The “Killer App” of 5G will be 6G
Despite its hype, 5G is primarily a buzzword associated with the potential it offers society: Lightning-fast downloads, near-zero latency, and technology such as virtual reality and self-driving cars. Nevertheless, one important fact is being overlooked in all the buzz-the fundamental technological advancements of 5G. Mobile technology such as millimetre-waves, small cells, and massive MIMO (multiple input, multiple outputs) antenna systems are paving the way for the next several decades in wireless communication. All of these technologies will advance wireless networks as we move into an era of cognitive computing and human-like applications. It won’t take more than 20 years for wireless networks to transmit information as fast as the human brain.
For a more thorough understanding of the impending revolution brought about by 5G, and its impact on the future of wireless technology, let’s first examine the past 10 years. Over that period, the global cellular network has seen its data capacity and consumption increase at an exceedingly fast rate. Originally formulated by engineer Martin Cooper, the ‘law’ predicted that cell phone links would double their capacity about every 30 months (by a factor of 16 every decade).
According to Cooper’s law, average download speeds have increased from a few megabits per second in 2010 to about 50 Mbps in 2020. During the same period, peak throughput data rates increased by more than a factor of 1,000, from megabits per second to gigabits per second. CTIA, the trade group representing the wireless industry, recently showed that the total amount of data carried over the U.S. cellular network increased 96 times from 2010 to 2019, with the average smartphone user downloading 9.2 gigabytes of data per month in 2019.
There was only 40 per cent more spectrum available in the past ten years as consumers adopted smartphones in the United States, but this nearly 100fold rise in carried capacity nonetheless happened. The incident occurred before the industry had adopted the important 5G enablers, such as small cells, millimetre wave spectrum, and MIMO antenna technology. With vast spectrum resources available at frequencies above 100 GHz, the U.S. alone could have many orders of magnitude more spectrum in the decades to come.
It is unlikely that 6G will be launched all at once. LTE advanced pro and LTE advanced are expected to be launched in phases across the geographic region in an incremental manner, as they are incremental enhancements to LTE advanced. At present, almost every telecom organization is looking to upgrade with 5G network deployments and to speed up upgrading their existing network infrastructure.
The net result of all this is that the additional link gain offered by these 5G technologies more than compensates for any radio channel loss when site-specific deployment is used to avoid massive obstructions. At millimetre-wave frequencies and above, things become reflective, increasing the probability that signal paths can be combined by directional antennas. It improves both the radio frequency power budget and the channel signal-to-noise ratio, which then allows for the provision of much larger bandwidth channels than are available today in wireless systems. Hence, the existing 5G tower infrastructure can support higher carrier frequencies and wider bandwidth channels once we have moved up to higher carrier frequencies and wider bandwidth channels. As more spectrum is opened up on the sub-terahertz and terahertz bands in the coming decades, the advantages offered by the three technical pillars of densification, wider bandwidth, and massive MIMO will allow engineering and deployment of 5G systems to continue for decades. Our predictions nearly ten years ago were accurate.
The same cellular infrastructure will be used for 6G and 7G, along with the same fundamental advances in radio circuitry and antenna technology that brought 5G to the market. However, those cellular generations will do so at much higher data rates, which will create vast amounts of data capacity and new uses in the coming decades. By itself, this should motivate governments, funders, wireless providers, and citizens to prioritize 5G deployment. Aside from that, the vast capabilities of 5G and beyond should also motivate governments and the industry to develop new architectures, like Open RAN, and place a greater emphasis on security. With 5G networks, there are tremendous opportunities, whose benefits will inure for decades to come, as we become more dependent on these invisible waves.
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