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EXPLAINED: Tech For Making Objects Talk. Unpacking 6G's Potential As India Plans For Internet Future

6G could enable internet speeds of 1Tbps, about 100-times faster than the top speed possible with 5G.

6G could enable internet speeds of 1Tbps, about 100-times faster than the top speed possible with 5G.

Although it's still early days and 5G is yet to launch, India is working on 6G technology, the next-gen network standard that will make internet "like air"

4G brought us increased speeds and gave a glimpse into the potential of mobile internet. 5G is waiting in the wings to take internet to more devices than just our smartphones and tabs. So, imagine what 6G will do? How about an ingestible wi-fi implant that sends inputs on the health of your lungs straight to your specialist? 6G could make that, and much more, possible. And, India is working on indigenous technologies to stay on the ball on its rollout, Union Minister for Communication Ashwini Vaishnaw recently said. Here’s what you need to know about the next-gen internet standard.

What Is 6G?

Well, it’s definitely the putative successor to 4G, which we just about have in India and across much of the world, and 5G, for which India is gearing up as is most of the world. But it has to be remembered that 6G is at present more in the realm of science fiction than actual reality, though efforts are on in institutes, tech labs and at communication companies to shape and develop the standards and the protocols for 6G. The goal is to seize the first-mover advantage on this tech, which is tipped to unlock the vast potential that lies in harnessing the power of communication technology.

When Will 6G Be Ready For Roll Out?

Experts and industry players say that new communications standards come along every 10 years or so and that the 2020s decade being that of 5G, it will be in the 2030s that 6G is eventually rolled out. Though on tech there can tend to be a lot of margin between promise and performance. For example, most of our phones show the network as being ‘Vo LTE’, which stands for ‘Voice over Long Term Evolution’.

While we’re supposed to be enjoying 4G networks — the wireless standard that brought a radical injection of speed to the mobile phone internet experience, allowing us to live stream sports and watch HD movies — experts point out that what most companies offer — the so-called ‘Vo LTE’ — is actually an “almost-4G-but-not-quite version of 3G”.

Minister Vaishnaw was quoted as saying that, in India, “6G development has already started” and will be “seen somewhere in the time frame 2024 or 2023-end”. He is said to have pointed to “designed in India telecom software for running the networks, manufactured in India telecom equipment, served in India telecom networks which can go global” for the purpose.

In a reply in Parliament in August this year, the Ministry of Communications had said that India is yet to roll out 5G services although permission has been granted to telecom service providers for “conducting 5G technology trials with a validity period of 6 months”.

How Will 6G Be Different From 5G?

6G will not so much be about supercharged speeds for your movie-streaming experience as it will be for you to communicate with machines using gestures and for your gas cylinder to talk directly with your LPG provider, just to imagine some of the possibilities that it encompasses.

In a white paper on 6G, Nokia says that with this technology, “wearable devices, such as earbuds and devices embedded in our clothing, will become common, and skin patches and bio-implants may not be so uncommon”.

“We might even become reliant on new brain sensors to actuate machines. We will have multiple wearables that we carry with us and they will work seamlessly with each other, providing natural, intuitive interfaces,” the company says. Also, touchscreen typing will likely become outmoded and “gesturing and talking to whatever devices we use to get things done will become the norm”, it adds.

As devices get smaller and more aware, 6G will allow deeper engagement with the cloud for processing data, relying on developments in edge computing, which is an architecture for bringing “enterprise applications closer to data sources such as IoT devices or local edge servers”. IBM says that “this proximity to data at its source can deliver strong business benefits, including faster insights, improved response times and better bandwidth availability”.

What Will Internet Speeds Be Like With 6G?

All this 6G will achieve through a generational jump in networking standards involving things like higher-frequency radio bands and lower latency. Mung Chiang, the dean of the engineering college at Purdue University in US, says in an article in Forbes magazine that if previous generations of wireless networks “focused on throughput, as in how many bits can you send and receive each second… 6G will be more about latency: How many seconds does it take to respond and to learn?” What it points to is virtually instantaneous communications, without the lag that transferring data over a network so far entails.

For this, we need to wrap our heads around the awesome speeds 6G promises. At speeds of under 40 Mbps we are already witness to what 4G, or 4G-like networks, can bring to our lives. 5G, which are based on what are known as millimetre waves, are already supposed to “to carry vast amounts of data at ultrafast speeds with minimal response time”, or latency. 5G is designed to enable speeds of more than 40 Mbps to up to 1 Gbps. Experts say that 5G could perhaps eventually reach speeds of up to 10 Gbps on devices.

Now, while 5G was envisaged as the network that would enable the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), experts note that “the ongoing deployment of 5G cellular systems is continuously exposing the inherent limitations of this system, compared to its original premise as an enabler for Internet of Everything applications”.

With 6G, users could be looking at speeds that are “a thousand times faster than 1 Gbps, the fastest speed available on most home internet networks today… [and] 100 times faster than 10 Gbps, the hypothetical top speed of 5G”. As an article notes, 6G will make internet “instantly and continuously accessible, woven… into the tapestry of everyday life”. As an expert notes: “What happens is the connectivity becomes like air”.

What Are The Challenges To 6G Rollout?

To begin with, 6G till now is not very much more than an idea that is quietly revving on the runway of possibilities. Which is to say, it is at an experimental level. Much of the tech that is envisaged as being an enabler of 6G is yet to be thrashed out. For instance, one of the top questions scientists would be working on is how to transmit the really short-wave frequencies that will enable 6G networks.

Already, setting up 5G networks has proven to be a challenge given the issue that millimeter waves can travel only over short distances and, hence, need a direct ‘line of sight’ between the transmitter and the receiver, or the user. Terahertz waves, or the sub-millimetre waves that 6G aims to use have an even lower range.

As an article in PC Mag notes, 6G waves “are extremely tiny and fragile” and, involved among the tech challenges are questions like suitable semiconductor materials and setting up thick arrays of transmitters to carry these waves, which in turn has implications for the environment and energy use, which means that “mathematicians will have to design models that allow data to take very complex routes to its destination”.

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first published:November 29, 2021, 09:05 IST