Sixth-generation wireless technology (6G) will not come anytime soon but industry leaders and researchers are intensifying efforts to hasten its development, experts said.
Artificial intelligence will be “at the heart” of 6G, Merouane Debbah, chief researcher for AI and telecom systems at Abu Dhabi's Technology Innovation Institute (TII), told The National at the inaugural Abu Dhabi 6G Summit on Thursday.
This will lead to new ways of communicating, including through holographic means and 3D coverage, he said.
“It is a long process. At the moment, we have people at research centres developing the technologies that will fulfil the key performance indicators [KPIs] of 6G,” Mr Debbah said.
“We want to build an infrastructure that connects intelligence.”
What is 6G?
This is the next generation of wireless communications, which promises even faster speeds and efficiency compared with 5G, the current iteration.
When will 6G be available?
If history is to be a reference, new generations of wireless technology emerge with every new decade — which means 6G would become available in the early 2030s. This is a widely shared industry expectation.
The US has historically introduced new wireless technology iterations, with the third generation released in 2002, the fourth in 2010 and 5G in 2018. The second and first generations were in the 1980s and early 1990s, respectively, with the so-called “zero G” existing before that.
What is the timeframe for 6G's release?
Research on 6G technology began in 2020, which marked the start of a long and intensive process, Mr Debbah said.
By 2024, the standardisation process would begin, which will be kicked off by trials to ensure the technology works “in the right configuration” — a process that is expected to continue until 2026.
Once tested, researchers will select the technology that responds to the established key performance indicators and then proceed to the next phase, which includes identifying the frequencies to be used by about 2027.
This period would last until 2028 or 2029, before 6G networks are put in place by 2030, hopefully.
What is the biggest challenge to 6G?
Apart from the tedious development and standardisation process, the most important aspect is to get all organisations involved and then agree upon the standards in order to move forward quickly, if the deadlines are to be met.
“Whenever there are different stakeholders, like manufacturers and phone makers, they need to know how to talk to each other. You need to be sure that everybody agrees,” Mr Debbah said.
Energy consumption is also a challenge. The industry is looking for more ways to make 6G technology more sustainable, in line with Cop climate summit goals.
There is also the concern of “connecting the unconnected”, which entails bringing network cover to most, if not all, parts of the world — especially in “dead spots” such as deserts — to ensure no one is left out when it comes to communication.
How fast will 6G be, compared with 5G?
The current technology, 5G, is already fast. However, 6G allows movies with 8K video resolution to be downloaded at speeds that are up to 500 times faster than what 5G offers.
Also, 6G is expected to enhance the capability of today's 5G networks by 100 times, Mr Debbah said.
Latency, the delay between sending and receiving information, will be reduced by a factor of 10 to 0.1 millisecond while the energy efficiency of networks will drop by a factor of 100, he said.
“It will be massive connectivity than what it is today — about 10 million connected objects per square kilometre,” said Mr Debbah.
What would be 6G's enabling technology?
As with every new standard, technology would either be improved or introduced.
With 6G, the Internet of Space Things, pervasive AI, network automation and terahertz communication bands that would satisfy the demand for faster speeds are expected to be its key enablers, according to research by TII, which is based in Abu Dhabi.
Pervasive AI is the process of machines learning from experiences.
At present, the most interesting yet unexpected driver is the metaverse, which emerged last year.
This is largely due to it being heavily promoted by Meta Platforms, the parent company of social media platform Facebook.
“The big picture is really a gigantic world,” said Ian Akyildiz, an advisory board member at TII, who also noted the big business opportunities that the metaverse presents — up to $394 billion by 2025, he said.
The metaverse presents an enormous economic opportunity worth between $8 trillion and $13tn, a PwC report said in July.
“It is an incredible opportunity from all perspectives — software, hardware, more applications and platforms — and maybe it will be much more,” Mr Akyildiz said.
Is it too early to talk about 7G?
It is. However, TII research provides some clues into what we can expect from a technology that would presumably come in 2040.
Among 7G's key enabling technology applications would be quantum communications, which uses quantum physics and cryptography — or the use of codes — to protect data, and the Internet of NanoThings/BioNano Things, which senses biological signals from the environment and sends them to data centres for processing on the internet.
All these sound so futuristic but with the current pace of technology, it won't be a surprise if we arrive at these sooner than later.