Yes, it sounds crazy -- and yes, we're still at the very early stages of 5G -- but it is officially time to start talking about 6G.
Don't panic just yet though: Some of the top experts in the industry agree that 6G is still more of a concept than a concrete idea, and no real products are expected for at least a decade or so.
It's because the FCC voted today to approve experiments in spectrum above 95GHz. "Prior to this decision, the commission had no rules for authorizing communications above 95GHz, other than by amateur operators or through experiments of limited duration and scope," the agency noted.
In a unanimous vote by the five-member commission, the FCC created "a new category of experimental licenses for use of frequencies between 95 GHz and 3 THz. These licenses will give innovators the flexibility to conduct experiments lasting up to 10 years, and to more easily market equipment during the experimental period."
So what can you do with communications above 95GHz? One answer to that question comes from Ted Rappaport at NYU Wireless, an academic research organization associated with the NYU Tandon School of Engineering in New York. Rappaport's comments carry a significant amount of weight because NYU Wireless was one of the institutions on the bleeding edge of the development of 5G technology in millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum.
"You are opening new spectrum which allows us to move all the way up to the Terahertz range," Rappaport said at the FCC's open meeting today.
(For those not familiar with wireless transmissions, most of today's 4G communications happens in spectrum bands like 700MHz and 2.5GHz. 5G technologies open up communications in much higher bands like 28GHz and 39GHz. The Terahertz range is way, way above even that. However, transmissions in higher spectrum bands generally can't travel very far and generally can't travel through objects -- but they can carry much more data.)
"At Terahertz, there are things we never thought our smartphone would do," Rappaport said. "Science fiction will become a reality."
Really? Well, according to Rappaport, Terahertz transmissions can potentially support data rates that are high enough to carry human cognition… like remote controlling robots, I guess? Rappaport calls it "wireless cognition." I don't really get it, but it sounds cool.
In more relatable applications, Rappaport said Terahertz transmissions can sense objects so that you can monitor air quality, see in the dark, look around a corner, scan for explosives or control your phone by waving your hand (those body scanners at the airport use Terahertz transmissions). He also said Terahertz transmissions can also be used for super high-speed wireless backhaul or communications inside data centers.
So… it's like 5G, but better!
Rappaport added that NYU Wireless is studying technologies -- like new beamforming and antenna approaches -- that could help mitigate the spectrum propagation problems that dog transmissions in super-high spectrum bands.
Today NYU Wireless counts a wide range of partner companies, including the likes of Qualcomm, AT&T, Sprint, Ericsson, Huawei, InterDigital, Crown Castle and others.
But NYU Wireless' partners these aren't the only companies involved in today's FCC proceeding. Much of the behind-the-scenes work at the FCC that led to today's vote came from the mmWave Coalition. Members of that association include NYU Wireless as well as Azbil North America Research and Development, Global Foundries, Keysight Technologies, Nokia, Nuvotronics, Qorvo, RaySecur and Virginia Diodes.
At the recent Mobile World Congress trade show, Nokia CTO Marcus Weldon spoke at length about the possibility of transmissions above 95GHz and 6G.
"5G is going to have an unusually long lifetime," Weldon said at the outset of the discussion about 6G. He said that 5G is expected to have at least a 10-year lifespan, much like 4G. Weldon said that any 6G technology might be included in the 3GPP Release 18 or possibly Release 19. The 3GPP standards group today is working on Release 16, which should be released in early 2020. Weldon added that 6G trials might not happen until the year 2030, after any 5G Advanced technologies are standardized and commercially released.
Interestingly, Weldon said that -- at least right now -- 6G technologies would probably need some kind of new chip technology. He said that the standard CMOS technology for chips today cannot be used in transmissions above 95GHz, and so some kind of innovation in the chip sector would need to happen first before commercial widespread use of 6G technologies above 95GHz.
So will innovations above 95GHz warrant the 6G label? Nokia's Weldon said it could go either way. "It's worthy of a new G in some ways," he said, adding that in other ways it might not be.
To be clear, NYU Wireless, the mmWave Coalition and the FCC aren't the only entities moving forward on 6G. For example, the University of Oulu in Finland recently announced an association with with 6G Flagship to study the 6G space. The International Telecommunication Union recently launched the Network 2030 focus group -- lead by a Huawei executive -- to look at the future of communications networks. And ComSenTer is a new multi-university research effort in the US looking at the fundamentals of 6G.