One of Qualcomm’s researchers behind the creation of 5G offers a look at a key element of the next generation of wireless technology. It’s more than speed. What 6G could look like?
Carriers around the world have launched their 5G networks. In the U.S., three major providers are providing coverage across the country. Compatible smartphones are getting cheaper. Next-generation wireless technology is advancing rapidly.
So let’s talk about next-generation wireless technology. Yes, 6G.
Every generation of wireless technology lasts about a decade, so 6G is still a long, long way from becoming a reality. Perhaps in 2029 we’ll get a hint of deployment. Still, it’s worth thinking about the technology coming around the next corner and seeing what wireless researchers are thinking about in terms of its potential.
5G won’t stand still while 6G is being developed. While wireless executives gathered (virtually) at this week’s Mobile World Congress conference, a separate group of researchers from hundreds of companies representing the 3GPP standards body met to talk about 5G Advanced, a marketing buzzword that will soon be in the nearest commercial store.
Tingfang Ji, senior director of engineering at Qualcomm and one of the company’s top 5G researchers, participated in that discussion. Gee, who holds more than 800 patents at Qualcomm, offered some ideas about what 5G Advanced and 6G technologies might look like.
6G will sense your environment
Before we look to the future, it’s worth looking back. The transition to 4G marked a significant increase in speed. 5G now offers greater connectivity for multiple devices, as well as breakneck speeds, especially in city centers like Times Square and arenas like soccer stadiums. While 6G will undoubtedly provide even faster speeds, a key benefit will be the use of these radios for ambient detection and information transmission.
This is already being worked on in 5G, with the radio phone working like a GPS device, determining your location. In 6G, the phone will be able to detect devices around you, serving as a bridge between the physical and digital worlds. Those wonderful augmented reality demonstrations – the ones where digital menus appear on your glasses screen when you look at a restaurant – can be realized with 6G.
Apple already uses Bluetooth built into its network of devices to allow people to track objects with their AirTags. But Gee says 6G technology will be more like radar, allowing more interaction between devices.
“You’ll be able to really feel the environment, so it has to be more powerful,” Gee said.
With the advent of 6G, the industry is looking to tap into new spectrum bands. Wireless carriers are using gigahertz frequencies, which offer tremendous speeds — comparable to fiber optic fixed-line connections — but limited range. Gee said they are looking at terahertz spectrum, which operates at a frequency 1,000 times faster than gigahertz spectrum (which itself is 1,000 times faster than megahertz spectrum).
It’s important to note that the frequency doesn’t quite match the speed, but it gives you an idea of how much more you can get with 6G.
Next-generation technology could also solve the dilemma that the gigahertz spectrum now faces. It could potentially offer both higher bandwidth and wider range in a best of both worlds scenario.
“To solve this problem, we’re going to have to implement some fundamental technologies,” he said. “That’s something we’re working on, and it’s very exciting.”
What is 5G Advanced?
Work on 6G is just beginning. Right now, it’s nothing more than a set of ideas and goals. More concrete is the prospect of 5G Advanced, an enhanced version of 5G that could come in the next two and a half years.
While no one knows exactly what it will consist of, there has been an industry movement to clarify the picture. In their session, researchers from the 3GPP group discussed what improvements the industry should focus on.
“5G Advanced gives us a second chance to look at the fundamental tradeoffs within 5G,” Ji said.
Researchers are looking at 50 areas, but that number will likely shrink to about 20, he added.
Qualcomm has proposed integrating machine learning into 5G so that networks can work better with Internet of Things devices. It also suggests using full-duplex radios, in which both sides can talk to each other at the same time. (That’s usually one-way traffic).
“There’s a broad area where we can significantly improve the technology,” Ji said.
Again, this is a technology that won’t show up on your phone for some time, so there’s no need to hold off on upgrading to 5G Advanced. And 6G, while there is an understanding of where it might come, is barely on the map.