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6G does not exist, yet it is already here! – IX

A prototype of a phased-array antennas for mm wave communications fitting inside a smartphone. Each of the dots is an antenna, Electronic circuits steer the electrical signal to one or more of these elemental antennas forming multiple beams that sustain higher bandwidth communications. Image credit: Shanghai University and IEEE

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.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.

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