Plotting the Path to 6G
While still in the midst of implementing 5G cellular capabilities, San Diego’s Qualcomm Technologies is already plotting the course for 6G’s rollout.
Last month, Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM ) hosted a webinar outlining the company’s vision of a 6G world and the technological advances it requires and enables.
“This initial work on 6G is the preparation for this broader focus on where cellular should go next. What will those use cases be in 2030? What are the technologies that will enable the most cost-effective cellular deployment?” said John Smee, senior vice president of engineering at Qualcomm.
‘Great road ahead’
According to the timeline outlined in the presentation, early deployment of 6G capabilities could begin as soon as 2030. Currently, cellular is in the final stages of the initial implementation of 5G and the beginning stages of the rollout of “5G Advanced,” Smee said.
The initial deployment of the 5G platform included innovations such as mobile millimeter wave technology; advances in cellular vehicle-to-everything and industrial IoT uses; a new spectrum above 52.6 GHz; and non-terrestrial networks using satellites. 5G standardization still has “another full five years” ahead of it as 5G advances are researched, optimized and deployed.
“There is a long road ahead for 5G Advanced as we set the stage for 6G,” Smee said.
That path includes implementing smart repeaters for extended coverage; use of AI and machine learning data-driven designs; and advancing augmented reality capabilities.
From the second half of 2026, Qualcomm will start working on the first release of the 6G platform with a goal of initially deploying in 2030.
‘Predict the future’
To begin planning for 6G, Qualcomm engineers are taking a “long view” of where cellular technology and its applications are today and where these applications are headed over the next 15 years, Smee said, specifically citing technologies such as collaborative robotics and holograms.
“Where does that technology need to be in 2030, even in 2035 and 2040,” he said. “It is important to understand that just as 5G addresses the era of 2020 to 2030, 6G addresses the era of 2030 to 2040.”
Smee said understanding the evolution of virtual reality and wireless sensor technologies and use cases for them such as smart hospitals allows engineers to create an “overall core network design” that will allow them to assemble and serve more effectively .
“As we design 6G, it’s not about predicting the future perfectly,” he said. “It’s also about making sure we design the system to be scalable so it can address some of the future’s unknown use cases.”
While some future use cases are unknown, many will be based on advancing current technologies in development such as digital twins for use in medicine and factories, or 3D computers for immersive experiences in the metaverse.
To enable these technologies for use on the cellular network, Smee said 6G will need to evolve the use of AI and machine learning from 5G’s “cross-node” system where the AI on devices and the AI in the network coordinate with each other to a “native” system where the machine learning functions autonomously between the network and devices.
“Technologies such as machine learning and AI can be brought much more fundamentally into 6G than they were in the 5G era that started in the research stage more than 10 years ago,” he said.
In addition to using advances in AI computing, the 6G platform will also need to use advances in core cellular technologies such as an expanded spectrum band.
The 6G spectrum will target all spectrum types and bands, including research on upper midbands and sub terahertz bands. Engineers are also exploring ways to go beyond the licensed spectrum and find ways to share unlicensed spectrum.
“So the 6G spectrum is going to target all types of bands to make sure we have the most economical use of spectrum to meet as many of the use cases and requirements as possible,” Smee said.
Other core technology advances for 6G’s cellular “air interface” include improving antennas to have greater gain and better signal routing to allow more coverage area for the higher frequency bands. A 6G network will also use technology such as small subcells and reconfigurable intelligent surfaces to enable the coverage and positioning required for the large amounts of data expected for the network’s use cases.
“Many of these core technology advances are the ingredients that we can creatively put together to have a compelling 6G-era interface and make sure that we bring that balance of technology evolution while leveraging these core advances,” Smee said.
CEO: Cristiano Amon
Headquarters: San Diego
Business: Manufacturer of processors for mobile phones, computers
Revenue: $33.57 billion (2021)
Stock: QCOM (NASDAQ)
Notable: Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X65 is the first 10 Gigabit 5G modem-to-antenna solution designed for rapid commercialization in mobile broadband, fixed wireless, industrial IoT and 5G private networks.