What Is 6G Internet and What Will It Look Like?
Most of us are still trying to wrap our heads around the new wireless cell phone standard known as 5G. But you know what? Now there’s a thing called 6G.
Yep, even though 5G networks aren’t fully built up yet, wireless communication companies have already started looking ahead and thinking about the next mobile network to come.
Technically, 6G doesn’t exist yet. But theoretically speaking, it could end up being a lot of things, building on current network and technology trends to help make a completely new type of internet. So, let’s take a deep dive into the zany world of 6G and imagine what the future holds.
What is 6G?
6G is the sixth generation of wireless technology. A 6G network follows up on 4G and 5G, building on the revamped infrastructure and advanced capacity currently being established on millimeter-wave 5G networks. Using higher-frequency radio bands, it will give networks much faster speeds and lower latency, able to support sophisticated mobile devices and systems like automated cars.
“What happens is the connectivity becomes like air,” said Kaniz Mahdi, Vice President of Advanced Technologies at cloud computing company VMware. “Just imagine if you have that level of connectivity—what is the impact to society? What is the impact to our daily lives?”
New wireless communication standards emerge about every decade, and 6G is expected to come into play around 2030. But nothing is set in stone—even the term “6G” could come out of favor and eventually be replaced by something else.
The reason some experts are researching and talking about 6G, though, is because big changes are in the works for internet technology in general. Consumers are using more devices and consuming internet data at record rates, incorporating Wi-Fi into virtually all aspects of everyday life. And wireless companies are rushing to compete with traditional, broadband internet providers, hoping to meet rising demand with robust and flexible cellular networks.
If you’re still unclear about what 5G is, then see our 5G providers page for an explanation of why it’s significant.
4G vs. 5G vs. 6G
|4G||Approx. 33.88 Mbps||Mobile phones, tablets, hotspots|
|5G||40–1,100 Mbps||Mobile phones, tablets, hotspots, public infrastructure, automated cars|
|6G||Up to 1 Tbps (1,000,000 Mbps)||Automated cars, cellular surfaces, Wi-Fi implants|
The cell phone internet technology we have today is based mostly on 4G, a wireless standard that first launched in late 2009. 4G radically boosted data speeds on our phones, allowing users to do online activities like streaming HD video and playing video games.
Interestingly, even though we’re now moving on to 5G, a lot of cell phone companies haven’t actually met international 4G benchmarks yet. You’ll notice these days that many networks are what’s called 4G LTE, or long-term evolution. The term sounds like deluxe 4G, but it’s more like a sped-up, almost-4G-but-not-quite version of 3G. On average, mobile devices on 4G LTE networks hit around 33.88 Mbps download speeds—well below the original estimates of what 4G was planned to achieve.
Still, AT&T, T-Mobile, and other cellular service providers proceeded to launch 5G in 2018 and 2019. They’re now busy building up 5G cellular networks across the nation. Some companies have also launched early iterations of 5G home internet.
Current 5G speeds range between 40 and 1,100 Mbps, depending on the type of 5G network you’re on. By harnessing technology like millimeter-wave spectrum and beamforming, experts estimate that 5G could eventually hit max speeds of up to 10,000 Mbps. Whether 5G hits that target or not, wireless companies are now moving away from just serving our phones and making plans to use 5G for other applications in industry, business, healthcare, and remote working.
Maybe by the time we get to 10,000 Mbps (10 Gbps) speeds, wireless companies will already be launching 6G. What’s clear is that 6G will be about a lot more than mere internet speeds.
What will 6G look like?
It’s hard to say what 6G will look like—after all, it doesn’t exist yet. But in media interviews and research papers, wireless companies and academics describe 6G as a fully integrated, internet-based system that allows for instantaneous communications between consumers, devices, vehicles, and the surrounding environment.1,2
Right now, we have the Internet of Things (IoT) with smartphones and smart home devices. Eventually we could arrive at an all-encompassing Internet of Everything. But that will depend on future developments like 6G (or whatever it will be called) and how it works.
Here’s a rundown of what experts are talking about when they talk about 6G:
1 Tbps speeds
Some experts believe that 6G networks could one day allow you to hit max speeds of one terabit per second (Tbps) on an internet device.3
That’s a thousand times faster than 1 Gbps, the fastest speed available on most home internet networks today. It’s 100 times faster than 10 Gbps, the hypothetical top speed of 5G. So, yeah, it’s a rosy guesstimate, and we are a long way off from achieving those speeds.
