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?
The exact standard behind 6G networking hasn't been established yet, and we're still years away from its rollout, but there are several technologies that will shape the 6G infrastructure already being developed.
To the common reader, 5G, 6G, LTE, all these strings of letters and numbers just mean that maybe you can send a text faster or get better cell reception, but they also signify massive leaps in how data is communicated wirelessly. While 5G is ramping up globally, 6G is the next step in the future, so what do we know about it?
Simply speaking, 6G will be the sixth generation of wireless technology infrastructure, standardizing communication signals through the International Telecommunication Union, or ITU. Changes in the generation of wireless technology systems occur about every decade, with previous-gen devices generally being incompatible with the next generation.
This shift in technology is a hard delineation in how the underlying wireless infrastructure functions. Newer generations of wireless tech will involve more advanced digital encoding capabilities compared to previous generations. They are possible due to new advancements in hardware design, such as increases in internal computing power or complex antennas.
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 — improving both its security and its capacity — allowing users to send SMS and MMS messages (although slowly), and emails after GPS was introduced in 1997.
Third-generation networks are still in use today. 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. Models released from 2013 onwards support this network, which offers connectivity for tablets and laptops as well as smartphones. 4G provides less buffering, higher quality, and easier access to instant messaging, social media, streaming, and downloads.
The 5G network, which is 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.
The concept of 6G is still pretty vague at this point, and is in the early phases of research. As time goes on, just what 6G is will become clearer.
The exact rollout of the 6G infrastructure is dependent upon the ITU, which is currently working on defining its vision for the next generation of tech. It's expected that the framework for 6G will be completed by 2028 and the first 6G products will start appearing around the end of this decade. Full deployment to consumers probably won't happen until 2030 or later though. If you hear a company claim they are using 6G technology before those dates, it's likely a marketing ploy, not real 6G.
How will 6G really work?
Most of the current research around the sixth generation of wireless tech 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.
A good way of understanding this is, the higher the frequency, the more peaks and troughs in a wave, which carry more data, meaning higher speed data transfer.
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 that in this ultra-high range that current processors can't interpret the amount of data fast enough.
There's another problem with operating in the THz range too — water vapor in the atmosphere actually blocks and reflects terahertz waves. This can theoretically be overcome if mathematicians can figure out specific wave patterns that aren't blocked or reflected by water molecules.
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. Currently, 5G devices can only transmit or receive a frequency at one time, but you can split channels to communicate multiple streams. Being able to send and receive frequencies at the same time without having to split channels would be highly effective and will help to speed up 6G.
There's also the possibility that 6G will bring practical mesh networking to the forefront. Currently, 5G devices communicate through signals between each phone and base stations or towers. Mesh networking would allow each 6G device to be a booster for the overall data network, allowing coverage to extend beyond tower range through the network of 6G devices.
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. This would be highly useful for small devices, allowing them to execute functions that require a lot of computing power. Such as real-time GPS or holographic information in a small device such as a watch or pair of glasses. All that would be needed in the hardware would be 6G connectivity and a battery. For example, one could wear VR glasses with 6G capability, with most of the processing happening on a remote computer and the data fed in real-time to the VR glasses.
How 6G will impact our daily life
6G could change your life or, it could just barely alter it. This is similar to how 5G saw a lot of hype around it, but most users have yet to have their workflows or daily lives really impacted by it. Many of us already have 5G devices in our pockets, and little about how we use them has changed. However, that's not to say that 5G won't change our lives, it's just that the tech has to be allowed to mature more.
Developers and companies working on 5G infrastructure could come up with a revolutionary new use case using the protocol that could shift how we use our devices. Remember, each G is just a standard, innovation can still happen inside of that standard.
So with 6G, the opportunity for incredibly high data transfer is there, and the groundwork is starting to be laid.
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.
It will be up to the technologists and engineers of the future to determine how best to utilize it. Time will tell, time will tell.