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  • One of the key challenges about 6G will be operating in ultra-high frequencies—in terahertz—and AT&T has started internal corporate development and external research at 60 U.S. universities to shape solutions for the next generation of wireless communication. Credit: Shutterstock/Den Rise
     One of the key challenges about 6G will be operating in ultra-high frequencies—in terahertz—and AT&T has started internal corporate development and external research at 60 U.S. universities to shape solutions for the next generation of wireless communication. Credit: Shutterstock/Den Rise

6G Will Blur the Lines Between the Physical and Digital Worlds

The Cyber Edge
March 1, 2021
By Kimberly Underwood
E-mail About the Author

Future communications will bring the power of an intense network to any immediate environment.

The telecommunications industry is currently rolling out the fifth-generation wireless network known as 5G, which is bringing more bandwidth, lower latency, high-speed throughput, improved reliability and increased connectivity to mobile communications. Off of that advancing communications point will come 6G, the sixth iteration of the wireless network.

It may be hard to imagine, as 5G is just at the early stages of bringing these advancements in addition to enabling distributed edge cloud, federated artificial intelligence and improved data processing capabilities. But experts are painting a vision of what 6G might entail: high frequency operations, ultra-low latency and massive connectivity. 6G will drive user experience to almost unimaginable heights, driven by artificial intelligence and other predictive capabilities.

Essentially, 6G will blur the lines between the physical and digital worlds, says Mazin Gilbert, vice president of network analytics and automation at AT&T. “Today it’s very clear what’s physical and what’s virtual,” he says. “And that divide, that distance between the virtual and the physical worlds will just collapse in the next years. These things that you sometimes see in the movies, such as mixed-augmented reality, or holographic communication, will become mainstream. 5G is going to show us those experiences in different contexts or different situations, but in the next G, 6G, they are mainstream.”

The telecommunications company is in the middle of deploying 5G, the vice president says. “AT&T’s priorities are our network—the wireless 5G network—the wireline fiber network and software-defined entertainment,” he notes. “My job is to support the intelligence, the analytics, the optimization and the automation of our crown jewel, the network itself.” Gilbert, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering with a focus on artificial intelligence, also has a Master of Business Administration, which has proved helpful in balancing innovation within the company’s business constructs.

To prepare for 5G and set the foundation for 6G, AT&T spent several years creating a software-defined network, where “everything becomes software,” Gilbert notes. They are designing a virtualized, disaggregated and open network. And last year, the company achieved the milestone of having virtualized 75 percent of its core network. “That’s very key in our journey to 5G,” he adds. “We are part of a consortium called ORAN [Operator Defined Open and Intelligent Radio Access Networks] to really drive us towards software. That is a very important part regarding costs. If you can’t get into software, you’re not going to be able to get your cost to a point where you could allow massive connectivity, massive densification.”

The vice president emphasizes that while 6G is only “a vision to be made,” as the so-called Third Generation Partnership Project, or 3GPP, standards haven’t even been formed yet, AT&T has started to consider the next generation of mobile telecommunications. “A lot of our conversations today are really about where we see 6G heading. 5G has started already and that is a foundation,” he states. “And for you to think about 6G, you need to think about where is this 5G journey leading us, as 6G will take off from there.”

Where 5G offers high frequency spectrum operations, going from low-band frequency to mid-band frequency to millimeter-wave frequency, in the range of about 24, 28, 32, to 39 gigahertz, the 6G spectrum is going up to terahertz, Gilbert notes. “That is one big change of going from 5G to 6G,” he says. “We are going from millimeter wave spectrum to terahertz spectrum.”

As for latency, or the time delay between sending and receiving information on the telecommunications network, 5G will offer latency in milliseconds. Meanwhile, 6G is expected to offer ultra-low latency, in microseconds, or 1,000 times lower latency than 5G. “To be able to operate at these higher frequencies and densify our network, it will really allow us to have this ultra-high throughput, and it will allow us to have this very, very low latency,” the vice president explains.

And that latency—and throughput and performance—is going to be disaggregated all over the network, Gilbert continues. “When I say low latency, it will probably be impossible for you to know the difference between any form of application or intelligence running in the network, in the core of the network, on the edge of the network, on the cell side or even closer to your device.”

