The sixth generation mobile standard promises all of the capacities of 5G and more. It’s less a revolution and more a gradual move forward into faster speeds and greater connectivity. Naturally, organizations are scrambling to find new ways to use it so that they can get in on the ground floor of that elusive “faster, cheaper, better” paradox.
6G broadband cellular networks will likely be faster and more diverse than 5G, supporting a wide range of uses and devices. It has a variety of enterprise applications beyond mobile phones — as long as those uses prove to be truly practical.
Meanwhile, 5G enterprise mobility itself is still in its infancy. Both 5G and 6G networks are in a race to unlock the next big thing. Plus, 6G faces several challenges to wide adoption. Here are six ways it could change the way the tech world works, from communication itself to retail and manufacturing.
- What’s holding 6G back?
- New ways to reach sustainability goals
- Making augmented reality more practical
- Speeding up IoT and ambient computing
- A new era for digital twins
- Improving integrated sensing
- Increased system resiliency
What’s holding 6G back?
6G is still in its infancy in terms of developing and putting in place the right infrastructure to support it.
“Nobody has a clear view of the killer apps for 6G and what we will do on our devices, but we can make fairly accurate predictions about where capacity will be needed,” wrote Nokia’s Joe Madden.
That doesn’t mean companies need to wait to begin preparing for the next generation of broadband cellular.
“While 5G commercialization is still in its initial stage, it’s never too early to start preparing for 6G,” said Sunghyun Choi, head of Samsung’s Advanced Communications Research Center. “It typically takes around 10 years from the start of research to commercialization of a new generation of communications technology.”
Samsung and other vendors are working on a 6G roadmap that stretches through 2023, including their investment in the International Telecommunication Union — Radiocommunication’s 6G working group. It aims to build out the necessary structure for the standardization and commercialization of 6G.
Creating high-frequency signals, managing multiple wireless chips within one device, and automating the management of the distributed and programmable networks are all still works in progress. Finding enough storage space and preventing latency problems are other familiar issues within today’s Internet of Things that will only need to be sold more efficiently if the potential of 6G is to be unlocked. However, 6G is poised to solve a myriad of problems as well.
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New ways to reach sustainability goals
Today’s sustainability efforts are limited both by technology and the philosophy of always increasing production. Some organizations see 6G as a gateway to better energy efficiency, such as Ericsson. The company contributed to the Next G Alliance project, an advocacy group for the 6G industry in North America, whose report on sustainability and 6G notes that meeting goals to slow global warming requires everything from networking more efficiently to raw material sourcing and waste handling.
They note that proposed 5G adoption shows energy reduction over 4G in some key areas, such as RAN energy consumption. However, data center energy consumption dramatically rose.
Increases in traffic also make sustainability and carbon-decrease efforts an uphill battle. That’s competing with the advances in hardware that allow “more data using less power,” according to the report. 6G isn’t a magic bullet, but it could be part of the solution.
Making augmented reality more practical
Today’s tech giants explore the use of augmented reality for on-the-job assistance and training. Warehouse workers might use augmented reality glasses to navigate around shelves in a large, confusing space, being directed to which item they need to pick through a connected network of tags synched to the warehouse’s automated sorting system. This requires speed and uptime, best enabled by faster networks than we have today. That’s where 6G connectivity comes in.
Speeding up IoT and ambient computing
6G’s low latency will, in part, be enabled by distributed or ambient computing. These terms have slightly different meanings but a lot of overlap. In this case, we mean 6G latency will be reduced by spreading processing time across nearby devices, or a “three-dimensional network.”
Other 6G use cases for IoT and edge computing include real-time inventory management in factories, healthcare devices with real-time data and insights, and fleets of autonomous vehicles.
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A new era for digital twins
Another predicted use case is in digital twins. These have been in use and in conversation around manufacturing for decades, having first been used in a truly practical sense by NASA in the early 2010s.
Digital twins help organizations test their products under realistic conditions, reduce the cost, time and materials needed for prototyping, and explore how products and connectivity will function in complex environments.
AI-native sensing also connects to a variety of ways 6G will change the communications and network landscape compared to 5G or 4G.
Improving integrated sensing
Integrated sensing is a category of wireless technologies that include sensing and communication systems that optimize wireless resources and enable wide-area environment sensing.
Adding 6G to the mix in the future may be key to improving performance as well as utilizing hardware and software resources more effectively. Doing so will still require hardware improvements, performance tradeoffs and new network standards.
Increased system resiliency
Low-latency, high-reliability connections underpin every other possible use case we’ve listed here. According to Qualcomm, 6G’s seamlessness can lead to “a unified platform that can take human immersion to the next level.”
That might involve collecting data sources from lots of different sensors to provide insights into what a human worker should do next, or it might lead to more immersive remote collaboration. Qualcomm calls this XR — extended reality.
XR is the type of real-time, immersive digital space Google Glass’s developers once sought to create, too, except powered by real-time gaming-quality graphics. This connects to the augmented reality topic we discussed earlier, but it won’t work without real-time, always-on mobile processing enabled by 6G.
6G has a lot of potential. It remains to be seen how quickly that potential will be realized. Meanwhile, it’s still “just a concept” — albeit one being actively explored. It’s often spoken about in the same breath as the elusive metaverse. NTT, the founder of the mobile data standard that became known as 1G, is still in the game with an ultra high-speed network.