Much of the world still connects using 4G, and the 5G rollout is getting underway. For some in the telecommunications industry though, 5G is already old news. While the primary focus remains on the 5G rollout, researchers and engineers behind the scenes are already looking towards 6G, the sixth-generation technology standard for mobile broadband networks.
To some, it may seem premature to prepare the successor to a technology that consumers barely have access too. However, to those working on the technology, it may feel like time is already running short. According to a Samsung whitepaper, it takes an average of ten years for a new standard to progress from the initial research phases to commercialisation. 5G took just eight years. Samsung touted a possible deployment date of 2028 to 2030 for the technology, meaning work must begin now to keep up with the pace of progress.
6G: High-band, high-speed
Faster data transfer speeds are one fo the most obvious advantages 6G will have over previous generations, enabled by using higher spectrum bands. In March 2019, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States made experimental licenses available in the 95 gigahertz (GHz) to 3 terahertz (THz) range, significantly beyond the current spectrum open to 5G.
A step up in the spectrum will allow 6G peak data rates up to 50 times faster than the 5G standard. The 6G user-experienced data rate is expected to reach 1,000 Mbps, ten times faster than the user-experienced data rate of 5G. While higher-band spectrum brings faster speeds it also poses problems that need to be solved, including difficulties in penetrating walls and water.
Making room on a busier network
As anyone who has tried to use their phone at a crowded event knows, speed means little if a network is overcrowded. IoT connections are expected to increase significantly in every industry sector. The number of IoT devices is expected to exceed 24 billion as early as 2025, and data volume of IoT devices is set to increase massively in the coming years. By 2028, that figure will have risen again. Higher speeds and lower latency will not be the only improvements 6G brings, the greater data traffic capacity and improved connection density will be important to maintain functioning networks.
5G technology allows a connection density of 10⁶ devices per square kilometre (km²), meaning that around one million devices can connect and transmit data within one km². 6G enables ten times the number of devices, with a connection density of 10⁷ devices, or ten million devices per km². This creates new possibilities for data-intensive applications across multiple endpoints.
The advancement of machine-to-machine (M2M) communications is a common thread across the current discussion of 6G. Unimpeded by restrictive data rates and without the risk of overcrowding the network, millions of devices within a small relatively small area will be able to perform complex tasks involving significant computational power in a connected fashion. This will open possibilities for networks featuring multiple devices using artificial intelligence and machine learning, to operate together on complex tasks.
Other use cases cited by organisations such as Samsung, Nokia and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in recent whitepapers include truly-immersive XR high-fidelity – a combination of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality – high-fidelity holograms, and digital replicas. These use cases have enormous potential in fields such as health including remote surgery, education, vocational training, and telecommunications.
The defining technical standards of 6G are yet to be decided and many of the use cases for 6G will only emerge after the limitations of 5G are better understood. Companies such as Nokia, Samsung, LG, Huawei, ZTE, and countless researchers will evaluate the potential shortcomings of 5G, collect data, and look for solutions to the technical challenges that stand in the way of 6G.
Work is well underway. Researchers have already published peer-reviewed work, major telecommunications companies have outlined their vision for the future and confirmed active research. The FCC’s opening of the terahertz range allows experimentation, and China launched what it called the world’s first 6G experimental satellite in November 2020.
Before any widespread rollout, organisations such as the ITU and 3GPP – a partnership of international standards authorities – will need to reach consensus on the specifications of 6G technology. This process, along with how well researchers and engineers solve the challenges of 6G, will determine whether the technology can fulfil the ambitious use cases put forward so far.
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