If you thought the telecom industry’s expectations for 5G were lofty then be prepared for 6G’s ambitions to be even more elaborate.
I recall sitting through panel discussions about 5G in 2015 and 2016 and listening to industry experts wax on about the game-changing capabilities that 5G networks will deliver — instant always-on connectivity at lightning-fast speeds for every type of device. Autonomous cars that are connected to the network and outfitted with sensors that know when another vehicle is too close or when a pedestrian has stepped into the street. And what about the jaw-dropping healthcare advancements that 5G promised? I wrote about everything from connected ambulance rides to remote surgery.
Six years later and 5G networks are now becoming more pervasive in the U.S. with about 60% of U.S. consumers toting 5G-capable smartphones, according to IDC. But I think it’s fair to say that while still early in the 5G network lifecycle, most of those 5G scenarios have yet to become reality.
Perhaps that’s why some of the most ambitious 5G use cases are making a comeback as 6G.
ATIS’ Next G Alliance, which was formed in 2020 to promote North American leadership in 6G and includes members from the major U.S. carriers, tech companies, hyperscalers and device makers, recently hosted a virtual event and released a “Roadmap to 6G” that broadly outlines the group’s goals and priorities for 6G.
Doug Castor, senior director of 6G Projects at InterDigital and the editor of the “Roadmap to 6G” report, perhaps was the most candid speaker at the group’s virtual event when he said that before members could really outline the 6G use cases they had to first understand where 5G falls short.
Andre Fuetsch, head of AT&T Labs, and a co-lead at the NextG Alliance, talked about some of AT&T’s 5G success stories such as the 5G private network it built with Ford Motor Company. The 5G private network uses multi-access edge computing (MEC) to manufacture the company’s first all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning F-Series Truck.
Fuetsch also talked about AT&T’s work with Qualcomm, Samsung, Nvidia and InterDigital to establish a 6G research center at the University of Texas at Austin. The research center will be focused on using terahertz spectrum for advanced sensing and machine learning capabilities.
While terahertz spectrum may become as much of a part of 6G as millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum was with 5G, it’s clear that some believe 6G should be closely tied to solving societal issues.
Jessamine Chin, the senior director of social impact and innovation at VMware and the chair of the Next G Alliance’s societal and economic needs working group, is advocating for 6G to incorporate environmental and societal needs and improve quality of life. Specifically, she said 6G should play a role in healthcare. Although robotic surgeries and telemedicine are available today, she said they could be much more effective with 6G and could reduce healthcare costs and make communities more resilient. Chin also said she envisions 6G being used to improve agriculture productivity, making the food supply stronger and food production more sustainable.
Colleen Josephson, senior research scientist at VMware and the vice chair of the Next G Alliance’s Green G working group, said that sustainability shouldn’t be an “afterthought” for 6G like it has been with previous generations. While she noted that 5G has a lower energy per bit than 3G or 4G, she said that there are still questions about how much energy 5G consumes because there are no sustainability metrics. With 6G, sustainability metrics could be built into the standard making it possible to know instantly how much energy is being used and in what part of the network. “Similar to how we can track network utilization and uptime today, we should be able to track sustainability in 6G,” she said.
And while there is lots of funding currently being dedicated to fiber broadband expansion in the U.S. to alleviate the digital divide, some see 6G as a solution too. “Even though the digital divide is not new, there is the potential for 6G to bridge this,” Chin said.
But the vision isn’t just to deliver broadband connectivity with 6G, but to incorporate more intelligence so that, for example, students could have access to immersive experiences that would build more quality communications between students and teachers.
I admit that much of these 6G aspirations seem grandiose — particularly as we are still waiting for 5G to meet its expectations. If we’ve learned anything at all from the past few years, it is that network upgrades are difficult. Each new “G” that makes its debut is more complex than the past generation and more challenging for the industry to deliver.
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