What is 6G, when will it arrive and what will we do with it?

What mobile technologies will define the next 20 years? Although that’s a big question, we know that the entire industry is working on the new 6G mobile standard, expected for introduction around 2030.

Since Martin Cooper placed his first mobile call, the industry has constantly been changing. Systems evolve, and even as 5G deployment intensifies, the industry is working to build the next foundation for mobile innovation: 6G.

Eric Hardouin, Orange VP of Ambient Connectivity Research, explains how this stage of the process works. It begins with different parties collaborating with others on the technology in multiple groups. During the process, those involved find common ground for interoperability, and eventually, the standard is defined and introduced. The process takes years between conception and reality.

“We are at a stage where ideas are being generated, services, technologies – but we will only know what 6G will allow us to do in a few years’ time, once the different interests find common ground,” he explains.

At the time of writing, we expect 6G to provide data throughputs between 100Gbps and 1Tbps. To put that into context, 5G promises up to 20Gbps throughput, while 4G (which most of us still use most of the time) offers maximum real-world speeds of around 100Mbps.

Its potential will be realized by access to new high-frequency spectrum bands, improvements to radio sensing and imaging, and the development of more efficient photonic systems to accelerate data’s journey from the tower to the core network. Components must be developed and designed with sustainability and resilience in mind. In a recently published white paper, Orange said it wants 6G to “deliver value to society in the 2030s, in a secure, resilient, environmentally and economically sustainable way.”

6G will be able to reprogram networks in real time autonomously. And because it works at higher frequencies, 6G may enable deeper integration between communications and computing infrastructure. It will leverage artificial intelligence to optimize what it does. In other words, where 5G can be seen as mobile broadband, 6G promises an era of extremely fast, smart, augmented efficiency.

Industry and governments focus on 6G

Orange is deeply involved in 6G research, including within the O-RAN Alliance and its next Generations Research Group (nGRG), to explore how Open Radio Access Networks can support 6G. And the NGMN Alliance, a group of the world’s leading mobile operators that Orange is part of, is researching different use cases for 6G. They have identified at least 50 uses for 6G which would then provide direction for technical research and innovation.

Reflecting the vital strategic significance of mobile, nations are also getting involved. For example, Germany is funding Nokia-led 6G-ANNA research to design an end-to-end architecture for 6G, focused on sustainability, security, collaboration, AR and AI. Nokia leads the Orange-supported European Commission’s 6G, Hexa-X research scheme. In a statement, Nokia said its aim is: “To build unique 6G use cases and scenarios, to develop fundamental 6G technologies and define a new architecture for an intelligent fabric that integrates key 6G technology enablers.”

A U.S. consortium that includes big tech names Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung and Qualcomm seeks to build U.S. leadership in developing future network standards. In APAC, Samsung, Huawei, NTTDoCoMo, and others are at work. And China has already sent the world’s first 6G test satellite into orbit. 6G’s high-frequency bandwidth, low latency, and range mean some futurologists anticipate its use in space.

While there’s much work to be done to develop the inherent technologies and reach collaborative agreements across 6G stakeholders, current thinking suggests the first 6G specifications will emerge around 2025.

“We think that within two years, we will have a good idea of the major technical directions 6G will take, which means the time to play an active role in research is now if we want to contribute to define 6G,” says Hardouin.

What is it good for?

What are the potential use cases for 6G?

Firstly, the standard will continue to support existing and emerging usage. The extremely high bandwidth and low latency it promises mean there could be completely new use cases.

For instance, 6G could be the enabler of the metaverse. Peter Vetter, President of Bell Labs Core Research, believes 6G will: “Connect human, physical worlds with digital worlds, unleashing new human possibilities.” This extends to forms of holographic communication. At least one university is exploring how to build interactive experiences to exploit 6G’s vast data capability to supplement sight and sound with the capacity to communicate touch, taste and smell in real time.

“Such a secure and private connection can be used for preventive healthcare or even to create a 6G network with a sixth sense that intuitively understands our intentions, making our interactions with the physical world more effective and anticipating our needs, thereby improving our productivity,” says Vetter.

A 6G-powered metaverse could be a significant benefit to customer experience, field services and remote service delivery in industries like health and natural resources. You can explore some of the implications of this technology here.

There’s also an expectation that the inherent speed, bandwidth and data capacity of 6G will be capable of supporting digital twins, particularly in factories, to carry out predictive maintenance. 6G may also underpin vast connected projects, such as city, traffic and population management, facial recognition and air quality monitoring.

Additional predicted uses include network-enabled robotics, autonomous vehicles, health care and service delivery support. Security implications, particularly for enterprise users, include the potential to embed zero-trust systems on the networks.

Within a couple of years, we should have better insight into 6G’s capabilities as the first standards are agreed. It promises to support the next decade of mobile innovation, with the first devices appearing from 2030.

Read more about the roadmap to 6G, potential use cases and how Orange is working with the industry to define standards and create the technology of tomorrow.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.