Although it hasn’t been long after the emergence of 5G, technology companies are already preemptively preparing themselves for the following generation of wireless technology, namely 6G. What exactly does this entail? How will it work?
Before we get to the juicy bit, we have to clarify something: at the time of writing, 6G is nowhere close to being properly tested or implemented. Reports that China launched the “first 6G satellite” in November 2020 are not false but have a tendency to sensationalize the whole ordeal slightly.
Yes, China launched a terahertz-capable testbed satellite into space, but this was only testing a part of 6G technology.
What Is 6G?
If it isn’t already obvious, 6G is the sixth generation of wireless communication technology. It’s not set in stone yet, but the standard promises to establish a more ubiquitous and reliable Internet presence across all cellular networks. To get more into the nitty gritty, we’ll have to explain what makes this standard different from its more well-known predecessors.
We call this new standard “6G” and not “faster 5G” or “enhanced 5G” because there’s a difference in how each standard is applied by hardware manufacturers. A 6G transceiver box that’s providing communications services to another device won’t have enough similarities in its internals to participate in the same generation as its predecessor.
Put simply, the requirements that 6G is supposed to meet will need manufacturers to completely redesign their products’ communications suites to work with those parameters. This was the same reason 5G became something “different” rather than just being considered an enhanced version of 4G LTE.
What 6G Promises
At this point, no standard has fully been established, but telecom companies around the world are already speculating at what 6G could deliver. At the moment, it looks like this technology could deliver bandwidth of around 95 Gbits/second, providing a powerful platform for a multitude of devices to transmit and receive data with low latency and high reliability.
In essence, 6G looks to build on top of the powerful capabilities that 5G already delivers for the “Internet of things” ecosystem. People casually watching YouTube while taking a stroll on the sidewalk won’t notice much of a difference since older generations of communications tech already covers the bandwidth necessary for this.
The real difference will come when there’s enormous potential for network congestion in an area. Bigger pipes make large volumes of water flow more smoothly!
In short, since 5G (and to a major extent, even 4G LTE) covers the vast majority of mobile needs in our current society, 6G is just telecom operators anticipating new developments in consumer and business technology that will require even more room to breathe.
It’s Not Just the Hardware!
Besides changing the way transceiver boxes are manufactured, 6G will also change the entire infrastructure of a local cellular network. As a rule, an increase in transmission rate requires a tighter distribution of cells.
In the end, all of this fancy talk about new standards boils down to different ways of using the radio spectrum to transform waves into data and vice versa. Each new generation uses a higher frequency of the spectrum while sacrificing wavelength. Having to make this sacrifice means that the cellular carrier will have to deal with range issues.
Each generation of cellular technology using shorter-wavelength signals forces both manufacturers and network providers to have to deal with new infrastructure challenges. 6G is no different.
It’s not just the devices that will have to change – it’s everything. And we’re not even done yet with 5G.
Trouble in Paradise
To truly understand the scale of what strains our cellular networks are being put under, we’ll have to walk back one step and compare 5G to 4G.
A typical 4G LTE network transceiver can serve its local cell up to about 10 miles. This means that if you’re setting up a network with the intention of keeping your customers under a seamless 4G “bubble,” you would have to make sure that you set it up in such a way that no one is more than 10 miles from one of your powerful antennas.
If you want to scale up your network to 5G, you would have to shrink those 10 miles to 1,000 feet with the same amount of power. It’s not impossible, but the proposition becomes more expensive and invasive on existing city infrastructure.
6G will have a lot of trouble getting out of the drawing board and into practical application if it’s going to be blanketing entire areas of a city with transceivers.
The Road Ahead
While it’s clear that there are several challenges for 6G technology to overcome, not the least of which is the cumbersome infrastructure needed to get it up and running, it’s not too far-fetched to believe that telecom providers will gear up to compete for being the first to implement it in many communities.
All signs point to 6G becoming a reality in 2030, but speculation can only take us as far as our imagination can. The reality is that it will be quite a while before the technology is truly tested and implemented at an appropriate scale for consumption. In the meantime, 5G still has a long way to go before it becomes as ubiquitous as its predecessor.