6G: the new frontier – if the world can work out how to use it

Albert Han

From South Korea to China, tech-savvy users had their first taste of 5G’s lightning-fast internet speeds just months ago.

While the network promises a future of self-driving cars and data-fuelled cities, tech companies and research facilities in China and around the world are already looking into 6G, the next generation of internet networks.

Sixth-generation mobile networks will reach speeds of one terabyte per second, by some estimates. That’s 100 times the rate of even the best existing technology, but is expected to take a decade to roll out.

In that time, competitors in the race to dominate the technology will have to grapple with geopolitical tensions and work out exactly how it will be applied.

Wang Xi, China’s vice-minister of science and technology, says the foundations for 6G are being laid. Photo: Handout

While 6G is in the early stages, 5G technology is already a major sources of trade tension between China and the United States as defence systems incorporate cutting-edge wireless technologies.

Chinese technology giant Huawei, one of the world’s leading 5G equipment vendors, has been accused by the US of being a security threat for its alleged ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

Huawei has repeatedly denied the accusations and says it is already researching 6G networks.

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China is also working at a national level on the technology, forming a team of specialists from universities, think tanks and private companies to oversee its development.

The initiative, spearheaded by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology but involving several other ministries, “will create a solid scientific foundation for the development of the telecommunications industry as well as building a nation of innovation”, Wang Xi, vice-minister for science and technology, told a conference in Beijing in November.

China is not alone in the quest for 6G: the University of Oulu in Finland was awarded 250 million (US$279 million) in April 2018 for the world’s first programme dedicated to researching 6G, according to a release on the university’s website.

And Japan pledged US$2 billion in November to help companies research 6G as part of a stimulus package announced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, Nikkei Asian Review  reported at the time.

But experts in the telecommunications industry say the applications of 6G are far from certain.

“The real answer is that we don’t know. We can just speculate,” said Zahid Ghadialy, principal analyst at London-based tech consultancy 3G4G.

Ghadialy, who specialises in telecoms networks, said that much would depend on the deployment of 5G networks and whether they would attract high numbers of consumers.

“Based on that, we can start planning on what more can we do with 6G,” he said.

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Bi Qi, China Telecom’s chief technical officer, projected more specific potential uses for 6G when he addressed the World 5G Convention in Beijing in November.

“No matter [whether you’re] driving, biking or walking with a GPS, 6G will be fully integrated with holographs,” Xinhua quoted him as saying. “You won’t have to keep your head down looking at your phone. There will be a 3D holographic map projected in front of your eyes.”

But industry insiders said it was still speculative to say what 6G could be used for. Technical barriers, like the transmission of electromagnetic waves at high bandwidths that would make faster internet speeds possible, must be overcome before 6G can become a reality, researchers said.

Experts say that for 5G to succeed and 6G to emerge, the geopolitical problems that affect companies like Huawei must be solved. Photo: Reuters

He Jiguang, a researcher at the University of Oulu, said the research going on in countries like China and South Korea and by companies like Huawei was in its early stages.

“Only in two, three years will there be suitable technologies that could be determined,” He said, adding that attention may focus on possibilities such as medical operations using remote devices that communicate with each other.

But whatever the next generation of telecommunications technology, Martijn Rasser, a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security think tank in Washington, said it would be even more important geopolitically.

“China’s aggressive push into 5G was a wake-up call, and is prompting other countries to pay closer attention to what comes after 5G,” he said.

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“6G, together with other technology areas such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, will be at the centre of the great power competition with China in the next decades.”

Greg Austin, who leads the cyber, space and future conflict programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, said that as the technical details of 6G were explored, the US and China would have to resolve tensions over Huawei and wider questions from commercial espionage to a systemic confrontation on China’s domestic crackdowns.

“Resolution is more likely, but only after [US President Donald] Trump and [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] have moved on. Powerful economic interests will ensure there is a resolution rather than escalating confrontation,” he said.

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