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wireless mobile technology, following on from 5G. 1G, introduced in the 1980s, was purely analogue and was eventually superseded by the fully-digital 2G in 1991. 3G — which you may still connect to if you find yourself in the countryside — came through with the new millennium in 2001,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, it is capable of providing the fastest data transfer speeds yet, as well as latencies low enough to support leading-edge technology including 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 lower latency and improved throughput over its predecessors. But the exact shape in which it will arrive is still uncertain.
As 6G is still relatively early in its cycle of research and development, its precise spectrum allocation and standards have yet to be decided. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has proposed that frequencies between 100 GHz and 3 THz should be used for 6G.
“Data rates on the order of 100 Gbps or more will flourish at frequencies above 100 GHz, where the available spectrum is massively abundant,” stated the IEEE.
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However, the same challenges experienced in 5G mmWave deployment will have to be taken into consideration here, namely that extreme high frequencies face interference from walls and materials such as concrete. More work on precise allocation and rollout will be necessary to harness 6G at its full potential.
The US and Japan have already announced intentions to collaborate on international 6G standards, in part a move to prevent premature expansion within the market by Chinese equipment manufacturers and mobile network operators (MNOs).
While the step up in experience from 4G to 5G was notable, especially for businesses, the adoption of 6G is likely to facilitate massive change throughout the sector.
5G is already considered to be pretty speedy, with a 10 Gbits/sec peak data rate, but 6G could offer peak data rates 10 times faster, at 100 Gbits/sec. Some researchers think 6G’s theoretical peak could be even higher at one terabit per second, or 1,000 Gbits/sec.
In its 2021 white paper ‘Extreme massive MIMO for macro cell capacity boost in 5G-Advanced and 6G’, Nokia stated 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”.
What will 6G be used for?
In theory, 6G could be used to transmit data at one microsecond of latency (0.001 milliseconds). Apart from providing 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 a 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 like warehouse robots throughout factories.
This technology can be used to stabilise the supply chain, improving efficiency and real-time data transfer in transport hubs and smart ports. The use of 6G in private networks, in the vein of 5G private networks such as those deployed by Nokia and Kyndryl could also be key for industry 4.0, and facilitate real-time data transfer on the scale necessary for big data analytics.
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 its 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.
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Don’t get planning your company’s 6G networks just yet, as the technology is still in development. In December 2022, Qualcomm outlined [PDF] its goal to deploy 6G technology “in 2030 and beyond”, and other organisations are working to the same date.
Research on 6G technology continues at pace, and Finland’s University of Oulu says “fundamental research is 10-15 years ahead of industrial standards”.
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 have supported a fund for firms developing 6G solutions.
Additionally, the University of Sheffield will open the UK’s first 6G research facility. With a January 2024 opening date, it will support companies and academics to push research on 6G and develop world-leading equipment to facilitate its rollout.
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Jane McCallion is ITPro's deputy editor, specializing in cloud computing, cyber security, data centers and enterprise IT infrastructure. Before becoming Deputy Editor, she held the role of Features Editor, managing a pool of freelance and internal writers, while continuing to specialise in enterprise IT infrastructure, and business strategy.
Prior to joining ITPro, Jane was a freelance business journalist writing as both Jane McCallion and Jane Bordenave for titles such as European CEO, World Finance, and Business Excellence Magazine.