Marek’s Take: Top universities around the globe are looking beyond 5G

Marek's take

Back in 2015 and 2016 when 5G was still in its infancy, many top academic institutions around the globe developed initiatives devoted to 5G research. The University of Surrey in the U.K. has a 5G Innovation Centre that opened in September 2015. Technische Universität Dresden (TU Dresden) in Dresden, Germany opened a 5G Lab Germany in 2014. The Tokyo Institute of Technology worked closely with operator NTT DoCoMo on 5G networking. The University of Texas at Austin is home to the Wireless Networking and Communications Group. And New York University’s Brooklyn engineering school has NYU Wireless, which partners with companies like Nokia, Intel, AT&T and others for 5G research and recruitment.  

Many of these universities were involved in early 5G research projects that focused on millimeter wave (mmWave) signal propagation, massive multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) antenna arrays, and distributed cloud architecture.

In fact, Thomas Marzetta, the newly appointed director of NYU Wireless, is credited with being the originator of massive MIMO technology that is being deployed in 5G networks today.

But 5G is now commercially launching in many markets around the globe and operators are using mmWave spectrum and massive MIMO antennas, and are in the midst of virtualizing their networks. Is there still a need for high-level wireless research from academia? 

According to Rikin Thakker, vice president of the Multicultural Media, Telecom, and Internet Council and a faculty member at the University of Maryland’s telecom program, the answer is yes. “There are still a lot of aspects of 5G that we need to solve,” Thakker said. “Millimeter wave is still a big area for research.”

Specifically, Thakker said that there is a need for research on high frequency spectrum, such as that in the 70 GHz, 80 GHz and 90 GHz bands.

However, Thakker admits that any wireless transmission at those spectrum bands will likely mean the signal won’t carry very far. “The range will be extremely low—literally a range of 10 feet to 15 feet.”

But he notes that while the distance that the signal can travel is small, the bandwidth of just one channel in that spectrum range could be as high as 2 GHz and beyond. That means that it might be possible to transmit data-intensive applications such as machine learning.

Is 6G on the horizon? 

Some universities are still primarily focused on 5G and its potential. TU Dresden’s 5G research lab partnered with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) last fall to host a 5G conference that looked at all aspects of 5G from edge clouds all the way up to tactile Internet applications. The group works closely with Vodafone, Nokia, Bosch, Infineon, Ericsson and Deutsche Telekom.

But some academic institutions are starting to explore 6G. The University of Texas at Austin, which is home to the Wireless Networking and Communications Group (WNCG), collaborates with some of big names in the telecom industry including AT&T, Intel, Samsung and Qualcomm. UT Austin’s WNCG has explored many areas of 5G, including mmWave beamforming.

Jeff Andrews, chair of the WNCG, said in an email that the group is about to launch a 6G-focused center at the University of Austin. Although few details were available, the WNCG has previously talked about working on autonomous driving and applications that might be fitting for a 6G network. 

Likewise, NYU Wireless’ Marzetta is also starting to focus on 5G with a research initiative he calls “Beyond Massive MIMO” that looks at new ways wireless systems perform as well as potential new applications for a 6G world.

Thakker, however, is a bit skeptical about universities moving so quickly to embrace 6G terminology. “I don’t like to talk about 6G at this stage,” he said. “5G is still in the early stages and we don’t know what else it will unlock at this point.”

The cynical side of me says that universities that say they are already researching 6G are looking to maintain their leadership role in wireless and attract more funding. The realistic side of me says that it really doesn’t matter whether the research is called 5G or 6G. The important thing is that there are a lot of smart people looking at the future of wireless networking.