limited, as there will be use cases at the edge as well as centrally located in the network.
Greater reliance on AI and ML would not only assist with network function automation, but also enable a greater variety of use cases. For example, the improved performance of sensor technologies is expected to lead to greater automation of processes that previously relied on skilled workers and manual labor. Additionally, the automobile as a means of transportation will evolve further, with various devices installed on the road and in vehicles sharing information back and forth about the immediate environment. This will facilitate control of driving speed and other factors, which will not only resolve traffic congestion, but also greatly improve driver and pedestrian safety.
In all of this, specific-use hardware will not go away, but much of what is done in the network will be virtualized. Hardware will see the largest amount of evolution as technology advances, leading to disaggregation and even more virtualization. But what does all this mean for network architecture?
Open to 6G innovation
The key to realizing 6G is flexible innovation. Open RAN principles provide the cornerstone for a fluid evolution to the next G, delivering greater flexibility for mobile network operators (MNOs) and subscribers alike. Indeed, Open RAN architecture is expected to simplify the evolution to 6G.
Because 6G mobile networks will use much higher frequencies, cell radius will be reduced, severely limiting the ability to penetrate buildings. To address these changes, radios will need to be located closer to subscriber devices and indoor deployments will increase. To economically deploy large quantities of RUs indoors, operators will need a wider range of form factors, and possibly even new kinds of fronthaul. Open interfaces between DU and RU will offer MNOs a much greater selection of RUs with different form factors and configuration options.
Evolution to Open RAN means operators no longer must wait for R&D cycles with their preferred vendors, instead looking to vendor partners who can augment their network in groundbreaking ways through multi-vendor, multi-domain standardized interfaces and processes. This creates the “best of breed” — not just at initial deployment, but throughout the network lifecycle and even when the next generation arrives.
For the user, this translates to greater experiences that can come as soon as a technology is available. As a result, the overall customer experience will benefit from technological advancement at the speed of innovation, allowing subscribers to live their best life.
Flexibility with growth potential requires a multi-vendor, standardized connectivity, allowing MNOs to continually access the latest and greatest advancements. Unknown technologies of the future should not be left to a select few, as innovation can come from anywhere and that technology should not be beholden to specific vendors’ implementation. Flexible, open software responding to AI-driven insights from the network can be incorporated quickly to advance network capabilities, increase the user convenience, and improve overall quality of experience (QoE).
In the end, these improved experiences will require open, ubiquitous and proven standards that directly correlate to operational ease, faster time to market for new services and greater revenue. This is key to moving at the speed of innovation.