From The Editor | April 25, 2024

Understanding The Promise And Potential Of 6G Technology

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By John Oncea, Editor


6G is still in a phase of applied research and technology trials and is not expected to be commercialized until around 2030. But that doesn’t mean important steps toward its rollout aren’t happening now.

6G technology is still in its early research phase, but progress is being made in defining the vision, key capabilities, and potential use cases. Work on standardization requirements is expected to begin this year, and work on technical specifications is expected to begin in 2025.

But even as this work is being done to roll out 6G, consumer penetration of 5G remains low, something some say is due to municipality regulations creating barriers to a speedy rollout. These include zoning policies, lengthy permitting processes, high fees, and even aesthetic concerns.

Still, the number of consumers with 5G connections is increasing but, according to CNBC, “It’s still well below ‘mainstream’ levels.” This despite the 5G rollout being the fastest mobile generation rollout to date, “surpassing 1 billion connections by the end of 2022, rising to 1.6 billion connections at the end of 2023, and 5.5 billion by 2030.”

With 5G access sitting at less than 50% worldwide right now – and projected to be “only” 85% by 2030 – why are we even considering 6G? Some suggest every human requirement is being met by 4G as it is. You can stream high-quality videos and download them at high speeds, more than anyone realistically consistently needs.

Then there are suggestions that 6G isn’t necessary, as it solves problems that don’t even exist. However, we all know those problems will one day come and 6G is going to be needed. IoT and self-driving cars will rely on 6G, as will holograms (3D video), high-performing drones, and intelligent sensing. There is even discussion of applications like teleportation in scientific literature.

6G is expected to roll out around 2030, so there is still time to come up with many applications. And, historically speaking, 4G was in the same boat as 6G is now a decade ago but is now used in applications such as Instagram, YouTube, and more every day.

Whether it happens in 10 years or more, region by region or across the globe all at once, 6G is coming. Let’s take a look at the current research and roadmaps, timeline, and anticipated challenges that will come with it.

Early Research And Roadmaps

“6G may end up being a game changer for developing technologies,” writes Built In. “Self-driving cars, smart cities, and virtual and augmented reality could become more sustainable with 6G’s ability to connect devices through AI and machine learning. 6G also promises to bring together different types of technology, like deep learning and Big Data analytics, creating more possibilities for harnessing large amounts of data.”

Various entities including governments, telecommunications providers, infrastructure companies, academic institutions, and industry leaders are currently engaged in developing technology for 6G networks. For example, South Korea’s Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute is working on terahertz frequency bands to achieve faster speeds. Likewise, Japan’s Osaka University has partnered with Australia’s Adelaide University to create a silicon-based microchip, known as a multiplexer, which is used to split and join frequencies for seamless transmission.

According to TechTarget, other projects moving the 6G research needle include:

  • The University of Oulu in Finland has launched the 6Genesis research project to develop a 6G vision for 2030. The university also has signed a collaboration agreement with Japan's Beyond 5G Promotion Consortium to coordinate the work of the Finnish 6G Flagship research on 6G technologies.
  • China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is investing in and monitoring 6G R&D in the country.
  • The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2020 opened up 6G frequency for spectrum testing for frequencies over 95 gigahertz (GHz) to 3 THz.
  • Hexa-X is a European consortium of academic and industry leaders working to advance 6G standards research. Finnish communications company Nokia is leading that project, which also includes Ericsson, a Swedish operator, and TIM in Italy.

The time and effort going into the development of 6G is necessary because we need its capacity, said Peter Vetter, President of Nokia Bell Labs, during his keynote speech at the 6GSymposium Spring 2024. “There’s a growing ecosystem of smart devices, sensors, robots, drones, and more,” 6GWorld quotes Vetter as saying.

According to Vetter, another reason 6G is needed is that the expected societal goals of the future also call for a new ecosystem. “For instance, food waste. [By using 6G] We can optimize the food chain through sensors and networks and better manage resources. You create value from 6G,” Vetter added.

Researchers must, however, choose their priorities says Erszebet Fitori, CEO of SNS-JU. “According to Fitori,” writes 6GWorld, “collaboration between public and private partners is critical, but including verticals and innovative SMEs, as well as international players, will be key to reconciling those conflicts.”

Vetter adds other priorities revolve around the following six challenges:

  • Extreme MIMO on existing grids
  • Smooth migration and core evolution
  • Programmable and API-native
  • Framework for native AI
  • Framework for energy efficiency
  • Security, trust, and privacy

Anticipated Timeline

As mentioned earlier, 6G is expected to debut commercially around 2030 and research and development began in earnest in 2020. Early 6G research remains focused on transmitting data at ultra-high frequencies (hundreds of GHz or THz ranges), improving spectrum efficiency, and leveraging mesh networking.

In addition, the integration of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and tighter convergence between terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks are being explored for 5G Advanced as precursors to 6G.

Environmental sustainability is a major challenge, as 6G is expected to power billions of devices requiring sustainable power solutions. 6G networks are expected to consume significantly more energy than previous generations due to increased network capacity and speeds, possibly leading to higher carbon emissions and exacerbating environmental issues.

The addition of electronic waste due to the rapid obsolescence of devices and infrastructure required for 6G, potential though unproven health risks, and high infrastructure costs add to the list of potential roadblocks researchers will face over the next several years. However, while 6G is still in its infancy, significant groundwork is being laid through global research efforts to have implementable specifications by the late 2020s and commercial deployment around 2030-2035.

Why This Matters

When they think of a world with 6G, some imagine “a connected and sustainable physical world that is both digitalized and programmable, where humans are supported by intelligent machines and the Internet of Senses,” writes Ericcson. “Examples of important 6G use cases include e-health for all, precision healthcare, smart agriculture, earth monitor, digital twins, cobots, and robot navigation. These use cases can be sorted into three broad use case scenarios: the Internet of Senses, connected intelligent machines, and a connected sustainable world.”

However, as points out, “This is all purely theoretical right now, of course.” They continue, “It's important to recognize and address any potential negative impacts that may arise from its development and implementation. To ensure responsible progress, it's crucial to encourage open dialogue, prioritize ethical considerations, and strive for sustainable solutions. This will help us to maximize the benefits of 6G for everyone as we move toward this new era of connectivity.”

“Given that the ink is yet to fully dry on 5G deployments (and even 4G penetration remains low in remote regions), one may ask why 6G efforts are necessary,” adds Spiceworks. “Its primary focus is to support the 4th Industrial Revolution by building a bridge between human, machine, and environmental nodes.” It will use machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to establish next-generation wireless communication networks for various devices, thereby benefitting smart cities, driverless cars, virtual reality, and augmented reality, as well as smartphone and mobile network users.

To achieve this, 6G will combine and correlate various technologies such as deep learning with Big Data analytics. A significant correlation exists between 6G and high-performance computing (HPC). While edge computing resources may process some IoT and mobile data, the bulk of it will require much more centralized HPC capacity, making 6G an essential component for the future of wireless communication.

The journey toward 6G represents a significant leap in wireless communication technology, poised to revolutionize various industries and societal infrastructures. Despite ongoing debates about the necessity of 6G while 5G adoption remains incomplete, the groundwork laid in research and development is crucial for anticipating future demands and challenges.

From enhancing connectivity for IoT devices to enabling transformative applications like self-driving cars and holographic communication, the potential of 6G is vast. However, it's imperative to address concerns surrounding environmental sustainability, ethical considerations, and equitable access to ensure responsible progress. By fostering collaboration between public and private sectors and prioritizing innovation, the trajectory toward 6G promises a connected and sustainable future where technology serves humanity's evolving needs.