6G: What It Is & When to Expect It

Is this what's coming after 5G?

World network with the text 6G

With 5G networks still being deployed around the world and many areas of the globe still using 4G and even 3G networks, it seems a bit early to throw around the term 6G. After all, what use do we have for 6G networks when relatively few people can even use a 5G network?

That said, technology always pushes forward and standards take a long time to mature, so we've always been on a path to a 6G world. If anything, the idea of 6G this early in the development of 5G simply indicates how quickly this technology moves forward. We've managed to go from 1G to 5G in such a relatively short amount of time, so 6G is just the natural progression towards faster and better wireless connectivity.

Although 6G would make sense as the successor to 5G, it may actually never be called “6G.” If not something like 5G Enhanced or 5G Advanced, we might one day stop with all the numbers and names and just say that we’re connected.

Ultimately, whether it's with 6G, 7G, or another "G", we’ll have such incredibly fast speeds that no progress bars or wait times will be required for any normal amount of data, at least at today's standards. Everything will just be available...instantly, and we won't need to keep making new terms to describe it.

When Will 6G Come Out?

It’s been typical for a new mobile network standard to take the spotlight every decade or so. That means that 6G networks might roll out sometime around 2030, or at least that’s when most telecom companies will be running 6G trials and when we’ll see phone manufacturers tease 6G-capable phones.

However, it’s common for work to start as long as a decade prior to any real implementation of a new network technology, which might be why you’ll start hearing about 6G before you even have your hands on a 5G phone!

Progress won’t start and finish overnight, though. For the same reasons 5G rollouts are slow, 6G networks might not come out as quickly as we’d like. There are frequency bands to debate over, spectrum licenses to purchase, and rules to deal with.

Despite 6G being just a decade away, few telecom companies are actually looking into it seriously right now, but 6G experimentation is expected to really kick into high gear as we identify where 5G fails. 6G will improve on the inevitable weaknesses and limitations of 5G, so it won't take long for the powers that be to start deciding what to do next.

The FCC has already taken the first steps of opening up terahertz wave spectrum (frequencies between 95 GHz and 3 THz), citing that it will "expedite the deployment of new services in the spectrum above 95 GHz."

In early 2018, the University of Oulu in Finland announced the funding of their 6G Flagship program to research materials, antennas, software, and more that will be required to launch 6G. The idea is to start developing the hardware needed to implement 6G and explore how the new technology might be used.

6G Benefits

Anything that you use a network connection for right now will be greatly improved on a 6G network. Literally every single improvement that 5G brings will manifest as an even better, enhanced version on a 6G network.

We’re already destined to have more powerful VR and AR systems with 5G, plus interconnected smart cities and farms, AI at our fingertips, intelligent robotics working in factories, car-to-car communication, and more. 6G will continue to support all of those areas while also providing even more bandwidth that will ultimately expand innovation even further, maybe even into fields that we haven’t tapped in to yet or even considered.

For example, Marcus Weldon of Nokia Bell Labs, says that 6G will be a “sixth sense experience for humans and machines” where biology meets AI.

Much of what makes 5G so great is its low latency of around 4 ms, but 6G networks might bring this down even further, maybe even to the point that we can safely say that there’s virtually zero latency. The start time for movies, TV, and games will be limited only by how long it takes the screen to power on, and video calls can be as crystal clear as standing in front of the other person.

As we’ve seen in the past with 3G, 4G, and 5G, as the capacity of a network increases, so too will its applications. This will cause an amazing effect where new products and services can be built to utilize 6G’s bandwidth and other improved features to their fullest extents.

Differences Between 5G and 6G

Speed and latency will be the clearest distinction between 6G and 5G. This is what separates 5G and 4G in terms of performance, so we can also expect 6G to be magnitudes of times speedier than 5G.

How fast will 6G be? There’s no telling right now, but even with the first iterations of 5G, we’re seeing everyday speeds of up to 1 Gbps. 6G will absolutely top that, but how much is still in question. We might see several hundred gigabit per second speeds, or even ranges in the terabytes.

As for how 6G will be faster than 5G is still up in the air, but we can assume it will involve using ultrahigh frequencies (millimeter waves) of the radio spectrum. 5G’s bandwidth capacity lies in the fact that it uses high radio frequencies; the higher you go up the radio spectrum, the more data you can carry. 6G might eventually approach the upper limits of the radio spectrum and reach extremely high frequency levels of 300 GHz, or even terahertz ranges.

However, just like we’re seeing now with 5G networks being extremely localized due to the inherent limits of millimeter waves, the same problem will be seen in 6G networks. For example, the range of terahertz radiation is around 10 meters, which is much too short for significant 6G coverage.

Perhaps by 2030 we'll have developed new ways to amplify signals far enough to avoid erecting thousands of new 6G cell towers. Or maybe we’ll have found better methods for transmitting huge amounts of data.

Do We Really Need 6G?

5G is destined to make the internet more accessible for lots of people and to improve everything from entertainment to healthcare. The question of whether those areas will have room for improvement beyond 5G — and thus require the use of something better like 6G — is a resounding yes.

However, as fun as it might be to imagine a time where 5G is considered slow and 6G powers the world, if 5G pans out correctly, we might never need to come up with a new next-gen network.

The 6G concept could be avoided as long as manufacturers, regulators, and telecom companies keep improving 5G. If all of 5G's pitfalls could be addresses on a continual basis, new products could continuously flow into the market to take advantage of the ever-changing and constantly evolving new technology.