We are less than five years into the era of 5G wireless and already researchers are developing the next generation of over-the-air connectivity. Spoiler alert: They’re calling it 6G.
At Northeastern University, which has been at the forefront of earlier wireless advances, the first 6G project is taking off. The school’s Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things last month won backing from the Department of Defense to develop the new tech under an initiative dubbed “Open6G.” The effort will be housed on Northeastern’s Burlington campus next to Colosseum, the massive wireless simulation center that was designated as an innovation zone by the Federal Communications Commission last year.
About 120 researchers already work on the wireless program, Tommaso Melodia, a professor and director of the institute, said. The team is “envisioning a future where people and their environment are wirelessly connected by a continuum of AI-powered devices and networks,” he said.
Next-gen tech hits our phones about once every 8 to 10 years, Melodia explained. The move from 2G to 3G phones started in 2002 and brought the first real Internet compatibility to devices in our hands, albeit via slow connections. Next came 4G phones starting around 2010, with data speeds fast enough to support our favorite mobile apps. The 5G rollout has yet to truly differentiate itself from 4G in phones, but is catching on as an alternative to wired cable modems for home Internet service.
Over the past two years, 6G has become a topic of academic articles and white papers. “The time for foundational research in 6G is now,” Melodia said. “Research and development in the next few years will translate early visions, concepts, and ideas into actual technologies.”
Researchers have some ideas about where they’d like to go. A draft 6G road map from the International Telecommunication Union, which sets industry standards, could be ready as soon as next year.
5G technology started using a much higher frequency spectrum than previous wireless phone generations. Verizon’s 5G service in Boston includes 28 GHz, for example, well above typical phone bands like 800 MHz or 1.9 GHz. The higher frequencies can pack in more data, making for faster downloads, but the signals don’t travel as far and have trouble penetrating buildings.
For 6G, researchers are discussing going to ultra high frequencies of 1 terahertz and above. Northeastern said its Teranova project is the first that will be able to test terahertz transmissions. That could bring terabit-per-second downloads, Melodia said — quick enough to download files at almost 1,000 times the speed of today’s fastest 5G networks.
Still, despite tens of billions of dollars of investment by wireless carriers, much of the hype over 5G has yet to pan out. There are no self-driving cars relying on 5G, and the 5G robotic factory of the future remains far off.
For 6G, Melodia said the tech could help create ultra-realistic virtual reality environments, for example, while lowering the power needs of mobile devices to extend battery life. But not too soon.
“We anticipate that 6G will be ready for deployment around 2028 to 2030,” he said.