Even though 5G hasn’t yet made it onto any cellphone, the wireless vendor industry is already off and running looking at the next generation of wireless technology that has been dubbed as 6G. This recent article describes the European Union Hexa-X project that started in January to look at developing specifications for next-generation wireless technology using terahertz spectrum. The initiative will be led by Nokia Bell Labs and Ericsson. Similar research is being done elsewhere around the world by companies such as Huawei, NTT, and Samsung.
6G wireless will explore using the high frequencies between 100 GHz and 1 THz (terahertz), which are collectively being referred to as terahertz frequencies. These are radio waves that are just below the frequencies of infrared light. These frequencies have such short waves, that at the upper end, the frequencies could carry as much as 1,000 times more bandwidth than the frequencies used in cellphones today.
But there is a huge trade-off for the huge bandwidth capacity in that these frequencies travel only short distances, measured in a few feet, before starting to dissipate. These frequencies will not pass through any obstacle and need a clear line of sight.
It’s likely that any 6G technology will be used for indoor data transmission, and 6G could become the fastest delivery mechanism of bandwidth to use within a room between devices. The bandwidth capabilities of these superhigh frequencies could finally fully enable technologies like telepresence (I finally get a holodeck!), or cobots (interactive robots).
More importantly, I’ve never heard anybody make a coherent description of why we need to deliver gigabit or faster speeds to cellphones. If we modify cellphones to process data that quickly we’ll need to find a way to recharge the phones every hour. While I understand why engineers go gaga over the idea of delivering a hundred or a thousand times more data to a cellphone, we need a reality check to ask why anybody would want to do that. Smartphones might be the most important technology developed in this century, but there seems to be little need to turn cellphones into a walking data center unless we want to also start carrying around small air-conditioning units to keep the chips cool.
It makes sense that device makers like Nokia and Ericsson would get excited over the next generation of wireless devices. It’s not hard to envision entirely new technologies twenty years from now that take advantage of terahertz frequencies. Seriously, who is not going to want a holodeck in their living room?
Interestingly, the introduction of 6G is likely going to be of less value to the big cellular carriers. These companies have already started to lose the indoor battle for 5G. Verizon and AT&T had once envisioned a world where homeowners would buy monthly 5G data plans for all of the wired devices in our home. But the FCC already gutted that idea by releasing 6 GHz spectrum for free use, which manufacturers are marrying to the new WiFi 6 standard. As is inevitable, a free solution that doesn’t require a monthly subscription is going to capture most of the indoor market. We’re not going to be buying a 5G subscription for our 8K TV when we have WiFi 6 operating from a $100 router.
One has to imagine the same future for terahertz frequencies. The FCC will eventually create at least one band of terahertz frequency that anybody can use, and that’s the frequency that will power the superfast devices in our homes and offices.
One thing that the early 6G hype fails to mention is the fiber networks that will be needed to fuel superfast applications. We aren’t going to be operating a holodeck using a measly 1 Gbps broadband connection. Twenty years from now, techie households will be screaming for the delivery of 100 Gbps bandwidth to support their terahertz gaming applications.