ITEM: Operators scrambling over each other to be the first to launch 5G are already behind the curve – China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) says it is now working on 6G.
According to the Securities Times, Su Xin – head of the MIIT’s IMT-2020 wireless technology working group – told media that it has launched conceptual research on 6G, which it expects could be commercialized by 2030 with data speeds reaching 1 Tbps.
So, given that 5G is still in the glorified-WiMax stage at the end of 2018, the obvious question here is:
Are they f***ing serious?
The answer to this question is: Kind of, yeah, although context helps.
Put simply, the MIIT isn’t the first organization to announce that it’s started working on ‘6G’. In April this year, the Academy of Finland began funding an eight-year research program called “6Genesis” under the University of Oulu’s Centre for Wireless Communications to conceptualize 6G.
Meanwhile, a multi-university research effort called the Center for Converged TeraHertz Communications and Sensing (ComSensTer) – which gets its funding from the Semiconductor Research Corporation, a consortium whose members include DARPA, IBM, and Intel – is exploring “technologies for a future cellular infrastructure” beyond 5G.
The key words here are “conceptualize” and “future”. Which brings us to the second obvious question.
What the heck is 6G?
The answer to that question is: no one knows exactly, which is why conceptual research is starting now. That said, the starting point appears to be mainly focused on the question of “what will 5G leave on the table?” (as the June 2018 issue of IEEE ComSoc Technology News puts it).
That could include, for example, making use of even higher spectrum bands (between 100 GHz and 300 GHz, say), enhancement of spatial bandwidth technologies, new antenna designs using metamaterials, or more integrated use of AI (which will be even more advanced in 2030 than it is today) for smarter plug-and-play deployments of small cells.
6Genesis research director Matti Latva-aho said in an interview that initial research areas include “reliable near-instant unlimited wireless connectivity, distributed computing and intelligence, as well as materials and antennas at very high frequencies to be utilized in future for circuits and devices.”
ComSenTer’s mission statement says it aims to develop a cellular infrastructure “using hubs with massive spatial multiplexing, providing 1-100Gb/s to the end user, and, with 100-1000 simultaneous independently-modulated beams, aggregate hubs capacities in the 10’s of Tb/s. Backhaul for this future cellular infrastructure will be a mix of optical links and Tb/s-capacity point-point massive MIMO links.”
Again, however, these are just starting points that are looking at what 5G can’t do right now. It’s entirely possible that what we conveniently label “6G” today could turn out to be upgrades and enhancements to the current 5G standard, which is of course hardly the last word in mobile wireless technology, just as 3GPP Release 8 wasn’t the last word on LTE. Since its commercial debut at the end of 2009, LTE has evolved to LTE-A and LTE-A Pro, powered by technologies like massive MIMO, 256QAM and carrier aggregation – all of which is still technically “4G” (as distinct from 5G).
Even the MIIT’s Su Xin has said that 6G could simply be just improvements on 5G’s three basic deliverables (eMBB, mMTC and URLL) to the extent of enabling true ubiquitous connectivity, perhaps by incorporating satellite communications beyond their current backhaul function for cellular networks.
In any case, all of this will be shaped by real world deployments of 5G over the next decade and their subsequent impact of on data growth and bandwidth demand, what kinds of new services emerge to take full advantage of 5G, etc. Put simply, we won’t know exactly what 6G will require until we have an idea of what 5G can’t handle. That also means proper ‘6G’ may look nothing like the current batch of research proposals.
So for now, “6G” is a convenient label for any technology that looks beyond the current 5G standard – and for now, that’s all it is. So let’s not get carried away here.