I know; I know. You’re just wrapping your head (and maybe your service offerings) around the improvements 5G is bringing to your life, and now the term 6G has entered the conversation. It’s a lot to take in. Well, we’re here to help.
6G will be the sixth generation of wireless technology. A new generation happens about every 10 years, and as the ITU EMF Guide explains in “The generations of mobile communication” , “The key feature of each new technology is the increased spectral efficiency that allows transmission of more information using the same amount of resources including spectrum.”
To recap, our previous and current mobile technology generations are:
- 1G: This generation was optimized for voice communications and not much else.
- 2G: In addition to voice, 2G made mobile texting (SMS) commonplace, with many mobile users also sending pictures and multimedia messages as well. 2G also introduced digital standards and protocols such as GSM, CDMA, GPRS, and EDGE. Mobile services using global positioning systems (GPS) also became a reality.
- 3G: Built on the previous generations, 3G enabled video conferencing, video streaming, mobile internet, and voice over IP (VoIP). With the standardization of web connectivity and expansion of GPS capabilities, international roaming services became a reality.
- 4G: 4G is the long-term evolution (LTE) generation of mobile telecommunications and added mobile ultra-broadband internet access to mobile devices. 4G technology-enabled high-quality video streaming (up to 1 gigabit per second for stationary users and network latencies of 5 milliseconds) to facilitate gaming services, high-definition videos, and high-quality video conferencing. Service providers that offered CDMA2000 or GSM/UMTS networks used the LTE standard as the upgrade from those earlier 3G standards to provide faster service. 4G technology reaches speeds up to 33.88 Mbps. Introduced in 2009, 4G is more than a decade old.
- 5G: Although 4G continues to improve the delivery of voice, data, and lightweight video streaming that consumers are currently using, 5G—introduced in 2020—tackles the heavy-hitting applications: virtual reality, enterprise Internet of Things (IoT), ultra-high-definition video, semi-autonomous vehicles, and other use cases that demand the increased speed, capacity, and real-time capabilities 4G can’t deliver. 5G has dramatically higher transfer rates and lower latency requirements than 4G, reaching speeds between 40 and 1,100 Mbps.
If 5G Is Brand-New, When Is 6G Coming, and Why Are We Talking About It Now?
The ETA for 6G is 2030, and we’re talking about it because you want to know how it will build on the advances 5G has made in speed and capacity. Although it’s still in the theoretical and development stage, we do know that 6G will start where the 5G specifications end. 6G is predicted to operate in higher frequencies—the terahertz (THz) spectrum—with lower latency than 5G.
Because transmitting in the THz frequencies is best for short ranges only, cellular networks might become mesh networks, using multiple base stations and smaller inexpensive antennas to create microcells that can be accessed concurrently by 6G devices, or by relying on smart devices and smart surfaces (internet of everything) as networking elements to create microcells, or via some combination, leading to ambient connectivity. Mobile edge computing and core computing will certainly be completely integrated. Another theoretical solution is solving the full duplex transmission problem, which would allow two-way transmission on the same frequency, at the same time, doubling the capacity of current bandwidths. Or maybe 6G will be something else entirely—magic or unicorn-based technology. Who can say?
Will 6G Be Fast?
Using some or all of this new architecture, 6G networks are expected to support data rates of 1 terabit per second (Tbps). That’s 1,000,000 Mbps–pretty fast!
Cool. But What Advances Will 6G Bring?
Industry sources are currently talking about:
- Holographic-type communications. Sure, we’re all thinking about the “Princess Leia” kind of messages we’ve only seen in movies, but imagine what this could mean for truly integrated remote learning, geographically dispersed team meetings, telemedicine, museum exhibits–you name it. The things we’re just making work now could be commonplace with 6G.
- Five-sense networks with fully tactile haptics. What’s this mean? It means the virtual reality (VR) experiences we’re just now enjoying will be turned up to 11. Imagine being able to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste your VR experience. That sounds fantastic for games, but imagine it applied to prosthetics. Prosthetic users could have seamless—possibly even neurological—integration with their devices and instantaneous response, perhaps using Wi-Fi implants.
- Time-engineered applications. With the extremely low latency promised, large-scale, real-time, precise synchronization is possible—think super-efficient manufacturing or ports, or traffic-flow maintenance that is variable with traffic conditions minute by minute.
- Information and communication technologies (ICT) improvements to critical infrastructure. If an internet of everything is possible, search and rescue could get as granular as each individual in a disaster.
- Custom microservices. The development of user-specific, use-case-specific, and location-specific microservices.
- Unmanned vehicles. Autonomous vehicles, planes, are a possibility with the sort of network coverage, data capacity, and low latency being discussed.
- Increased sustainability. 6G should continue 5G networks’ increasing sustainability, with improvements in automation and with communications service providers (CSPs) able to reuse network equipment.
- A close to the digital divide. As networks become easier and cheaper to deploy, coverage will expand. With networks moving from hardware to software, overall costs for CSPs and end users could drop as well.
One way to consider 6G possibilities is to think of the modern conveniences and capabilities we still think of as “futuristic” or science fiction. 6G promises to make that future possible.
For more information on 5G, see What is 5G?
For more information on 2G, 3G, or 4G, see What is 2G, 3G, 4G?