6G Technology: What is it and When is it Coming?
6G — the sixth generation of cellular network technology — is already in the works, even though 5G is still in its infancy and not yet deployed in many cities and regions.
Telecom companies and governments alike recognize the potential impact of being at the forefront of 6G development, and the 6G race has begun.
Government mentions of 6G research began in 2017 and 2018. China declared its official start to research in 2019. Former President Donald Trump announced his desire to launch 6G research in 2019 as well. No global or national standards have been set for 6G yet.
Two years later, 4G is still widely used across the United States, while 5G is in the launch and deployment stages, with its possibilities for telecommunications, the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) promising to be impressive. But few realize that 6G is quietly on its heels, prepared to revolutionize cellular networks, data transfer — and the entire world of technology.
6G is the planned sixth generation of cellular data transmission, but it won't just be for cell phones, texts, apps and streaming services. 6G, like 5G, will extend to other devices, such as smartwatches, home systems, vehicles, industrial equipment and possibly even roadways.
6G isn't expected to roll out until 2030 and that's an ideal estimate. It could take 15 years before it's ready for deployment. 5G is likely to take another three to four years, at least. But although 6G is only in its early research stage, technology experts and scientists already have ambitious plans for its future.
Goals for 6G speeds include reaching the terabit-per-second range, according to HighSpeedInternet.com. For context, 5G speeds are ideally in the low gigabit-per-second range, but some low-band and mid-band speeds could still transmit signals at a Mbps rate. Terabits hold one million megabits and one thousand gigabits. Proposed 6G speeds are at least a thousand times faster than the current 5G ideal.
Researchers are also looking at the terahertz wave range for transmission speeds. Terahertz are submillimeter waves. China has begun testing the terahertz range through its recent satellites. Though much of the science and many of the numbers that researchers want for 6G are still hypothetical or in development, they propose low latency that will change smart tech and make new devices possible.
While 5G advances IoT, giving users high-speed connections to applications, data and media streaming, 6G is poised to launch tech that will bring fiction to life.
6G innovators aim to take 5G technologies to the next level and enable some entirely new ones:
Advanced edge computing technology and extremely low latencies for a connected network of smart devices and buildings
AI and deep learning models that will enhance intelligent decisions made from data analytics
Smart infrastructure such as buildings, roadways and cars; incredibly low latencies could enable nearly real-time responses for drivers and vehicles, leading to decreased accidents and better flow of data
Wearable technology, with the possibility of implants or other devices that allow a connection to the human brain
Mike Nawrocki, VP of technology and solutions for the Alliance for Telecom Industry Solutions (ATIS), indicated that it's impossible right now to know exactly what 6G will look like.
"From a technological perspective, we know that new air interfaces will lead to greater densification and leveraging of available spectrum," he said.
But Nawrocki emphasized the benefits of large-scale connectivity between devices, digital infrastructure and the physical world.
"Perhaps one of the greatest opportunities will be in how cognitive sensing, artificial intelligence and predictive actions will allow the 6G environment to deliver user needs well beyond any current concept of ‘on demand,’” he said.
Though this may sound like a science fiction novel, one of the most ambitious goals of 6G is wearable technology that has a connection to human thoughts. Data transmission or actions within an application could be triggered by human cues — not physical actions such as tapping a button, but more subtle commands or even thoughts.
Health care stands to benefit from 6G, too, increasing the likelihood of remote appointments and operations. If latencies are low and signals are almost instantaneous, then remote surgeries may be possible. Tech-managed clinic and outpatient situations could give more people the chance to access care.
A hypothetical image of virtual health care in the future.
Virtual reality (VR) and related technologies, such as augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR), already exist. But 6G would make them more immersive. Sensors and other smaller devices placed on the human body will create a more physical, vivid experience for VR users.
At this time, few organizations have set out to tackle 6G technology on their own, but many corporations have come together to collaborate on research and development efforts.
The Next G Alliance and the 6G Flagship are two of the largest collaborations on future networking technologies.
Next G Alliance
Created by ATIS, the Next G Alliance unites telecom providers, hardware and software manufacturers and other tech enterprises as American leaders in 6G. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are all members of the Next G Alliance.
The Chinese tech corporation Huawei was not permitted to join the Next G Alliance. Trump banned some Chinese technology due to security and privacy concerns. However, many other organizations participate in the Next G Alliance's work on 6G innovation, including some of the biggest names in tech:
Apple: one of the primary 5G device manufacturers
Google and HPE: which provide infrastructures for data storage and analytics, among more IT services for large enterprises
Intel: which sells hardware and data center technology
Nokia: one of the biggest telecom providers in northern Europe
Microsoft: a global hardware and software giant
The Next G Alliance is also focusing on sustainability and environmental protection, . The organization is researching ways to protect nature from potentially harmful effects of technology.
The 6G Flagship, a European foundation for 6G research and tech, is headquartered at the University of Oulu in Finland.
The 6G Flagship will be hosting a virtual conference in Europe this summer, the 6G Summit. The organization focuses on four research categories: wireless connectivity; devices and circuit technology; distributed computing; and services and applications.
The Finnish 6G initiative includes academic institutions and tech companies as well as the cellular enterprise Nokia. Nokia is also active in the Next G Alliance and the European Hexa-X.
6G and government
Cellular networking has become more than an industry- and culture-changing technology, especially since the advent of 5G. It's also a political competition. Tech researchers talk about the race to 6G, indicating that governments view its development as an essential geopolitical move.
The Japanese government has already invested over $400 million in 6G development. South Korea is also making research strides, with mobile giant Samsung engaged in the country’s research as well as the U.S.-based Next G Alliance.
Some nations approach networking differently: for example, China has a strongly government-led 6G initiative. The national government is heavily involved in development. In contrast, the United States approaches 6G research from a more private sector or partnership-based standpoint. Tech corporations, academic institutions and the government can all participate, but no lone body manages the entire initiative.
6G will also have legal implications, particularly regarding the physical installation of nodes, data collection and processing, wavelength spectrum monitoring and advanced AI. Not all governments are yet prepared to manage the wave of legal considerations that will likely arise from advanced data gathering and transmission. Considering how many new technologies could come from 6G, governing bodies will have to address their effects eventually.
The race to 6G
Governments are fighting to be "first" in 6G development and deployment. The United States' main rival in the 6G race is China, which thus far, has edged ahead of the U.S. in 5G. Although the U.S. government's concerns about privacy and national security led it to ban some Chinese tech during the Trump administration, Huawei is still one of the most popular 5G vendors in the world.
The U.S. is working to stay on pace with China in networking technology. Closing the current gap will require a networking solution aside from Huawei.
Tensions between the U.S. and China have run high for years, and an early lead in 6G could mean greater influence on the worldwide telecom market, such as data monitoring and management, as well as spur domestic economic growth through industry.
Early research and investment in 6G proves that governments and corporations alike are committed to increased connectivity and technology growth. Nearly a decade of work and development lie ahead for telecom companies and national leadership; no one even knows fully how 5G will change the technological and natural landscape, much less how 6G will revolutionize it.
6G will have both benefits and legal ramifications, and it also has the potential to transform communication, science, transportation, healthcare, and other industries. Right now, 6G is just a buzzword that few people even know, but in ten or fifteen years, it will be a vivid and transformative reality.
• Webopedia: What is 5G network technology?