With 5G just beginning to be rolled out around the world, the industry has already started looking ahead to the future, 6G. Given that 5G is the most advanced wireless infrastructure to date, how could 6G come along so fast?
What is 6G?
6G will be the sixth generation of wireless technology infrastructure.
Changes in the generation of wireless technology systems occur about every 10 years or so.
A quick G gens history
First-generation mobile networks relied on analog radio systems, which meant that users could only make phone calls; they couldn’t send or receive text messages. The 1G network remained until 1991, when it was replaced with 2G, which ran on a digital signal, allowing users to send SMS and MMS messages, and emails after GPS was introduced in 1997.
3G was much faster than 2G and could transmit greater amounts of data, allowing video calls, file sharing, internet connection, gaming, etc. The introduction of 4G went one step further. In theory, it can provide speeds of up to 100Mbps.
The 5G network being rolled out now offers improved speed and capacity of the network, allowing more devices to connect, including cars, smart cities, and IoT in the home and office.
Most of the current research around 6G focuses on transmitting data through ultra-high frequencies, above the current ranges of 5G. Right now 5G can go up to 100 GHz, but generally speaking, 5G doesn’t go above 39 GHz for practical use. Researchers believe that they will be able to practically and efficiently transmit data in the hundreds of GHz or terahertz range in the coming years, which essentially means that data will be able to be communicated and streamed faster than ever before.
It’s expected that the framework for 6G will be completed by 2028 and the first 6G products will start appearing around 2030.
Challenges facing 6G
While ultra-high frequency transmission sounds fantastic in theory, scientists don’t exactly have the “how” nailed down yet. There currently aren’t semiconductors that can use terahertz frequencies. The problem is also that in this ultra-high range, current processors can’t interpret the amount of data fast enough.
6G operation at such high frequencies will also require incredibly complex antenna hardware that hasn’t been invented yet.
Another concept that will likely be central to 6G networking will be the ability to send and receive in the same frequency at the same time, doubling the efficiency of the current networking infrastructure.
Low(er) latency will also be a focus of the sixth generation infrastructure, providing data latency below 1 millisecond, but this won’t be easy. Latency this low would theoretically allow devices to work fully out of the cloud.
One of the biggest difficulties 5G has had is moving signals on a millimeter-wave, the fastest spectrum, because it has trouble bypassing physical objects.
But one solution is to use smart devices or services that can receive the signals and bend or bounce them around objects so they get where they need to without difficulty.
Apple working on 6G
Apple, which recently launched its first 5G-enabled smartphone, recently posted a job ad for wireless system research engineers for current and next-generation networks, Bloomberg reports.
Apple launched its first iPhones with 5G wireless speeds a few months ago. Now it’s looking to start work on 6G, indicating it wants to be a leader in the technology rather than rely on other companies.
It recently posted job ads seeking wireless system research engineers for current and next-generation networks.
Apple’s current iPhones use 5G modems designed by Qualcomm Inc which dramatically improved the amount and speed of data that consumers can download.
Apple’s early involvement in 6G research and design indicates it won’t wait around for the next major advancement.
Late last year, Apple joined an alliance of companies working on standards for 6G and other next-generation cellular technologies.
Yet, the company hasn’t expanded 5G to other devices like the Apple Watch and iPad, and it sells multiple iPhones that use older 4G technology. It’s likely that Apple’s first modem will be for 5G connectivity.
The world is preparing for 6G
Planning for the 6G era has already begun, with the European Commission announcing almost 1 billion euros ($1.2 bn) in funding for 6G research.
While 5G technology itself is still in its infancy, a hierarchy is developing, with the South Korean market attaining a considerable lead on the global 5G stage.
Europe sees itself caught in a technological tug-of-war between China and the US.
The industry is expected to at least match this public funding, leading to a total investment of at least €1.8 bn ($2.16 bn).
In December last year, the Hexa-X 6G research group was set up with EU funding, featuring major players Ericsson, Orange, Telefonica, Intel, Siemens, and Nokia.
But it is not only Europe that is working to build an early lead in the 6G.
In 2019, for example, the Japanese government pledged around $2 bn to support private company research on 6G technology. Later, at the start of 2020, the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications announced plans to create a joint government–civilian research society on this future technology.
Meanwhile, in China, ZTE and China Unicom are working together to explore the new technology.
6G standards are not expected to be developed until 2025.
6G will mess with our brains
6G is being heralded as allowing an integration of the human brain with computers, with NTT suggesting 6G will make it “possible for cyberspace to support human thought and action in real-time through wearable devices and micro-devices mounted on the human body”.
Dr. Mahyar Shirvanimoghaddam, from the University of Sydney, has claimed that 6G could deliver mind-boggling speeds of 1TB per second, enough to download 142 hours of Netflix movies in one second. Speeds that fast could not only enhance the technology expected to emerge from 5G — such as autonomous cars and smart cities — but may also allow sci-fi applications like the integration of our brains with computers and sensory interfaces that feel and look just like real life.
Meanwhile, 5G is still rolling out
Many countries started to roll out 5G commercially in 2019, and globally there are 118 operators in 59 countries that have deployed the technology.
Currently, the 5G network covers around 7% of the world population and it is expected that by 2025, it will cover 20% of the world’s population.
Countries where 5G has been introduced include the US, Canada, UK, European Union nations, China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain.