5G communications protocols were developed in 2017 and while the service is not yet universally available, research for next generation 6G technology is already underway. As consumer devices evolve, more people are benefiting from the faster speeds. But what is the status of 5G implementation and what challenges stand in the way of network operators improving coverage for their customers? Furthermore, could new O-band technology provide a route around these obstacles and even lay the foundations for the data requirements of 6G?
Each mobile network generation consolidates the use cases of its predecessor and adds new capabilities for consumers. For example, 2G, released in 1990 introduced digital voice calls and text messages, while 3G added web browsing on smartphones. 5G started to spread globally around 2020 and brought faster mobile broadband and lower latency. 6G, which is currently in a research state, builds on the need for larger data storage capabilities and faster bandwidth speed for applications like extended reality (XR), edge computing or smart cities.
Fast track for 5G
During the pandemic, data network operators encountered up to a 60 per cent increase in traffic compared to pre-pandemic years, according to the OECD. To meet this demand, network operators ramped up the development of 5G, putting Europe ahead of its planned rollout targets at around 65 per cent. Targets set out by the European Commission include 100 per cent coverage of at least low-band 5G (Sub-6 Ghz) for all areas by the end of 2030 and 100 per cent coverage of urban areas by 2025.
Meanwhile, in February 2022 the UK Government announced plans to simplify the way councils share information with network providers regarding the use of publicly-owned buildings and curb side infrastructure to increase 5G coverage.
6G on the horizon
Over the next three to five years, operators’ priority will be deploying 5G. However, 6G is already being researched and the first commercial deployment could be expected as early as 2026 in major cities, like Beijing, London, Tokyo and New York, that have a strong investment in telecommunications. However, 6G Flagship estimates that general rollout will likely happen in the 2030s.
“The requirements for 6G could see latency reduced by five times compared to 5G, with the bandwidth being a few times higher,” Marcin Bała, CEO of telecommunications solutions provider Salumanus, explains. “These improvements will enhance the experience of virtual reality: the higher data transmission and low latency will make for a more immersive experience. Areas such as IoT and AI will also be able to make faster, better-informed decisions.”
Another benefit of 6G will be improved location accuracy. An article from 6G World explains how the new network will use radar-like technology that enables positioning accuracy below one centimetre. It also works in complete darkness and in conditions of fog or rain. This is particularly useful for self-driving cars, because they rely on having a detailed understanding of their surroundings to make safe and accurate navigation decisions.
Overcoming 6G’s energy challenges
When using low band 5G, operators can use the same infrastructure as 4G, just with optimisation. However, when increasing the frequency to a higher bandwidth, such as 24–100 GHz in the millimetre wave spectrum, it becomes necessary to add more base stations close together. This means that high band 5G and 6G are only feasible in urban areas.
It is this necessity to add base stations which is the source of a few problems. Firstly, adding them to populated areas has resulted in pushback from citizens who do not want these towers close to their homes. Lastly, more base stations mean higher energy usage, which given the current energy crisis, is proving to be a huge issue for operators.
The way forward
To keep up with the increasing demand for data at lower latency while reducing energy consumption, network providers must upgrade their existing infrastructure. Many network providers still rely on 10 Gbps and 25 Gbps connections for transferring data to and from base stations using optical cables. However, the upgrade to speeds such as 100 Gbps are becoming more necessary and will, in time, become the new standard.
“Laying more cable is not always the best way to achieve this,” Bala adds. “The cost, disruptive nature and time restrictions make that option unfeasible. A promising alternative lies in transceivers and multiplexers, which can enable the upgrade to 100 Gbps using existing cable infrastructure.”
Multiplexers increase data transmission speed by providing multiple channels through which optical signals can pass. Rather than sending one signal down one fibre, optical multiplexing, or Wavelength Division Multiplexing (WDM), combines multiple signals at different wavelengths to maximise the utility of individual fibres.
O-band technology refers to the ‘original band’ of wavelengths, 1260-1360 nm. The minimal signal dispersion at the corresponding frequencies makes the O-band optimal for high-speed internet communication. Simultaneously sending signals at multiple wavelengths within this range allows network managers to boost data transmission on existing cables from 10 Gbps to 100 Gbps without increasing energy consumption or maintenance costs.
Additionally, using passive multiplexers will eliminate the need for active, powered equipment in the aggregation nodes that connect the base stations, further reducing energy consumption. This maintains an optical connection throughout, keeping latency at a minimum.
As the rollout of 5G networks continues, and the prospect of 6G capabilities comes ever nearer, technologically innovative solutions will be needed to help network operators meet the growing demand for data speeds. O-band technology is, and will be, an important tool in their arsenal to minimise infrastructure costs and maximise data transmission speeds.