The path to 5G and 6G connectivity

The adoption of 5G is now underway, and early adopters in enterprise and retail sectors are enjoying the benefits of fixed wireless access. This “cord cutting” remains a big step forward, thanks to the speed and low latency that 5G provides. In the industrial sector, specifically in smart-factory applications, private 5G networks are becoming cornerstones, largely due to the availability of new mid-band spectrum and the options for enterprises to leverage it.

5G for enterprises

In 2020, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made available 150 MHz of prime mid-band spectrum for general authorized access (GAA) in the 3.55- to 3.7-GHz range — also known as Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), part of the C-band — and subsequently for priority access licenses (PALs) through Auction 105, raising $4.5 billion. More recently, the FCC completed Auction 108, raising $427.8 million across 73 rounds of bidding. The auction, intended to fill wireless gaps in rural areas, included 8,017 county-based overlay licenses in the 2.5-GHz band covering blocks in 49.5 MHz, 50.5 MHz, and 17.5 MHz in each county.

Freeing up spectrum is part of the FCC’s 5G FAST Plan to update infrastructure policies and promote 5G investment in the private sector for the benefit of consumers and businesses. The plan includes satellite operators using the C-band to repack their operations out of the band’s lower 300 MHz (3.7–4.0 GHz) into the upper 200 MHz (4.0–4.2 GHz).

The first phase, which involved clearing 120 MHz of spectrum from 3.7 to 3.82 GHz in 46 of the nation’s top 50 Programmatic Environmental Assessments (PEAs), concluded Dec. 5, 2021. The second phase, clearing the lower 120 MHz of spectrum in the remaining PEAs plus an additional 180 MHz from 3.82 to 4.0 GHz nationwide — will conclude by Dec. 5, 2023. This effort is an important component of the comprehensive strategy to facilitate America’s superiority in 5G technology.

Today, enterprises have the option to use any of the following: spectrum from a licensed wireless provider, shared spectrum from the GAA tier of the CBRS band, or licensed spectrum from one of the organizations that purchased CBRS PALs in the FCC 2020 auction.

John Deere, for example, purchased PALs for the CBRS spectrum for its global headquarters and manufacturing facilities in Rock Island, Illinois, as well as Scott County, Dubuque, Polk County, and Black Hawk County in Iowa, with a 2022 deployment window. This is a prime example of a large enterprise with facilities in rural areas that rely ON automation and high-speed connectivity.

In Europe, enterprise customers can also tap into mid-band spectrum through licensed spectrum. 5G band n78 (3,500 MHz), commonly referred to as the 3.5-GHz 5G band or C-band 5G, is very popular. It is the most tested and deployed 5G frequency and its popularity is due to its common availability. It is naturally limited by the propagation characteristics of the higher frequencies, which allows for finer-grain licensing — for example, in a commercial building, in a smart factory, or on a campus.

The transition to 5G brings higher bandwidth and increased reliability to more connected devices, but the real advantage stems from the decrease in latency, particularly for applications that previously required a wired connection. In addition to gaming, virtual/augmented reality, medicine, and manufacturing are using 5G for simulation training that can reduce mistakes in the physical realm.

5G’s lower latency also helps reduce the time that semi-autonomous vehicles need to react to dangers like pedestrians, road construction, and environmental conditions. For industrial automation, 5G is enabling machines to detect abnormalities in components, send alerts, and stop conveyor belts in real time, with sensors responding within milliseconds.

The path to 6G

Because speed, low latency, and security are the top priorities for Industry 4.0, it’s no surprise the 6G discussion is in full swing. On Aug. 18, 2022, the ATIS Next G Alliance (NGA) released two new reports: “6G Distributed Cloud and Communications System” and “Trust, Security and Resilience for 6G Systems.” These documents advance two of the “Six Audacious Goals” foundation of the NGA’s 6G vision. The goals address advancement of trust, security, and resilience; an enhanced digital world experience; cost efficiency spanning all aspects of the network architecture; distributed cloud and communications systems; an AI-native future network; and sustainability.

While 5G primarily brings faster internet speeds and greater security than Wi-Fi on smartphones and other connected devices through cellular networks, 6G technology will offer dramatic improvements. Although not expected to be operational until 2030, 6G will provide speeds as high as 1 terabit per second on an IoT device — 1,000× faster than 1 Gbit/s, which is the fastest speed available on most of today’s home internet connections.

This will unleash a wide range of capabilities, perhaps even eliminating the need for smartphones altogether. That bold vision comes from Nokia CEO Pekka Lundmark, who alluded to this at the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2022. Smart glasses and other wearables will likely replace phones, while Neuralink founder Elon Musk is working on implanted devices for the brain. He’s not alone: Yuval Noah Harari, a prominent member of the WEF, predicted that we will soon have the ability to reengineer our bodies through genetic engineering by directly connecting brains to computers, or by creating new AI entities -organic entities. Holographic communication will also likely get a boost from 6G.

In a recent IEEE Spectrum study, scientists considered the technical requirements and challenges of 6G and applications potentially enabling a “high-fidelity holographic society,” in which remote users will “appear” to perform tasks from technical troubleshooting and repairs to remote surgeries and educational instruction. The study also covers the concept of a haptic internet. “We believe that a variety of sensory experiences may get integrated with holograms,” the authors wrote. “To this end, using holograms as the medium of communication, emotion-sensing wearable devices capable of monitoring our mental health, facilitating social interactions, and improving our experience as users will become the building blocks of networks of the future.”

Other use cases noted include the concept of high-rate “information showers.” These are hotspots where terabits-per-second data transfer rates in mobile edge computing and space-terrestrial integrated networks can be experienced. Of course, there are many challenges, including the need for advanced Semiconductor technology, new hardware infrastructure, and power consumption.

Like 5G, 6G will require massive numbers of sensors and access points to ensure connectivity. Standards bodies are already researching this to optimize energy usage — for example, through AI-driven, self-optimizing networks. Of course, some of this research is being applied to 5G, particularly regarding data centers.

Servers, cooling systems, storage drives, and network devices require tremendous amounts of energy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, data centers use 10× to 50× the energy per square foot of a typical office building. Combined, these data centers account for approximately 2% of total U.S. electricity usage. And that number is expected to rise as more devices (e.g., high-resolution cameras and sensors) connect and more data is generated. Optimizing power use at the infrastructure level and at the device level is paramount. 6G is ideal for zero-power sensors that harvest their energy from radio waves and thus can operate indefinitely.

Every new generation of connectivity is accompanied by a great deal of hype and excitement — and 5G and 6G are no exceptions. It would be accurate to say that 5G is still in its infancy and that 6G is still a visionary concept. As technology experts, it is our responsibility to cut through the hype and work diligently with customers and markets to understand the problems we’re trying to solve — and introduce the right products at the right time.