6G or not 6G? That is the question.

By Josh Simer, AFL Market Strategy and Innovation Manager for Service Providers

Previously in this blog series we talked about generations – in particular how access networks have to stand through multiple generations of active technologies.
Wireless technology is famous for going through distinct “generations,” which we have abbreviated as 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, and now, 5G. Even as we deploy 5G technology, talk has already begun about a “6G” and what that may look like.

The question for an access network builder/operator today is, “What does 6G look like, and what does that mean for how I build my access network today?” But as we ask that, we have to realize how far ahead we are looking. If we follow the typical pattern, we are still years away from having any kind of technical definition of 6G, and about 6–7 years away from the first deployments. Even now, the major industry groups focused on 6G are still broadly defining the technical capabilities they want 6G to have.
Here are a couple of examples of what they have come up with. The first is a graphic from Ericsson, and the second is a list of goals provided by the Next-G Alliance. 

Figure 1: Possible 6G Network Requirements (Source: Ericsson)

Figure 2: 6G Vision and Goals (Source: Next-G Alliance)

What can we pull out of these two sets of requirements and visions that is relevant for an access network operator now? Some implications that we can draw for the physical access network include:
Trust, security and resilience: Fiber is highly secure and not prone to interception as wireless signals are. It is more resilient and not impacted by weather or obstacles, as wireless signals are – especially the higher frequencies used by 5G and potentially by 6G. Thus, fiber has an advantage over other technologies, such as wireless fronthaul/backhaul, when it comes to connecting 6G access points to the wider world.
Distributed cloud and communications systems: In the last decade, we saw a huge trend to centralize computing in enormous “cloud” data centers. This was because there are economies of scale from such centralization. But with 5G and 6G, we will see a push toward minimal latency. This will further drive the rise of “edge” data centers that are closer to subscribers. Fiber will be essential to connect these, as they will have too much incoming and outgoing data for wireless signals to provide. But it is difficult to predict specifically where in the access network these edge data centers will be built.
Sustainability: Fiber requires very little transmission power due to its low loss and directional nature. Once installed, the power requirements are miniscule compared to wireless data. This, too, will argue for fiber connectivity among 6G access points.
Enhanced Digital World Experience/Sensing: Where the Next-G Alliance has identified “Digital World Experience” as the vision, Ericsson has identified “Sensing” as a key part of that vision. This sensing network will involve everything from location data (people, vehicles, shipments, etc.) to temperature to vibration. Here, too, the implications extend beyond the wireless portion of the network. Every fiber network has the potential to be a sensing network, with the right equipment installed at one or both ends. For some applications, this is far more economical and practical than deploying arrays of dedicated sensors. It also uses far less energy. Thus, if "Sensing" is a major goal of deploying 6G, fiber will have a huge role to play there as well.
The next question is, how can those designing and building an access network today, prepare for the network requirements of 6G?  That will be the topic of the next blog.