6G: Vast and mysterious promises

6G wireless may be a decade away, but it’s already expected to support terabit speeds, power mobile devices, and enable mobile holograms.

smartphone of tomorrow HoloFlex phone prototype
Human Media Lab at Queen’s University

I know what you’re thinking. “6G? He wants to blather on about 6G, when we barely have 5G?”

Point taken. But 5G’s seemingly interminable rollout should not preclude wildly premature and breathless anticipation over its successor. Let’s face it, the time will come when we’ll all be complaining about the limitations of puny little 5G. Plus, isn’t wildly premature and breathless anticipation the essence of technology publishing?

The first thing to know about 6G is that it’s still in the conceptual stage. Standards are several years away, and deployment may not come until 2030. Nonetheless, there is good reason for enterprises IT professionals to be excited about what 6G will enable once it’s widely available.

While a new generation technology standard for cellular broadband networks comes along every 10 years or so, “this one is different,” according to a new IDTechEx report, 6G Communications Market, Devices, Materials 2021-2041.

“For the first time, 6G will provide power with the signal so batteryless devices arrive,” IDTechEx writes. “The Internet of Things (IoT) moves from puffed to possible in billions, nodal energy harvesting moving from hopeless to adequate. With 6G, sensing, positioning, and distributed intelligence are central to the basic concept and design.”

I’m not even sure what all of that means, and I’m not about to shell out $5,995 for the full IDTechEx report to find out. But delivering power with a wireless signal would be transformative in itself. Liberating connected devices from the need to supply their own power will make managing a large network of connected devices infinitely easier. Presumably this also means lower energy costs along the network edge.

Making 6G a reality, however, will require more than standards. “Much of the essential new hardware needed does not exist,” IDTechEx writes. “Think software-programmable metasurfaces, adequate THz transistors, and solar drones in the stratosphere for five years at a time.”

It’s a safe bet these technologies eventually will become available; only the timeline is unclear. IDTechEx estimates $1 billion was invested in 6G hardware and software in 2020, with many billions more to come from early 6G movers Nokia, Ericsson, Siemens, Intel, and Telefonica, as well as from venture capitalists funding startups.

Samsung also foresees big things coming from 6G. In a 2020 white paper, the electronics giant laid out a vision of 6G that included truly immersive XR (a combination of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality), high-fidelity mobile holograms (a market Mordor Intelligence expects to hit $7.6 billion by 2023), and digital replicas (exact virtual copies of physical entities).

All of the above require considerable bandwidth, not to mention computing power. Estimates of 6G network performance range up to 1TB per second—1,000 times faster than 5G. Mobile holograms? Digital replicas? At those speeds we should demand nothing less than teleportation.

It will be exciting when 6G finally arrives, just as it will be exciting when 5G finally arrives. Kidding (not kidding)! For now, we’ll just have to be patient until the next premature 6G post.

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