It’s true: the rollout of fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks has yet to be completed across the world.
Yet 6G (sixth-generation) is upon us, with major changes expected on both user-end and telecommunications carriers. 6G is touted as “at least 100 times faster” than the current 5G networks.
Some industry experts even claim 6G will “up to 500 times faster” than the latest mobile data networks, with “almost-zero” latency (delay). Research and standards-setting are advancing fast.
The Chinese, meanwhile, have tested 6G connectivity to a trial satellite using Terahertz waves that could send data at lightning speeds. US companies like Intel and Apple are not far behind, and so are the Europeans. There’s a patent rush for 6G-related innovations.
Ericsson, in a paper, claims 6G is already “in the applied phase”.
“We expect work on 6G standardisation requirements to start as early as 2024, and exact technical specifications to be worked out in standardisation starting 2025,” Patrik Persson, Ericsson’s 6G programme director wrote last month.
0G to 5G:
The first ever mobile phones were actually Zero G (0G). These were chunky devices with massive boxes for receivers
1G was the first time the public can make mobile phone calls
2G was texting (SMS)
3G was SMS and internet on mobile phone
4G was internet access, video and mobile broadband
5G builds on 4G, plus ultra-HD video and smart devices
Big changes: The key 6G drivers
At this year’s edition of Mobile World Conference (MWC), an annual trade event dedicated to mobile communications, held in Barcelona from Feruary 27 to March 2, 2023, 6G was the talk of the show.
Following are the factors cited by experts on why 6G will eventually take over from 5G:
(1) First, the numbers: By 2030, some 500 billion digital devices will be connected — or about 59 times the global population. That’s a lot of devices that need to be connected. Existing networks would grind to a halt if it does not improve in lockstep this explosion.
(2) Need for high-speed, low-latency networks: With theoretical speeds of up to 1 Tbps — approximately 100 times faster than 5G — 6G is anticipated to have substantially faster speeds. That’s due to their ability to operate at higher frequencies.
(3) Need for inclusion: 6G rollout is seen accelerating the “digital inclusion” on a global scale. Thus access to high-end services for socially-important institutions such as schools and hospitals, even in areas that are hard to reach today, will become accessible.
(4) Better tracking: 6G will enable global end-to-end digital-asset tracking (i.e. for self driving vehicles, real time tracking | drone drops), and support more environmentally-friendly ways of living, working, traveling and more.
(5) Higher energy efficiency: This means doing more with less energy — by reducing node energy usage to close to zero when not carrying traffic. This also helps improve scalability with load adapting to rapid network traffic variations — while reducing the carbon footprint of telecoms.
(6) Greater capacity: 6G is expected to be able to support many more connected devices at once than 5G, which would be necessary to accommodate the increasing number of internet of things (IoT) devices.
(7) Tech: Advances in satellites/drones, miniaturisation, nano-manufacturing and AI, have become much more rapid than ever, allowing for smaller-faster-cheaper devices. The inclusion of “non-terrestrial networks”, i.e. satellites/drones, is a crucial 6G development. It’s one way 6G differs from its predecessors.
(8) Terrahertz (THz) frequency: This band’s expansive bandwidth is being earmarked for 6G to achieve 1 Tbps (terrabits per second) data rates. It would enable conventional two-dimensional (2D) network architectures to function in 3D space.
(9) Improved security: 6G is expected to have stronger security measures than 5G, which could help to protect against cyber threats and other security risks.
Why move to 6G?
No one needs to move. Not now, not ever. But that’s not to say plans already afoot for the next-generation network will come to nothing. It’s an entirely new type of internet.
Terahertz waves are microscopic, submillimeter-sized radio waves that sit on the border between microwaves and infrared radiation.
6G researchers are looking into its potential to vastly reduce latency and boost data speeds to as fast as a theoretical 1 terabits per second (tbps) — about 1,000 times faster than the fastest Wi-Fi speeds you get from most providers today.
Now, turn the question on its head: Why do you need to move from a rotary phone? There’s a big compulsion. One, for efficiency reasons. Two, the sheer explosion of digital devices and the data that need to be processed, stored, managed, shared.
It’s like gravity. People are pulled into the world of better-cheaper-faster devices that also tend to be smaller, and preferrably safer. On a fundamental level, there’s “Moore’s Law”, the doubling of integrated circuits every 24 months or so, a pattern seen to hold since the 1960s, thanks to efficiency gains in manufacturing.
Then, there’s “Wright’s Law”: that for every cumulative doubling of units produced, costs will fall by a constant percentage (about 15%).
What companies are leading the 6G drive?
NEED FOR SPEED: HOW FAST IS 6G INTERNET?
The use of the terahertz (THz) band is a key enabler for 6G.
The convergence of these drivers could also lead to a significantly lower “latency” — one key objective of 6G internet is to provide communications with a one microsecond (1 ms) latency. Lower latency — transmit/receive data with very little delay — could boost applications that require real-time processing (autonomous driving, virtual reality, remote real-time work, and augmented reality).
What are countries doing?
According to a report by Nikkei Asia Review, following are the recent 6G developments:
China is leading the 6G race. Of the estimated 20,000 6G-related patent applications filed, 40.3% originated from China.
On November 6, 2020, China has successfully launched what has been described as “the world’s first 6G satellite” into space to test the technology.
It went into orbit along with 12 other satellites from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in the Shanxi Province. The satellite reportedly uses “Terahertz waves” that could send data at speeds several times faster than 5G.
Huawei also tested several Integrated Sensing and Communication (ISAC) prototypes. Many more studies and trials are underway to fully leverage the potential of 6G THz frequency bands.
The South Koreans aren’t far behind. Samsung’s cutting-edge D-band phase array transmitter prototype reportedly achieves 2.3 Gbps, but can travel 120 meters.
The United States is a leading contender in the 6G race — with and 35% of patent applications originating from America. Despite communications, 6G is also expected to tap into the world of sensing, imaging, wireless cognition, and precise positioning. Intel is one of the US company leading the charge towards 6G transition. Apple also recently patented its THz sensor technology for gas sensing and imaging in iDevice.
Singapore | Japan
Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and Osaka University in Japan, recently developed a nano-chip that could possibly soon drive 6G tech.
Researchers collaborating on the project have found that using what they call as Photonic Topological Insulators (PTI), they were able to create a small silicon chip with rows of triangular holes, and small triangles to transmit terahertz (THz) waves.
In June 2021, the UAE’s telecom major e& (etisalat) announced its 6G plans, starting with an upgrade of its R&D centre in preparation for 6G implementation.
Europe’s Hexa-X initiative seeks global service by offering universal access to digital services and energy-optimised infrastructures. One of the first 6G research projects, the University of Oulu’s 6G Flagship project, compares the change in focus to moving from “5G engineering” to “6G humanity” and runs through the challenges that 6G should try to solve given the spike in birth rates in some countries, the bulge in aging population in others and expanding urbanisation. Sweden’s Ericsson and Germany’s Deutsche Telekom (DT) are also leading the charge. DT’s “6G-TakeOff” research project is a program funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.