While the U.S. rollout of 5G wireless service continues, eagle-eyed researchers at Northeastern University are already looking to the future of 6G networks––which might be closer than most would expect.
Telecommunication providers like AT&T and Verizon have been gradually upgrading their networks to 5G since the Federal Communications Commission approved 5G deployment in 2018. Even as some have raised concerns about the technology’s potential impacts, 5G has carried the promise of a wider, faster network for internet and cellphone users.
But a paper published today in Nature Communications Engineering and co-authored by Northeastern’s Josep Jornet and Michele Polese, among others, highlights a method that could prove foundational for 6G wireless systems and the future of communication.
“6G is a technology for communications, for sensing and for everyone, not just the rich people in the cities,” Jornet, an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering, said.
Currently, 5G is able to reach frequencies of up to 71 gigahertz, but Jornet said that stepping up to 6G would open up frequencies above 100 gigahertz. Known as the terahertz band, this range would allow access to even higher bandwidth and faster connections.
Unfortunately, there’s a reason researchers have long seen 6G as science fiction and the terahertz band as “no man’s land,” Jornet said. The only users of the terahertz band have historically been satellites operated by NASA and research-focused organizations. Hopping onto the same frequency as one of these satellites risks interfering with the data being collected, which is why federal regulations currently prevent telecommunication companies from using these frequencies.
As laid out in their paper, Jornet and Polese, a principal researcher in electrical and computer engineering, have built a system that successfully demonstrates for the first time a method known as “time sharing.” In essence, the system can seamlessly shift between two different frequencies in real-time to avoid interfering with scientific users who need to use the terahertz for their research.
“The idea is that when this specific satellite or any other stakeholder that uses this spectrum is in reach … we use a different satellite frequency band, one that may be more crowded but does not introduce any issue for the sensing people,” Polese said. “Instead, while the satellite is not in reach, when it is safe to do so, we can switch back to the band that is used by the satellite, which is a less crowded, larger band that gives us more resources but we cannot use all the time.”
For Jornet, this system proves that access to higher frequencies is a reality, one that could prove foundational for the eventual implementation of 6G. And Jornet and Polese are not alone in thinking the future of high bandwidth communications is on the horizon. Jornet said that at a recent conference put on by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a panel featuring executives from several large telecommunication providers universally agreed that 6G will bring with it access to the terahertz band.
“This is happening, and if this is happening, we better know how to co-exist with these users who were there first, who cannot move,” Jornet said.
“You have a regulation that forbids you from using this frequency at all times, even if only for a few minutes every day this worst-case scenario could happen,” Jornet added. “What we want to show is there are better ways than prohibition to handle problems.”
But why pursue 6G when some communities, particularly rural communities, still don’t have 5G? According to Polese, 6G wireless technology could potentially help implement 5G in harder to reach areas.
“In a sense, it’s trying to address some of the flaws we’ve seen in the rollout of 5G, which is mainly very good technology but it needs to have a very compelling business case for widespread adoption,” Polese said. “The introduction of this even higher frequency … to carry data between two points, between two groups of users, that is very appealing both for us who are in universities but also for companies and industry as well.”
As for when people can expect to get 6G on their phones, Jornet and Polese speculate the technology will be ready before too long, even if deployment is still years away.
“Is it in five years that we will see this being used?” Jornet asked. “No, probably in five years we will be at the point that we know exactly what’s being done, what can be done and therefore the standards are finalized.”
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