It seems like 5G only just arrived — but already, researchers, tech companies, and regulators are preparing for the next next generation of wireless technology.
That would be 6G, which those at the Federal Communications Commission expect to arrive by about 2030. On three continents, work has already begin to define 6G, test it against incumbent wireless networks, and establish a beachhead in the future of wireless communication.
Many of the details of 6 G networks — including the frequency bands it will use and the speeds it will offer — are still up in the air. Still, here’s what we know now about 6 G connectivity, 6 G standards, and 6G use cases.
6G will combine land and sky networks.
In April of this year, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced that the commission would examine the feasibility of making 550Mhz of mid-band wireless spectrum available for 6G mobile broadband use.
She was referring to spectrum that falls in the 12.7Ghz – 13.25Ghz range, which is currently used for aviation communications, point-to-point microwave links, military needs, and satellite data transmission.
In effect, the move would take spectrum from satellite communications providers and allocate it to terrestrial cellular networks. But the plan isn’t to do away with non-terrestrial networks. Instead, the FCC’s vision for the 6G future is to integrate satellite and terrestrial technologies into one, converged system for connectivity.
“We call it the Single Network Future because we believe next-generation communications will combine traditional ground-based airwaves with satellite signals,” Rosenworcel said.
6G will be very fast and low-latency.
Combining networks in this fashion will allow for vastly better coverage, while 6G’s ultra-high-band new technology will introduce incredible download and upload speeds. FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks observed in 2022 that higher frequency bands of 6G will allow data transfer speeds of 1 terabyte per second.
This projection should be taken with a grain of salt — you may recall wireless network providers making bold claims about 5G speeds that aren’t generally available in the real world. (High-band 5G in the 20+ Ghz spectrum can achieve speeds of over 1 Gbps, but the short-range nature of 5G high-band means users can only connect to millimeter-wave 5G 1% of the time.)
Still, there’s no doubt that 6G is going to be extremely fast. It will also have much lower latency than previous generations of cellular technology.
“As for latency, 6G networks could achieve one microsecond latency communication – a thousand times faster than 5G,” Starks said.
An important caveat is that reaching these high speeds and low latencies will likely require access to extremely high-band spectrum between 100 Ghz and 1 Thz (terahertz). At the present time, the FCC has made this spectrum range available for experimental and unlicensed use, but there are no plans to “activate” it commercially (yet).
6G will extend the capabilities of today’s devices, networks, and software to an incredible degree.
With the throughput and low latency that 6G promises, we can expect huge increases in data transmission: allowing things like 24K video broadcasts and real time virtual reality.
The possibilities 6G offers are hard for us to fathom in a present-day context. FCC Commissioner Starks, in his 2022 address, suggested that fully immersive extended reality will be possible when the new network is up and running. But really, that’s just the start. 6G will allow for:
– “Digital twin” replicas of buildings, cities, and infrastructure systems.
With the faster networks and low latency 6G offers, it will be possible to install billions of internet of things (IoT) sensors that offer a real-time picture of real-world conditions. When paired with advanced computational infrastructure, businesses and governments will be able to replicate real places in the digital world. That will assist with repairs, design, construction, resource planning, and the creation of fully responsive smart cities. 6G “could allow for the creation of a virtual representation of an entire city – an urban ‘digital twin’ that policymakers could use to operate, plan, and evolve their communities,” Starks said.
– Amazing gaming experiences.
Gaming in 24K will be hard to differentiate from reality — particularly if 6G is leveraged to allow for haptic experiences. Instead of today’s VR headsets, imagine VR in full-body suits or paired with other wearable devices. As you interact with the virtual world, your “hardwear” will respond. The higher data rates of 6G will also permit incredible video and audio experiences, in a true feast for the senses.
– Lightning-fast person-to-person communications.
As we build out the voice capability of the illumy platform, we’re targeting server roundtrips of 150 milliseconds. That’s way faster than other VoIP systems offer, but it pales in comparison to the network speed that 6G wireless connectivity will allow. Expect instantaneous communications to become the norm — in other words, an end to awkward delays on video calls; super-fast VoIP call setup; near-real-time control of remote equipment; and shared digital experiences with people all around the globe.
– Always-on network connectivity from anywhere.
The merging of satellite and terrestrial networks — likely to be managed by artificial intelligence and machine learning — will create one harmonized global network offering higher capacity, mobile edge computing, and seamless connectivity. No longer will your peak data rate be determined by your proximity to nearby access points. Instead, your mobile devices will switch seamlessly from ground-based to satellite communication systems. You’ll be able to work, play, learn, and communicate in a truly location-agnostic way.
Keep in mind that these new applications for 6G are just projections of today’s technologies. Entrepreneurs and researchers will likely devise new ways of interacting with the digital world that we simply can’t conceive of yet — particularly when advanced computing is brought into the mix. Just one example is research and modeling of complex systems (materials, weather, pollution, and so on), which will help our understanding of the physical world accelerate hugely in the decades ahead.
It’s an exciting time for networks, and an even more exciting time for humanity.
Photo by Pat Kay on Unsplash.