Why you should care
Researchers from across the globe are starting work on 6G that will let you download 300 movies in a second.
When U.S. President Donald Trump took to his favorite broadcasting platform, Twitter, in February to seek 6G technology at a time even 5G wasn’t available in America, he was roundly mocked on social media as technologically illiterate. “I want 5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible,” Trump said. But whether through luck or actual foresight, the president might have been onto something.
The fifth generation of mobile internet, or 5G, is still relatively new. It has been implemented only in a small set of countries, its global standard hasn’t yet been completely agreed upon and there are still large regions, even in the U.S., that lack decent 4G connections. But a growing number of countries, research institutions and companies are beginning work on building 6G technology, amid growing recognition that the effort — even if started now — could take up to 2030 before users globally can access this new benchmark for internet connectivity.
This new focus also points to the growing belief among researchers that 6G — which, by offering up to 1-terabyte-per-second speeds, would let you download 300 movies in a second — will be needed to fully realize the benefits 5G is expected to throw up. In March, the University of Oulu in Finland hosted a 6G Wireless Summit that saw the participation of 250 researchers from around the world. Earlier in December, Sun Xin, head of China’s 5G technology working group, announced that the country was beginning research into 6G.
There’s a future world that’s starting to emerge.
Lauri Oksanen, Nokia Bell Labs
This May, Samsung — the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer — set up a new technology group called the Advanced Communications Research Center in Seoul with research into 6G as one of its priorities. Just a few weeks ago, the European Commission recommended a research partnership with global telecom majors including Nokia, Ericsson, Orange, Thales, Huawei, Telenor and Telecom Italia, among others, on “Smart Networks and Services” that will cover 5G and 6G until 2030. And 6G fever is now reaching even Bell Labs, with the iconic U.S. research and development institution beginning research into the technology.
“There’s a future world that’s starting to emerge,” says Lauri Oksanen, vice president of research and technology at Bell Labs, which is now owned by Nokia. “The physical world and the biological world have been around for quite some time now. But recently we added the digital world to that mix. 6G will let us push for real-time integration of the three.”
Essentially 5G on steroids, 6G — while still largely undefined — could support a world where we control computers through sensors placed everywhere around us. Smartphones already have dozens of sensors. The next step would include sensors in our bodies, in our homes and in our cars, allowing autonomous vehicles or just about any computer to communicate with their surroundings. 6G would, for example, effectively allow an augmented-reality layer that’s spread out over our physical world. According to Giuseppe Abreu, a wireless communications researcher at Germany’s Jacobs University, a big push for 6G might also come from digital twinning. “Here you make a digital copy of the real world using sensors, but in a digital simulation,” he explains.
What would all of that mean for us, apart from extremely fast and ever-present connectivity? First, it would let us send 3D, hologram-like images and videos over our mobile devices, without any latency — which is harder with 5G speeds that are 100 times slower than 6G would be. This would also enable doctors to perform far more sophisticated surgeries remotely, using robots, than is possible at present.
Then there’s city traffic management. Sure, 5G will let autonomous cars interact with their immediate surroundings. But what about a city where millions of self-driven cars are on the streets at the same time? Who’s going to coordinate between them, in real time, on a citywide scale? That too is where 6G could come in, with the ability to manage the traffic of an entire metropolis filled with autonomous cars.
That 5G itself is still at a teething stage isn’t necessarily a showstopper for 6G, says Roberto Saracco, an Italian engineer who leads the future directions committee at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, one of the world’s biggest bodies of engineers. “It takes a lot of time to develop standards,” he says. 4G really became popular only by 2010; 5G will be fully implemented only by 2020 and it’s only if they start work now that 6G — and globally acceptable standards for the technology — would be ready by around 2030, say researchers. That process involves debates and negotiations in organizations like the International Telecommunication Union.
To be sure, it’s unclear just how effectively 6G will work — we don’t even know yet whether 5G will deliver on its promise to transform everything from transportation to how we view reality. Nor are researchers fully sure yet what new technologies 6G will need as its backbone, suggests Saracco. But existing clues point to a potential redrawing of the telecommunication landscape.
Each new generation — 5G over 4G, or 6G over 5G — works at a higher frequency range than the previous one. Higher frequencies in the wireless spectrum allow the transmission of greater amounts of information — but they can also be blocked more easily. “These types of waves [those higher up the spectrum] don’t go around an obstacle,” says Nokia Bell Labs’ Oksanen. “They simply bounce away or are blocked.”
To ensure access to 6G — which travels in the terahertz range — networks would need to place antennas very close to every user. That problem could be solved by making every device, like a smartphone, into an antenna. This in turn would move networks away from the traditional base stations, and the companies that operate them, like Verizon or AT&T.
“It would be a network of devices — traditional base stations wouldn’t be enough anymore,” says Saracco. “Which will mean companies other than the operators can come in and change the network.”
We can wait for that change to play out, but scientists need to begin their work as soon as possible, suggests Oksanen. “The big debate is still ahead of us,” he says. “Yet we need to start research now to recognize what the necessary technologies and … what the new needs are.” Trump, it seems, was on target.