The advent of 5G cellular technology brought higher speeds for some, but didn’t really address coverage gaps that millions of people around the world still deal with every day. The early work on 6G hints that the industry is looking to space to address those dead zones.
6G technology is still in its infancy – so much so that there is no agreement on what it will look like – and experts estimate the connection to be anywhere between 10 and 1,000 times faster than current 5G networks, according to Scientific American.
One area of 6G research that Scientific American highlights is the work around incorporating both ground-based fiber infrastructure with satellites in space to provide more comprehensive coverage around the world.
The work reflects the reality that while higher speeds is a sexier story for cellular carriers, simple connectivity and wider reach could have a more material impact on people’s lives. President Joe Biden has passed a sweeping infrastructure bill that promises billions of dollars in internet investment, but there will always be challenges in connecting remote, sparsely populated regions.
6G could eventually help with that, offering a true replacement for home internet service to far-flung locations.
“Wi-Fi provides good service, but 6G is being designed to provide even better service than your home router, especially in the latency department, to address the growing remote workforce,” Lingjia Liu, one of the leading experts in 6G research and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech, told Scientific American. “The speed of 6G will enable applications that we may not even imagine today. The goal for the industry is to have the global coverage and support ready for those applications when they come.”
6G technology is still a long way off from being available – think somewhere near 2030 – although experts are speaking highly of it already. The signals are expected to travel a greater distance, expanding coverage to remote areas that have yet to be reached by broadband and fiber optic lines.
With SpaceX launching satellites that offer internet service from Starlink, and Amazon just launching its first rocket and test satellites to do the same, there’s already a potential infrastructure in space ready to be tapped.
For now, the broadband industry is still largely looking to the ground to close the digital divide. The Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Progress Report shows that 4.4% of Americans don’t have access to download speeds of 25 Mbps, the minimum rate to log into video meetings or stream video content. To address this, the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program has received $42.45 in government commitments to fund the construction and installation of high-speed internet.
Installing the infrastructure to bring the internet to these areas is costly and time-consuming. The United States Government Accountability Office reports that 17% of rural areas and 21% of Tribal Lands are still in a digital drought.
For now, those investments will have to make do. The United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union defines each generation of internet, determining which upload and download speeds qualify as 5G, 4G, or 3G, and isn’t expected to pass a new standard until the end of next year. But even then, there remains a lot of work to be done to get 6G ready, so it’ll likely be a while before we see what its full capabilities will be, and actually be able to tap into 6G service.