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

The already existing “private LTE” is evolving and expanding into private 5G. The low latency available at the edges when using 5G creates n effective communications fabric inside factories and small areas where robots/autonomous systems operate (like a shipping yard). Communications takes place among robots in the customer premises, involving, when required, the edge network. Applications requiring ultra low latency reside on the customer premises with the edge supporting real-time functionality accepting some 10ms delay. Image credit: Metaswitch


A growing population of robots is turning into avid communications users. According to the latest statistics (World Robotics 2020) there are some 2.7 million industrial robots at work around the world in factories, in Singapore there is one robot for every 10 human workers in a factory. And, notice, industrial robots are just the tip of the iceberg, once you consider robots in mining, in healthcare, in the supply and delivery chain (just Amazon has got 200,000 robots working in its warehouses as of January 2020), not to mention domestic robots, expected to become part of 79 million homes in the next four years.

What is important to consider is that robots are becoming more and more aware of their environment, act as autonomous systems (this goes hand in hand with awareness) and cooperate with one another and with humans. All of this requires communications.

The reason I started by making reference to industrial robots is because this is the area where we are starting to see an evolution that will pave the way to 6G: private 5G.

5G has been designed to deliver very low latency. However, this is possible in the single digit (less than 10 ms) only if one considers the radio link, the radio access network, meaning that once you enter the core network it becomes a gamble to ensure low latency.

On the other hand, very low latency is something required when you are dealing with “local” communications, if you were to communicate with a rover on Mars your latency will be measured in minutes, not in ms! Autonomous systems, like the ones that are evolving in factories, may require low latency. If these autonomous systems are actually operating through the cyberspace, like is the case in the use of Digital Twins at stage IV, or in collaborating through the cyberspace, like is the case in the use of Digitale Twins at stage III, then they may need low latency, something that can only be assured is communications is managed locally. This is where “private 5G” comes handy. 

Siemens, one of the major providers of factory tools, and robots, is integrating private 5G in its offer and Mindsphere, their platform supporting operation through Digital Twins, is evolving to include private 5G local area communications.

Shifting the focus from the core network to the devices using the network and providing a local communications fabric that is in synch, dynamically, with service request is a step towards 6G.

It is also a significant step in changing the perception from communications as a Telco dependent service to a local facility that can be provided by third parties, starting from those that are providing other tools for the factory. Actually, these providers are starting to see the communications fabric as an integral part of their offer. The next step will be to use that local communication fabric (and services) to customise the core network, by taking over the network slicing (SDN and NFV from the edges).

In the next decade we will likely see autonomous systems creating a communications bubble around them and as these comm bubbles overlap they create a communication fabric. Most importantly, these bubbles and the context they create are “service-based”. It will be up to each specific service, and service instance, to create the communications gateways to access functionalities and share data.

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 New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. 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.