A technology that doesn't even exist yet is already fuelling a new global race.
The search for the 6th generation of wireless technology (also known as 6G) is racking up millions in public and private investment, despite the deployment of its precursor, 5G, is still in its early stages.
Just last week the United States and Japan pledged to "revitalise" their alliance through a partnership on competitiveness and innovation. The list of joint commitments included $2.5 billion (€2.07 bn) from the US and $2 billion (€1.66 bn) from Japan for the "research, development, testing, and deployment of secure networks and advanced ICT including 5G and next-generation mobile networks (“6G” or “Beyond 5G”)".
The timing of the move was not accidental. The previous month, China, already a leader in 5G technology, had announced that the research and development of 6G will be a top priority in its next five-year plan (2021-25). Five-year plans are designed and implemented by the Communist Party of China to shape the economy, boost growth and launch reforms.
South Korea jumped even earlier on the 6G wagon: in August 2020, the government unveiled an initial package of 200 billion KRW (around €142 million) for 2021 onwards. Companies like Samsung, Huawei, Qualcomm, Apple, Facebook, Nokia and Ericsson are also drawing plans and striking alliances to tap into the 6G revolution.
But the technology is years away from materialising: current estimates indicate that commercialisation could begin between 2027 and 2028, with 6G becoming mainstream during the 2030s.
What exactly is 6G?
Mobile technologies evolve in 10-year cycles, changing the way we communicate and use our devices. At the turn of the century, 3G brought Internet into our mobile phones and ushered in the Blackberry era. Ten years later, 4G introduced streaming, Skype calls, HD videos, social media and online gaming. The smartphone reign thus begun.
Today we're undergoing the fifth generation revolution (5G) that promises speeds of up to 10 gigabytes per second thanks to its ultra-low latency and massive network capacity. While that maximum speed won't be achieved any time soon, 5G alone is expected to transform the way in which humans use and connect with their devices and surroundings.
The so-called Internet of Things, where billions of inter-connected devices around the world collect, process and share data, will come into being. Autonomous vehicles, automated industry, augmented reality and smart cities will become widespread thanks to 5G deployment, which could generate around $13 trillion (€10.8 tr) in global economic value and more than 20 million jobs by 2035.
But 6G wants to go further and thrust humankind into the Internet of Senses, a real-time fusion of the digital and physical worlds that will enable users to interact with their five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. Edge computers, artificial intelligence and virtual reality will interweave to create a seamless, immersive universe of Wi-Fi implants, cellular surfaces and holograms.
The sixth generation of wireless technology could reach speeds of up to 1 terabyte per second, meaning 100 times more than 5G's hypothetical fastest range. This impressive speed, impossible to fathom today, could eventually allow users to download dozens, possibly hundreds, of movies in just one second. Business, healthcare and transport will be forever transformed.
"With 6G, you can fundamentally rethink all of economic and human ecosystems and create a sort of boosted version of reality. Think of production in manufacturing, think of education, think of entertainment," Alessandro Gropelli, director of strategy and communications at European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO), tells Euronews.
"I think that the vision of 6G being developed by academics today goes in the direction of finding solutions to challenges that today are too complex and hence it's going to make potentially the life of people much better because we will be able to overcome those challenges that with the current technology and current knowledge we are still not able to fully understand," Gropelli adds.
"It's a bit visionary, but it's exciting."
Europe's own race
In the face of the decisive action taken in the United States and Asia, the European Union is also making its own moves to get hold of 6G technology while continuing to deploy 5G networks. According to the EU's 5G Action Plan, all populated areas in the bloc should have 5G by 2030. But by then, 6G could be already available for customers.
With this in mind, the European Commission adopted in February a legislative proposal for the period 2021-2027 setting up €900 million to "coordinate research activities on 6G technology under Horizon Europe as well as 5G deployment initiatives". The Commission hopes to leverage a similar amount from the private sector, reaching €1.8 billion in total investment. Member states are too looking ahead: Germany has put on the table €700 million for 6G R&D for the next five years.
While the EU lost the social media and smartphone races against the United States, South Korea and China, it has been able to thrive in the 5G competition. Finland's Nokia and Sweden's Ericsson, together with China's Huawei, comfortably dominate the current market. The total or partial ban that many Western countries have imposed on Huawei – following a concentrated push from the White House – has helped the two Nordic giants to hold their ground and keep growing.
Brussels is confident that a similar position of prominence could be replicated in the 6G marathon.
"[It's] important that Europe maintains its technology capacities. We know that we have two of the major three suppliers of equipment. So this is a good starting point," Peter Stuckmann, head of the future connectivity systems unit of the European Commission, tells Euronews.
"We are launching our major research programmes. So, we will make another step change in performance, for example, enabling terabit capacity to support telepresence or, for example, the digital twins of our surroundings."
Besides the seemingly endless and awe-inspiring applications that 6G may (or may not) have, the new wireless generation is anticipated to come with its own geopolitical complications. The joint US-Japan statement proves that those who missed out on the 5G race are not willing to concede the next one.
Both countries pointedly called for the advancement of Open Radio Access Networks (Open-RAN), a system where mobile network operators could use equipment from multiple vendors and ensure interoperability. In our current closed RAN systems, operators (like Vodafone and Telefonica) are forced to rely on equipment from exclusively one vendor (like Huawei and Nokia).
In theory, Open-RAN would allow telecom companies and governments to easily bypass providers deemed risky or unreliable without having to spend millions to replace them.
Open-RAN, much like 6G, has yet to emerge in the real world. But its growing popularity (the European Commission is studying Open-RAN) suggests an eagerness for a more accessible, dynamic and inclusive environment where national ambitions would remain virtually the same: to be the first.