Marek’s Take: 5G is far from over, but the 6G hype is already starting

Marek's take

5G is early in its lifecycle and the wireless industry is still struggling to find that magical use case or use cases that will make the technology worth the hype, the headaches, and the costly deployments.

But that isn’t stopping the forward-thinking research and academic community from turning its attention away from 5G and toward 6G.

It’s fairly well established that the wireless industry upgrades from one “G” to the next “G” every 10 years. We saw 4G LTE rollouts begin around 2010 and 5G started being deployed in late 2019 and early 2020. But what’s different with 6G, is that we are already seeing events, white papers and academic research devoted to 6G at a relatively early stage in the 5G deployment cycle.

I think this acceleration around 6G research is worth noting. It seems a bit premature to already be talking about 6G, particularly when operators are still struggling to fully realize the value of 5G.

Why now?

There are a couple of reasons behind the push for 6G development. The most prominent is competition from other countries to be a 6G leader. The U.S. announced an initiative, called the Next G Alliance, a year ago with the goal of advancing U.S. leadership in 6G.  Members of the Next G Alliance include AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Facebook, Qualcomm, Charter Communications, Nokia, Ericsson, Google and Samsung, plus many others. 

China also joined the mix earlier this year when the state-owned newspaper China Daily reported that the Chinese government was stepping up its 6G ambitions and had outlined a plan to work on 6G between now and 2025.

And Europe has launched an EU 6G research project, called RISE-6G, that will work in conjunction with the European institute CEA-Leti and 13 companies including Orange, Telecom Italia and NEC Europe.

Besides competition to be a 6G leader, the other reason for the 6G push is likely just the growing complexity of networking, which means researchers need more time to conduct the research and do the necessary lab work and testing to bring the next evolution of wireless to life. According to Peter Vetter, president of Bell Labs Core Research at Nokia, it takes at least 10 years for research concepts such as those being considered for 6G to see daylight.

Vetter, of course is a champion of 6G research as he is one of the people behind the Brooklyn 6G Summit, a virtual event that was held this month. Its predecessor was the Brooklyn 5G Summit, which first launched in 2014 as a forum to bring together the industry and academia to collaborate on 5G. Nokia, NYU Wireless and the IEEE are sponsors of the event.

The folks behind the Brooklyn 6G Summit claim that like 5G, it’s important that 6G has input from not just wireless operators and vendors but also academia, regulatory agencies and the government.

RELATED: AT&T’s Fuetsch says company is still testing standalone 5G

Next G or 6G?

Interestingly, the term “Next G” is starting to gain traction. Speaking at the 6G Summit, Thyaga Nandagopal, deputy division director of the computing and communication foundations division at the National Science Foundation (NSF), said that the NSF is not just researching 6G but is looking at the Next G. Nandagopal explained that the Next G is more than 6G and is more than a single set of standards. “Next G is about convergence,” he said. “We are already seeing this today.”

He described a vision for the Next G that includes the convergence of wired and wireless, noting that regardless of whether the network is satellite, cellular or Wi-Fi, it will all be integrated.

But what will 6G offer that 5G can’t? That’s exactly the question that speakers at the 6G Summit tried to answer. And unfortunately, some of the terminology speakers were using to describe 6G sounded very similar to what I hear used to describe 5G. Terms such as “ultra-low latency” and “cloudified networks” that will deliver data more efficiently and make it less costly.

Nandagopal, however, described a world where spectrum sharing will be the norm and regulatory agencies will repurpose spectrum to make sure it is used optimally and not wasted. He also described a Next G network as creating a much greater reach, so that broadband connectivity would be nearly ubiquitous and the digital divide would be eliminated.  

But ubiquitous coverage, low latency networks, open architecture and edge computing are all concepts that are also key to 5G. And while 6G still remains nearly a decade in the future, it seems to me that the industry needs to first get a handle on the problems that 5G network will solve before moving full-speed to 6G development.