Although 5G is ushering in massive improvements in the capacity of mobile networks, there is still room for further advances in mobile communications. With this in mind, future-conscious researchers have already started working on the 6G standard. One of the major advantages of the new standard will be the integration of artificial intelligence (AI), allowing the network to adapt flexibly to changing requirements. In our interview, Bernhard Niemann explains why Fraunhofer IIS is conducting research into 6G, what benefits the future standard will bring, and what technical challenges the researchers will need to overcome.
Mr. Niemann, the 5G standard is yet to be fully defined, but you’re already conducting research into 6G. What’s the rationale for beginning work on the successor standard now?
The standardization of 5G is in full swing, the frequencies are being auctioned off, and rollout is getting underway around the world. In major cities, the first 5G networks have been activated and are available for use. This is usually the point at which those of us in the research community start to turn our minds to a successor standard.
Some initial research projects are therefore looking at issues relating to technology drivers and possible use cases for 6G. It’s also expected that 3GPP standardization activities will begin in 2024 with a view to having the 6th generation of mobile communications actually available in the field in 2030. For us, as an application-oriented research institute, now is therefore the perfect time to immerse ourselves in the development of the successor to 5G.
Are you in a position to say anything about the potential new applications of the 6th generation of mobile network technology? And what about the benefits we can look forward to with 6G?
As with all previous generations of mobile network technology, 6G will obviously be a logical next step in the development of the existing standard while also offering completely new capabilities. This next step will include things like a further increase in data rate and connection density. In other words, 6G will be able to supply even more people with an even higher data rate within a given area. Moreover, what began with 5G will also continue with 6G. There’s expected to be another considerable reduction in latency, and the positioning functionality will become quite a bit more precise. Mobile platforms and satellite integration will also play a much greater role than they did in the past.
The disruptive leap forward in terms of innovation will probably come with the transition to higher frequencies in the terahertz range – that is, beyond 100 gigahertz – as well as the substantial integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into the network. On the one hand, the use of terahertz frequencies will provide us with an extremely high data throughput rate at very short ranges. On the other hand, the satellite components will offer very widespread coverage with lower data throughput – and in-between will be the traditional infrastructure that we’re already familiar with. Ultimately, by combining these three elements, it’ll be possible to make the whole network much more diverse and – thanks to AI – much more flexible, so that it can adapt to the prevailing requirements at a specific time and place.
What role will artificial intelligence (AI) play in all of this?
Artificial intelligence will be used in several places. The first application will be in the radio access network – for example, to control intelligent antennas or for the allocation of frequency resources. On the other hand, AI will also play an important role in the core network, where the key thing is to automatically adapt core network functions to the requirements of the corresponding use cases and applications.
What do you think will be the greatest technical challenges during research into the future 6G standard?
The greatest challenges will undoubtedly stem from the transition to terahertz frequencies, because this calls for completely new concepts for both signal generation and antennas. New concepts will also be needed for the core network, simply because the ranges are much shorter than is possible with traditional mobile wireless frequencies or in the millimeter-wave range.
What is the focus of your research activities?
In relation to 5G, our main areas of activity are the integration of satellites into 5G networks, low-latency and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communication, and the use of massive MIMO antennas in the millimeter-wave range.
We will of course continue working on all of these topics in a similar manner for 6G. That will involve developing millimeter-wave research, transmission methods, antennas, and beam forming specifically for the terahertz range. Another key area for us is the integration of satellites into mobile communications networks, including in the form of mega-constellations – and it goes without saying that, in the context of 6G, we’ll continue to work on infrastructure-less V2X communication so that vehicles can send signals to one another directly without any delay. Moreover, the use of the terahertz frequency range in an industrial setting offers new possibilities for robot communication and high-precision positioning.