In addition, 6G will further harness distributed intelligence, and with edge cloud capabilities, put artificial intelligence and machine learning applications closer to the end user, whether for a manufacturing facility or the warfighter, changing user experiences and growing efficiencies. “We are going to aggressively push the cloud to be distributed in the edge, distributed in what we call the AT&T MEC and the A&E, our mobile edge cloud and our network cloud,” the vice president says.

Notably, how AT&T is pursuing 6G is fundamentally similar to how it tackled previous wireless generations, Gilbert observes, citing development in telecommunications forums, standards bodies and technology groups. “I’ll use an example of how we’ve tackled 5G,” he states. “We usually found or co-found forums to have the conversations across operators and across partners and vendors, such as what we have done with the 5G Americas [group]. That is what we’ve also done with ATIS, the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions alliance, to discuss the next G. And for the next G, the train has started. I see that in several fronts.”

Last November, ATIS, which includes 50 board members from industry in addition to about 30 founding members from telecommunication and computing companies, launched its Next G Alliance effort to begin the dialogue of defining the vision for 6G in North America. “Of course, it takes a village to build a new G, from vendors to partners to Telco’s [telecommunications companies] like us, to cloud providers,” Gilbert states. “There are several forums that we are part of, or we have founded, that are starting to think about this next G and what it will entail.”

Another front is the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which will develop the necessary 3GPP standards for 6G. Gilbert expects that AT&T will again help contribute to what the specifications, requirements and standards will be for the next generation of wireless technology. “We are learning a lot from 5G, and we’re embedding that learning into what the next G should be,” he shares.

The company also has funded 6G research and development at 60 universities to spur related capabilities and answer tough questions about how technologies will support high frequency operations, provide ultra-low latency and enable massive connectivity.

“One of the key things about the next G is operating in ultra-high frequency spectrum terahertz. Think about 300 gigahertz and beyond,” Gilbert suggests. “To operate at this high frequency, it brings a lot of challenges. Massive densification is needed for 6G, and to enable this ultra-high densification, you’ll have to densify your network, so practically every few meters you have to have a cell site or an antenna. How is that even possible to have an ultra-small antenna every few meters? That is a big challenge.”

Operating at such a high frequency also creates penetration challenges, whereas the waveform cannot go through different mediums, walls or substances. “Think of your house and how this is not going to penetrate into your house or building, and how do we solve that,” the vice president ponders. “And how are we going to be able to run this in a cost-effective, energy-efficient way from a from an expense and a capital point of view?”

Internally, AT&T is examining distributed intelligence, Gilbert notes. “Of course, our bread and butter is the distributed intelligence, the artificial intelligence, because those are the experiences that we provide our customers,” he states.

“One of the foundational challenges is making sure that [customers] wherever they are, get the best experience anytime, anywhere,” Gilbert suggests. “And it doesn’t matter what you are using. If you decide to have a holographic communication or do some texting, or pop into your driverless car, whatever you decide to do, your demand will change throughout the day. Some of those demands may require very low latency or very high throughput or lots of compute wherever you are. And you want that to happen without asking for it. So how can we design this next G network in such a way that every person gets the best experience they seek and they need at anytime and anywhere? It means that we have to be so smart about optimizing the network, dynamically moving around resources, anticipating what everybody wants. In the virtual world, in this traffic optimization with our network, that is why software is so important. This is why compute at the edge is so important because you have to do this closer to everybody. All of those are areas we are researching heavily, and we’re building aggressively in 5G and leading to that in 6G.”

Overall, Gilbert estimates that the next generation of wireless communications will take about a decade. “5G didn’t happen magically,” he stresses. “5G happened with five to 10 years of research paving the way for us to basically go nationwide with 5G, and 6G is basically the same thing. So, we’ve started to fuel research in universities to start thinking ahead because we see a lot of the challenges that are going to take us into the 5G journey and into 6G.”

However, as the next generation of wireless communications appears, it must be applicable to the consumer. “It is the road to getting us there, of making it mainstream, scalable for use anytime, anywhere, for anyone and at a cost-effective price point,” Gilbert states. “It has to be at a price point that everyone can afford and having the spectrum to do that anywhere. It is all about convergence.”

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