Why is everybody talking about 6G?

We're not even using 5G yet, and already 6G is in the news. What is 6G? Is it real? When do we all get it? (Spoiler alert: Nonexistent, no and a long time from now.)

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Whoa, 6G? Slow your roll, man. What happened to 5G?

Suddenly, everybody is talking about 6G. In fact, there seems to be a competition that has been triggered to talk about 6G, and make claims and predictions about it.

But why?

One reason is that in the past few months, 5G, which has been anticipated for decades, has crossed some kind of threshold.

Just this week, for example, the three biggest Chinese carriers -- China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom -- switched on for public use 86,000 5G base stations in 50 Chinese cities. China also claimed it would "activate" 130,000 5G base stations by the end of the year.

The Chinese rollout follows commercial availability of 5G in the United States and elsewhere, but has come online on a much larger scale.

In the U.S., Verizon should appear in 30 cities by the end of next month. AT&T's 5G network is currently available to enterprise and business customers in 21 cities. As a result of the Sprint/T-Mobile merger, Dish Network is required to build a 5G network that reaches 70 percent of the U.S. population by June 2023. And Sprint/T-Mobile itself offers 5G in a handful of cities, and will be fined if they don't roll out 5G networks in a list of US cities on a agreed-upon schedule.

5G is happening … sort of

5G is finally starting to happen. But the hype around 5G centers on the false belief that consumer access via 5G-supporting smartphones will radically and quickly change how smartphones work, the real boon will come mainly to enterprises over the next few years.

What consumers generally don't understand is that 5G phones will operate on 4G networks almost all the time, kicking into 5G high gear only when their applications demand it and when they happen to be near one of the 5G base stations provided by their carrier.

5G uses millimeter wave technology, which sends and receives data at higher frequencies and therefore faster and in larger quantities, but necessarily over a shorter distance than 4G (less than 1,000 feet). That means the number of base stations has to be much higher and more evenly distributed in order to provide broad coverage.

5G coverage requires lots of base stations that are close enough to each other to prevent gaps. This is doable, profitable and rational for large enterprise offices, warehouses, factories and other buildings. But providing coverage across an entire city -- let alone outside of cities -- is a daunting, expensive and time-consuming project that may never even pay for itself.

So we're in the very early days of 5G as a communications technology that would replace or augment 4G connectivity.

We've got a long way to go with 5G. So what's all this noise about 6G?

Who's working on 6G?

Everyone seems to be suddenly announcing 6G development.

The truth is that 6G isn't a specific thing like 5G is. Researchers are merely in the exploratory stage to figure out how to make transmission bandwidth even better than what 5G technologies can achieve.

In other words, something better and different will follow 5G, and whatever that will end up being we'll call 6G.

It's assumed and proclaimed that whatever technologies we call 6G will be capable of terabit data rates and ultra-low (virtually non-existent) latency.

The Chinese government announced this week that it has cobbled together two groups to look into 6G wireless technology. One of those groups is government bureaucrats and the other is populated by 37 scientists and researchers. China clearly intends to be the global leader in 6G technology.

Huawei is doing research on what they're calling 6G technology not only in China, but also in Ottawa, Canada, and may be working with Canadian universities on the project. (The Canadian government is still on the fence about allowing Huawei's 5G in the country.)

The Chinese smartphone company Vivo may be working on what it considers 6G smartphones. The company has reportedly filed a patent application in the EU for a logo. In other words, the company is already investing in the marketing of 6G. Separately, the company said it's working with researchers to explore 6G R&D. 

The United States says the same, and has also begun the exploration of 6G, along with Europe, other Asian countries outside of China and others.

In March, the FCC opened ultra-high frequencies to researchers that range from 95 gigahertz to three terahertz to allow 6G research. Dozens of U.S. universities are starting to explore 6G technologies.

Intel, in partnership with Japan's Sony and NTT are starting to explore what's possible with 6G, which (as with many others) somewhat arbitrarily peg 2030 as a possible introduction date for 6G technology. They'll be focusing on the chips that would power such bandwidth.

Samsung said vaguely it's looking into 6G.

Finland's University of Oulu is spearheading 6G research. Researchers there correctly point out that 6G will power communications for the post-smartphone world, most likely smart glasses.

The Netherlands' Eindhoven University of Technology claims to have conducted the world's first practical test of 6G technologies. In fact, what they tested was an antenna design that would work both for 5G and 6G communications.

And many other organizations are beginning the process of exploring what's possible with post-5G communications technologies.

What are we to make of all this activity around 6G?

The ugly truth about 6G

Universities, smartphone makers, telecoms, governments and technologies of all stripes are predicting data rates and latency measurements. They're predicting a 2030 rollout. Each of the 6G announcement-makers are asserting their intention to be a leader in 6G.

All this chatter creates the false impression that 6G is real thing marching inexorably to a glorious imminent future.

But the truth is that 6G is nowhere. It's nothing. 6G doesn't exist.

Forget 6G. Even ubiquitous 5G is probably more than a decade in the future.

The predictions about terabit-speed 6G networks arriving in 2030 are pure wishful thinking, an aggressive timeline designed exclusively to light fires under the backsides of regulators, researchers, investors and others.

If history is any guide, the post-5G future is probably something that will meaningfully arrive in 2040.

Babies born this month will be graduating college by the time they use what we'll call 6G networks. They'll see smartphones as outdated contraptions that their grandparents used to use.

It will be interesting intellectually to follow the slow, granular announcements of new technologies that will contribute to the future of 6G. But from a practical perspective, it's perfectly safe to ignore 6G communications in enterprises.

6G is not a real thing. It doesn't exist. The technologies have not been developed for it. And there's nothing to be done about it in enterprises.

Instead, we should be focused on how to roll out, implement, secure and take advantage of 5G communications, without the distraction of the 6G mirage.

Yes, some day we'll use communications technologies that we'll call 6G. But today, 6G is merely something people are talking about as part of a larger effort to kickstart the research and bluster about leadership in the future of communications.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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