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What is 6G and how far are we from rollout?

Everything you need to know about 6G mobile connectivity

No, you didn’t misread that – 6G. It might seem premature to set our sights on the next generation of mobile network technology, considering the full benefits of 5G have yet to be tapped into, and some devices are still locked into 4G. But it is normal that as one generation is rolled out, the next is already being developed in the wings, ready for its grand reveal in the years to come.

But what is there to talk about with 6G so far, what is it likely to enable, and when can we expect to be benefiting from its rollout? 

What does 6G mean?

6G will be the sixth generation of wireless mobile technology, following on from 5G. 1G, introduced in the 1980s, was purely analogue and was eventually superseded by the fully-digital 2G in 1991. 3G — which you may still connect to if you find yourself in the countryside — came through with the new millennium in 2001, and 4G followed in 2009 to enable the explosion of smartphones and social media.

5G is still being introduced across much of the UK, and internationally its rollout is something of a mixed picture. The newest available generation is capable of providing the fastest data transfer speeds yet, as well as latencies low enough to support leading-edge technology such as augmented reality (AR) and the ever-expanding Internet of Things (IoT).

As with the previous additions to networking, 6G will improve on the capabilities of its predecessors, offering faster and more complex mobile broadband. However, many questions surrounding what form 6G will come in are yet to be answered.

What will 6G be used for?

As 6G is still relatively early in its cycle of research and development, there are currently no official standards for the technology. But that does not mean that there has been no movement towards forming these – Japan and the US have announced intentions to collaborate on international 6G standards, to lock out Chinese domination within the market from its earliest rollout.

As might be expected, 6G will be faster than 5G. But whereas the jump in speed from 4G to 5G was certainly noticeable, the jump from 5G to 6G for consumers and businesses from 5G to 6G could be seismic. 

5G is already considered to be pretty speedy, with a 10 Gbits/sec peak data rate, but 6G could offer peak data rates ten times faster, at 100 Gbits/sec. That’s according to Nokia anyway, which is already working on the development of this next-generation communications technology.

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In its 2021 white paper ‘Extreme massive MIMO for macro cell capacity boost in 5G-Advanced and 6G’, Nokia states that the mid-band spectrums they expect to see used for 6G networks will also be able to provide around 20x more capacity compared to basic 5G in the 3.5GHz band”.

In theory, 6G could be used to transmit data at one microsecond of latency (0.001 milliseconds). Apart from allowing for unprecedented stability in streaming connections, for uses such as video conferencing or gaming, this could also have profound implications in fields such as medical technology. Latency at this low level could be used to dramatically improve accessibility kit such as prosthetics, or to facilitate systems that respond to input at speed bordering on real time, allowing for data exchange nearing the speed of human thought.

Building off this, transfer of information at this level, boosted across a network could lead to major advances in mobile artificial intelligence (AI), giving handsets the ability to send and receive far greater packets of data to be processed in the cloud.

6G is also highly likely to build off the initial success of 5G in enabling the reliable operation of IoT devices and networks. With the aforementioned low latency and increased data load compared even to 5G, the advent of 6G is also likely to coincide with far greater automation, as well as autonomous devices throughout factories. It can also help to stabilise the supply chain, with sites such as smart ports like Felixstowe's benefiting from improved speeds for use in sensors and tracking metrics across large areas.

In adopting the new network standard, it is also likely that workplaces will be transformed by 6G. The promise of the metaverse, which still lacks clear business cases, may finally be realised in usable form through detailed 3D augmented reality (AR) meetings supported by 6G bandwidth.

When will I get 6G?

Before you get too excited by the thought of being able to send 4K videos quicker than ever before, or never having to wait for your phone to download large files again, it’s worth bearing in mind that 6G remains very much on the horizon. Although it's being worked on currently, the technology is still in its infancy and will need years of development and rollout before businesses are able to use it.

Finland’s University of Oulu says “fundamental research is 10-15 years ahead of industrial standards”. This chimes with statements from others researching the technology, including Nokia and Ericsson, that 6G won’t come to market until 2030 at the earliest.

Already, 6G projects funded by governments around the world are making headlines. China reported a successful 100-200 Gbits/sec wireless test, Nokia is leading Germany’s 6G-ANNA project to advance end-to-end 6G architecture, and the UK and South Korean governments are supporting a fund for firms developing 6G solutions.

But keeping in mind how slow the rollout of 5G has been, both in terms of network infrastructure overhaul and handset availability, widespread adoption of 6G remains firmly on the horizon for now.

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