Wireless networks are everything but wireless. The “core” part is basically undistinguishable from the wireline network, however, their edges are quite different, of course, comprising base stations, poles, antennas … but still very “fixed” indeed. For many years these edges have been “passive”, dumb. Their role was to convert the radio signal into an electrical current that could flow on a wire (or into photons that can flow in a fibre) and the other way round.
In these last few years antennas have become progressively smart managing several radio communications in parallel (phased-array antennas, see the photo) enabling lower power emission (since the radio beam is focussed on the receiving antenna, rather than being spread around) and higher bandwidth (since several communication beams can be used in parallel – MIMO). This is part of the 4G network and an essential component of the 5G network. You can bet that 6G will make use of even more sophisticated antennas.
More than this, the edge is now slowly being transformed into an active part of the network with the ultimate goal of becoming a network by itself, connected to other networks, one of this being the core network. The base station is becoming a power horse, including a growing amount of storage and processing power, so big in fact that it can be mistaken for a small cloud.
Indeed, the edge evolution is towards the support of cloud at the edge (starting to morph into a fog) and computing at the edge. This is in the 5G architecture and it will be clearly part of the 6G.
However, with 6G (but we have the potential of seeing this starting in 5G in the second part of this decade) the edge will extend to include the devices, be them smartphones, robots, vehicles, or … “people”.
The need for an intelligent edge in 5G has been proved by several trials. Very low latency can only be achieved if the communication is managed by the edge, you cannot rely on the core network. This is the case when vehicle to vehicle communications is needed for collision avoidance at an intersection (incoming vehicles have to agree the order in which they cross the intersection).
With edge cloud and edge computing, a possible evolution of the 5G in the second part of this decade and a sure thing for 6G we start to lose the concept of a core terminated by an edge. Rather, we are shifting towards a network of network architecture where edges are just other networks. If this reminds you the Internet architecture, that’s good because this is the case. Networks can be added and they interplay with one another, mostly trying to manage all traffic internally and diverting the traffic to other “contiguous” networks when the traffic is not intended to remain local. This requires intelligence and as a matter of fact it also requires awareness of the context. It is no longer a predefined structure where it is known from the start what resources will be involved and how to seize them, rather it becomes a dynamic allocation that changes depending on the originator and on the context at that particular time. Sometimes this is also known as “semantic” network, because the network need to understand the meaning of that communication ”session” and work out a way to accommodate it.