As wireless carriers jostle to see who can win the race to deliver 5G services to customers, planning is already well under way for what comes next.
Yes, we’re talking about 6G.
That might seem premature, since 5G has a long way to go before most consumers and businesses have it—let alone take advantage of it. But computer scientists and engineers say that 6G has the ability to take cloud computing and the mobile internet to true global ubiquity.
“High-speed services available anywhere, anytime,” says Thyaga Nandagopal, senior adviser for technology, innovation and partnerships at the National Science Foundation.
Adds National Science Foundation Director Sethuraman Panchanathan: “This next generation will make societies more equitable by opening up opportunities to anyone, regardless of geography, class, race, gender, ethnicity or disability, and augment human lives in unimaginably positive ways.”
Around the world, governmental, scientific and commercial entities are working together to invest in and eventually standardize technologies that will accomplish the lofty goals of 6G. One of the biggest lessons learned from the rollouts of previous generations, says Dean Brenner, a former executive at Qualcomm,
and chairman of the Federal Communications Commission’s Technological Advisory Council, is to involve all stakeholders early, including not just businesses developing new technologies but those industries that will be disrupted by them as well.
“There’s no law that says that my 5G phone has to work anywhere in the world,” says Mr. Brenner. “It requires collaboration and coordination at multiple levels globally.”
Once truly global, high-speed connectivity is achieved, 6G is expected to provide the structure necessary for “things that right now seem like science fiction,” says Theodore Rappaport, founding director of NYU Wireless, a New York University research center whose work encompasses wireless and electrical engineering, computer science and medicine. “Totally immersive, 3-D virtual reality on phone calls and on meetings over wireless, true remote surgery and remote monitoring, the idea of the metaverse—these kinds of things will start to emerge in 6G.”
Ranveer Chandra, head of networking research at Microsoft Research, Redmond, expects a jump in performance from 5G to 6G. Download speeds could jump to 100 gigabits per second from 10, he says, while latency, or lags behind between commands and responses, could be measured in microseconds rather than milliseconds. Network capacity will increase exponentially.
Andre Fuetsch, executive vice president and chief technology officer of network services at AT&T,
says he is expecting a revolution in consumer devices in a 6G world.
“The smartphone of the future is really going to be more around glasses,” says Mr. Fuetsch. With processing and storage offloaded to the cloud and running at 6G speeds, he says, immersive experiences using lightweight smartglasses will be the new normal, rather than staring at the screen of a phone.
“Think of AR [augmented reality] glasses as having the capability to not just assist you as you’re walking around and looking at things, connecting you, augmenting the surroundings around you with valuable information,” Mr. Fuetsch says, “but it’s also going to be able to allow you to communicate.”
Significant changes could be ahead for education as well, both in terms of equality of access to the latest teaching methods across the country, and as a way of revolutionizing how lessons are taught. The NSF’s Dr. Panchanathan describes how technology using 6G is being developed that uses virtual-reality headsets to create immersive simulations of environments and places that for many students would be unreachable.
One possibility: headsets that immerse students in a simulated Arctic exploration. “Imagine that,” he says. It could look as if you’re actually in the Arctic “and you’re literally learning your chemistry, math and physics on demand, as you’re exploring.”
To Mr. Chandra, the most important change coming will be the breakthrough in being able to provide internet access to people who still lack it, whether for economic reasons or because service hasn’t even reached their part of the world yet. A report from the International Telecommunication Union last year noted that 37% of the world’s population did not have access to the internet.
With 6G, Mr. Chandra says, both obstacles—affordability and availability—would be overcome. The new technology addresses these issues, he says, by leveraging things like spectrum sharing, new antenna design, edge computing, AI-driven networks and use of cloud computing by networks.
“All of these things would help us redesign networks that will become much more flexible, much more affordable, much more pervasive,” he says.
Beyond households and consumers, he says, more-pervasive connectivity will mean that industries of all kinds can capture and analyze data to drive greater efficiency on farms, in warehouses and throughout supply chains.
Experts also believe that 6G networks will greatly improve location accuracy. In the home, Mr. Chandra says, this could mean that a robot will know exactly where the beverage is that you’ve asked it to get, and exactly where you are so it can bring it right next to your hand. This kind of technology could have a host of applications around accessibility, assisting people with vision or mobility issues and helping people age in place.
In agriculture, Mr. Fuetsch says, greater positioning accuracy will help farmers seed their crops more efficiently, with more density and increased yields.
Experts say that predictions made today just scratch the surface of what’s possible with 6G. Once the underlying technology is made available, they say, inventors and entrepreneurs will use it to develop new products and services.
“This will light up scenarios which none of us had thought about,” says Mr. Chandra. “We can’t always predict what these would be, but they will change our lives, mostly for the better.”
Mr. Kornelis is a writer in Bremerton, Wash. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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