As we cross into the back half of 2021, it has been just over two years since the first 5G commercial networks launched. While subscriber growth has been phenomenal – 3x faster than it took 4G LTE to reach the same subscriber totals and with a pandemic thrown into the mix – uptake has really been a smartphone and fixed broadband story. As successful as it has been, 5G’s true potential is yet to come as operators and enterprises apply its cloud-native standalone (SA) architecture and URLLC capabilities to truly transform industries from manufacturing to healthcare. Many of these new capabilities were introduced in 3GPP Release 15 and enhanced in Release 16 and are now being commercialized in a somewhat limited fashion. Release 17 is coming later this year – bringing enhancements for URLLC and IIOT, non-public networks (NPN), positioning and many more – and Release 18 likely in 2022. In fact, “5G-Advanced” was recently announced by 3GPP to characterize 3GPP Releases 18 and 19 and there is still ongoing standards evolution taking place for 5G.
Therefore, with most of its life in front of it, it may seem odd to begin speculating about what may come beyond 5G. But given the massive transformation we are predicting once 5G becomes the dominant wireless technology in use around the world, it becomes clear that planning for the infrastructure challenges, resource planning, and R&D required for 5G’s successor needs to begin today.
Taking the next step
Recently, I had the privilege to present on these issues in a keynote at this year’s MIT Connected World conference, as well as during a plenary session with the IEEE International Microwave Symposium (IMS). This follows experts from Intel and other leading organizations discussing what’s comes after 5G as part of Intel’s Mobile World Congress programming as well. While we, as an industry, are in the early stage of preparing and doing the pre-standards work that will define the next generation beyond 5G, initial directions show that a fundamental technology focus will be the tight integration of computing with communications and data. Traditionally, networks were designed for the classic client-server model, where the whole network served as the pipe and connected the computing happening at both ends – at the server and the client. With 5G, this has begun to change, as the cloud is moved closer to the device with edge computing and the network can be sliced for different services. It is at this point that computing and communication start to help each other.
Beyond 5G, we expect further integration of computing, communications, and data at the platform level. Computing itself becomes the network’s payload and Artificial Intelligence can be distributed throughout the network, which is a new approach. We expect the next stage in wireless to essentially be a computer distributed throughout an intelligent mobile network. Data services will scale across devices, applications, networks, and to the cloud, informed and managed by AI.
Another important aspect will be the transport network, which will be based on optical networking (as much of it is today), and photonics, which is new and will serve as its own transformative platform for change. The network will be “service aware” so that it can steer traffic to more efficiently distribute traffic throughout the network, alleviating bottlenecks. This change is massive and calls for a next-generation network architecture and protocol stack. It requires an order of magnitude improvement in KPIs and also a new framework to support the computing.
What will be the focus of development beyond 5G?
As a baseline, we’re expecting technology improvements that will address these new requirements and significantly improve upon 5G performance metrics, including an order of magnitude improvement in areas such as performance, resiliency, reliability, and latency. This next-generation protocol will also deliver support for specific vertical market applications. In fact, these industries – from mining to retail to automotive and more – will be a part of the process in creating these new specifications.
In order to enable this massive transformation, we believe a fundamental platform upgrade is required to enable this tight integration of computing, data, and communications in both the network and air interface. This platform will go beyond communication services to provide both computing and data services.
Key technology dimensions that will address these new requirements and significantly improve beyond 5G:
- The first is 10x KPI improvement in such areas as throughput, lower latency, better energy efficiency, and higher spectral efficiency.
- Second is continued support for enterprise verticals – including their various requirements – and designing a scalable network and devices to serve these vertical segments in the most cost-efficient manner.
- The third is the integration of computing and data in the network so that communication can better support computing scaling, communication system operation, and performance.
- Fourth, new capabilities such as precise positioning and sensing can be enabled in the system to provide value add services.
- Finally, security, privacy, and data integrity continue to be crucial for communications systems.
To give you a picture of what types of applications and experiences may be enabled by the next generation, here is a sampling of potential use cases that are being looked at by ‘Beyond 5G’ (I discussed some of these earlier this year in my post on joining Hexa-X).
- Natural Language Processing: Wireless synchronous feedback loops enable Natural Language Processing; (NLP). NLP adds voice-based interfaces and touchless interactions with everything from elevators to point-of-sale systems in grocery stores.
- Smart City & Sensing: Future networks can enable public health monitoring traffic management using cognitive systems, autonomous public safety, natural disaster simulation, and prediction
- Digital Twin: Reduced latency and jitter enables precision time/geolocation, which eventually allows the construction of digital replicas of the physical world
- Energy Efficiency: Computing scaling architecture using silicon photonics interconnect can enable energy consumption on a per-event basis, resulting in drastic reductions in energy consumption
- XR-Interactive Communication: Mixed reality can assist with security surveillance, extend vision for remote driving, guidance for the elderly, and more
- Precision Healthcare and personalized Medical Treatment: This emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person. In order to understand the environment and lifestyle of persons, 24/7 monitoring of vital parameters for both the healthy and the sick through numerous wearable devices will be useful.
The computing and communications network is crucial to achieving this next-generation wireless system’s goals. With the broad product portfolio and deep technology expertise in computing, communication and interconnect, Intel is in a unique position to be part of the core of this new wireless technology’s development and commercialization. We are already working with industry consortia such as Next G in the U.S., Hexa-X in the EU, and the IOWN Global Forum to lay the foundation for this next stage in our own wireless evolution.