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What is the state of 6G, and when will it arrive? Here's what to look out for

6G will deliver multiple advances on many fronts, but the benefits won't be evident for a while yet.
Written by Charles McLellan, Senior Editor
Image: Inside Creative House/Getty Images

Although 5G connectivity is still by no means universally available, even in developed parts of the world, planning and research for the next generation, 6G, is already underway. 

Each mobile network generation consolidates the use cases offered by the preceding one and introduces new capabilities, on a roughly 10-year cycle. So 2G (1990) introduced digital voice calls and text messaging (SMS); 3G (2000) added mobile web browsing on smartphones; 4G (2010) brought faster data speeds, enabling mobile video; and 5G (2020) is bringing even faster mobile broadband with lower latency, enabling use cases such as the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), digital twins, autonomous vehicles, smart homes, buildings, cities and farms, and remote healthcare. 

What is 6G?

6G is the next mobile network generation after 5G -- and more specifically, after a stepping-stone called 5G Advanced, which is built on the 3GPP's Release 18 standard. Release 18 is expected to be finalised in mid-2024, with device and network support for 5G Advanced likely to become available during 2025.

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5G Advanced "will include major enhancements in the areas of AI and extended reality (XR) that will enable highly intelligent network solutions that can support a wider variety of use cases than ever before," says 5G Americas

What about 6G? According to Nokia: "Literally, every single improvement in network connectivity that 5G will bring to the end-user will get further perfected with 6G. Whether it's smart cities, farms or factories, and robotics, 6G will take it to the next level." 

When will 6G arrive?

If 6G development proceeds in line with the historical 10-year cadence, we can expect to see the first commercial networks around 2030 -- perhaps earlier in parts of the world that were quick to deploy 5G networks, such as Asia. 

At the upcoming Mobile World Congress 2023, an annual opportunity to take the temperature of the mobile world, a key theme is '5G Acceleration'. But already, 6G is making its presence felt in sessions entitled 'Ready to talk 6G?' and 'Spectrum: delivering a 6G Future'.  

Expect to hear a lot more about 6G as requirements and standards are developed, frequency bands (up to terahertz level) are defined and allocated, the (increasingly open) Radio Access Network (RAN) is built out, AI-powered core networks are deployed, and devices with 6G support are brought to market. 

How fast will 6G be, and what use cases will it enable?

Peak theoretical data rates for 5G, as defined by the ITU's IMT-2020 requirements, are up to 20Gbps down and up to 10Gbps up, with 'user experienced' rates coming in at 100Mbps down and 50Mbps up, latencies between 1 millisecond (URLLC) and 4ms (eMBB), and connection densities up to a million devices per square kilometer (mMTC).

Although the requirements for 6G (IMT-2030) are yet to be finalized, theoretical downlink data rates could go as high as one terabit per second (1Tbps, or 1000Gbps), with latency measured in microseconds. If 6G gets anywhere near these numbers in practice, it will enable a much wider and more performant range of use cases than 5G.

6G performance (expected) versus 5G

Peak data rate20Gbps1Tbps
Experience data rate100Mbps1Gbps
Maximum bandwidth1GHz100GHz
Connection density1 million devices/square km10 million devices/square km

Qualcomm's vision for 6G is "A smarter society enabled by the connected intelligent edge". This will involve utilizing core technology advances in wireless, semiconductors, materials and AI/ML; meeting society's sustainability needs by connecting more people and industries, boosting network energy efficiency, and improving device battery life; and delivering "next-level experiences that cannot be met with 5G".

As well as evolving the enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC) and massive machine-type communications (mMTC) services of 5G, next-generation 6G mobile networks will help to deliver more immersive extended reality (XR) experiences and enable new capabilities in wireless positioning and remote sensing, Qualcomm predicts.

What standards will define 6G?

3GPP releases for 5G and 6G
Image: Qualcomm

The current focus of the 3GPP is finalizing the Release 18 standard for 5G Advanced and deciding on the content of Release 19, which is expected to happen in September 2023. Initial work on 6G specifications will start with Release 20 in 2025, with Release 21 expected to be completed and ratified by 2028, in time for commercial 6G network launches in 2030.

What spectrum will 6G use?

6G will support all of the frequency bands used by 5G -- low band (<1GHz), mid-band (1-7GHz), and mmWave (24-100GHz) -- and add two new spectrum bands that are not currently used by mobile network operators.

The upper mid-band range, 7-24GHz, is currently used for non-cellular communication purposes, including fixed wireless links, military, satellite, maritime, and science services. However, advanced AI-enabled dynamic frequency sharing mechanisms should make it possible for 6G networks to exploit upper mid-band spectrum, which will primarily deliver extra capacity for wide-area broadband.

Sub-terahertz frequencies (100-1000GHz) beyond mmWave can deliver very high data rates and low latencies, but pose challenges in terms of coverage, mobility, and device power consumption. Potential use cases include wireless fronthaul and backhaul, fixed wireless to the home, wireless data centers, ultra-precise positioning, and RF sensing.   

What about satellites? 

Support for non-terrestrial networks (NTNs) -- primarily involving LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) and GEO (Geostationary) satellites, but also drones (UAVs) and high-altitude platform stations (HAPS) -- has been part of the 3GPP's remit since Release 17. The main goal is to fill in the gaps where terrestrial coverage is not available. "Including satellite as part of the 3GPP specifications will support the promise of worldwide access to 5G services and drive explosive growth in the satellite industry," the 3GPP says. 

Recent announcements by Apple, Qualcomm, and British company Bullitt Group have sparked interest in satellite communication on smartphones, and the 3GPP will continue to develop its NTN standards through Release 18 and beyond. 


It's easy to get carried away with the promise of future technology, but we should also keep a sense of perspective: a lot of people in developed countries don't get 5G coverage yet, any many that do have been underwhelmed so far. Meanwhile, large parts of the world lack any sort of mobile coverage, which explains the increasing interest in affordable satellite communications. 

6G will deliver multiple advances on many fronts, but the benefits won't be evident until 2030 at the earliest, and probably, for most people, a good while after that.

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