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Plotting the Path to 6G

TECH: Qualcomm Already Plotting Rollout

While still in the middle of implementing 5G cellular capabilities, San Diego’s Qualcomm Technologies is already plotting the course for 6G’s rollout.

Last month, Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) presented a webinar outlining the company’s vision of a 6G world and the technological advances it will both require and enable.

John Smee
Senior Vice President, Engineering
Qualcomm Technologies

“This initial work on 6G is setting the stage for this broader focus on where cellular needs to go next. What are going to be those use cases in 2030? What are the technologies that are going to enable the most cost-effective cellular deployment?” said John Smee, senior vice president of engineering at Qualcomm.

‘Huge Path Ahead’

According to the timeline laid out in the presentation, early deployment of 6G capabilities could begin as soon as 2030.  Currently, cellular is in the ending stage of the initial implementation of 5G and the beginning stage of rolling out “5G Advanced,” Smee said.

The initial rollout of the 5G platform included innovations like mobile millimeter wave technology; advancements 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 while 5G advancements are being researched, optimized and deployed.

“There’s a huge path ahead of us for 5G Advanced as we’re setting the stage for 6G,” Smee said.

That path includes implementing smart repeaters for extended coverage; utilizing AI and machine learning data-driven designs; and advancing extended reality capabilities.

Starting in the second half of 2026, Qualcomm will begin work on the first release of the 6G platform with a goal of initial deployment in 2030.

‘Predicting 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 heading over the next 15 years, Smee said, and specifically cited technologies like collaborative robotics and holograms.

“Where does that technology need to be in 2030, even in 2035 and 2040,” he said. “It’s important to understand that just as 5G is addressing the era of 2020 to 2030, 6G is addressing the era of 2030 into 2040.”

Smee said understanding the evolution of technologies virtual reality and wireless sensors and use cases for it like smart hospitals allows engineers to create an “overall core network design” that will enable them to be put together and serve more effectively.

“As we’re designing 6G, it’s not about perfectly predicting the future,” he said. “It’s also about making sure we’re designing the system to be scalable so it can address some the future’s unknown use cases.”

Core Technologies

Although some future use cases are unknown, many will be based on advancing current technology in development like digital twins for use in medicine and factories, or 3D computing 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 operates autonomously between the network and devices.

“Technologies like machine learning and AI can be brought to bear much more foundationally in 6G than they were in the 5G era that started in the research stage more than 10 years ago,” he said.

In addition to utilizing advancements in AI computing, the 6G platform will also need to utilize advancements in core cellular technologies like an expanded spectrum band.

The 6G spectrum will target all spectrum types and bands, including research into upper mid-bands 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 advancements for 6G’s cellular “air interface” include improving antennae to have higher gain and better steering of signal to enable more coverage area for the higher frequency bands. A 6G network will also utilize technologies like small sub cells and reconfigurable intelligent surfaces to enable the coverage and positioning needed for the vast amounts of data expected for the network’s use cases.

“A lot of these core technology advancements are the ingredients that we can put together creatively to have a compelling 6G era interface and make sure we’re bringing that balance of technology evolution and at the same time leveraging these core advancements,” Smee said.

Qualcomm Technologies

Founded: 1985
CEO: Cristiano Amon
Headquarters: San Diego
Business: Manufacturer of processors for mobile phones, computers
Revenue: $33.57 billion (2021)
Stock: QCOM (NASDAQ)
Employees: 41,000
Website:  www.qualcomm.com
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.

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