6G Communications a Trillion Dollar Opportunity, Reveals IDTechEx
Phone systems change every ten years. 5G communications is now rolling out worldwide and it is time to plan 6G communications for 2030.
In fact, work began in earnest on 6G communications in 2020 with over one billion dollars committed and a Chinese satellite sent up to experiment on the possibilities. Finland, Korea, and China are particularly active in researching the terahertz electronics that will be at the heart of 6G. There is also excellent work in India and elsewhere. Backing Finland and its partners are over $350 million of new European Union research grants, so this is serious. Although little is decided – not even the frequency – much can be said about the extremely ambitious 6G objectives and challenges. This is according to market research provider IDTechEx.
IDTechEx notes that 5G serves far more than the needs of mobile phones or even personal electronics in general. This will be even more true of 6G, with thing-to-thing communication possibly being more important than human communication.
At a minimum, the basic specifications will embrace the needs of sensing, positioning, edge computing, highest definition imaging, and yes, communication. To a human, the 6G response time will appear to be instant. For the first time, there will be no cell-to-cell handover for mobile devices. No more suffering the loss of service at cell-to-cell handover.
Key parameters of 6G will be at least ten times better than 5G, largely because the frequency will be at least ten times higher. That means in the unallotted terahertz band of 275GHz to 10THz, also known as far infrared. This is the Wild West cowboy territory of physics, where few components exist and signals generated are weak as yet. They call it the “Terahertz Gap”.
For this reason, initial experiments are often taking place at the easier end - 100-300GHz. The FCC has proposed formalizing this “experimenter’s play area” in some bands between 116 and 246GHz. 6G rollout may, like 5G, start at a relatively easy frequency (275GHz?) and later migrate to a challenging higher frequency (1THz) for most benefits. (5G started at a few GHz and is migrating to tens of GHz).
That upper, ultimate THz frequency is unlikely to be higher than 1THz because, just after that, atmospheric attenuation of the beam jumps up to severe levels, and components also become extremely challenging.
In fact, the THz frequencies will be used at local level and between satellites, the rest being Free Space Optical (FSO) in most cases because laying fiber optics will be too expensive or impractical. There may be some C band GHz long-distance links as well.
There are counter-arguments to all this 6G enthusiasm. Some say 5G is proving so expensive it may never be fully deployed. They suggest that those needing more will get it from a higher frequency version of 5G with no more standards needed. IDTechEx notes that 6G cannot happen without something that does not exist and may never be affordable. It is needed because THz beams are narrow, weak, and do not go round corners. Almost anything stops them, so you need smart surfaces even in your private house to provide access everywhere. There are many names for these smart surfaces. “Hypersurfaces”, “Intelligent Reflective Surfaces IRS”, “Software-programmable metasurfaces SPM”. They consist of active THz components and metamaterials in arrays of separately-programmable “tiles”. These must redirect, amplify, collimate, polarise, and otherwise manipulate those THz beams.