Fundamentally, though, researchers predict that 6G will place an emphasis on extremely high bandwidth and reliability. On 6G, internet will be instantly and continuously accessible, woven for many of us into the tapestry of everyday life.1
In 2019, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened the gates to a potential 6G future by allowing companies to begin experimenting with what’s being called “terahertz waves” or “submillimeter waves.” These are radio bands that fall in the spectrum of 95GHz to 3THz (terahertz).
Terahertz waves come at a higher frequency than millimeter waves, which today are being touted as a kind of Holy Grail solution to network congestion and bandwidth limitations. Advanced versions of 5G depend on millimeter wave bands to carry vast amounts of data at ultrafast speeds with minimal response time, making it (theoretically) possible to develop things like automated cars and remote surgeries.
The catch is that millimeter waves work only over short distances, requiring a “line of sight” between the transmitter and the user. And terahertz waves have even weaker range. But if they can be properly harnessed with some novel networking approaches, it can open up even more capacity for doing sophisticated, Jetsons–esque activities over a 6G wireless network.
Artificial intelligence and edge computing
Automated cars and drones, remote-controlled factories, and other uses of artificial intelligence (AI) have been getting a lot of discussion amid the rise of 5G. The advent of 6G is expected to make this even more of a thing—and some experts think artificial intelligence will be required to keep it all coordinated and running smoothly.
Razvan-Andrei Stoica and Giuseppe Abreu, two researchers at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, said that 6G could rely on “collaborative AI” to help self-driving cars communicate with each other, navigate pedestrians and traffic, and determine the best routes from here to there.
It’s part of an emerging trend called “edge computing,” which moves network management away from centralized clouds towards more localized devices, making everything work way smoother and reducing response times.
Another 6G acolyte, Roberto Saracco at the European Institute of Innovation & Technology, suggested that things like AI and edge computing could help devices themselves become network antennas—maintaining your Wi-Fi connection in a fluid, ever-shifting ballet of users and their devices.
Virtual reality is expected to play a big role in 5G. But this is just the beginning. In the 6G era years from now, some experts imagine the emergence of even more immersive technologies, such as cellular surfaces, connected implants, and “wireless brain-computer interfaces” (!!!).
Walid Saad, a faculty member at Virginia Tech and the lead author of a July 2019 white paper on 6G, predicts that smartphones will eventually fall to the wayside in favor of smart wearables, headsets, and implants “that can take direct sensory inputs from human senses.”
The Japanese mobile company NTT DoCoMo envisions a complete fusion of physical life and cyberspace: “For humans, it will become possible for cyberspace to support human thought and action in real time through wearable devices and micro-devices mounted on the human body.”
What do experts say about 6G?
The 6G research happening now is still in a very early stage, according to Kaniz Mahdi at VMware. It will likely be another several years before 5G technologies like millimeter-wave achieve their full potential. A recently-launched group called the Open Grid Alliance is also looking to “re-architect” the internet as a whole so it can better support major applications like control systems for automated cars and factories.
“We are looking to evolve the internet itself,” Mahdi said, noting that VMware is part of the alliance.
As 6G technology develops, there are plenty of other challenges that await too. Environmental sustainability will be a major issue, said Dr. Mahyar Shirvanimoghaddam, an expert in wireless technology at the University of Sydney.
“6G is expected to provide the communication infrastructure for billions of devices. These devices need to be constantly powered, and a majority of them will be battery-operated,” he said.
All of that manufacturing and energy usage poses a potential threat to the environment—unless there are plans in place to reduce 6G tech’s carbon footprint.
“How we will sustainably power all these devices is a big challenge, especially when considering the United Nations’ sustainable development goals,” Dr. Shirvanimoghaddam continued. “This must be taken into account when designing and developing 6G, not to remain as a problem to be solved later!”
Our verdict: 6G represents big changes for the internet—and for life itself
Remember—6G is just a bunch of ideas at this point. No need to run out and get a self-driving Tesla or Samsung brain scanner just yet.
But there is a lot of interest in 6G networks and technology from companies and governments all around the world, as represented by the recent 6G partnership between Chinese tech brand ZTE and state-owned phone carrier China Unicom. And it points to big ideas that a lot of experts have about how the internet could evolve in the coming years, making a big potential impact on the way we communicate, work, and live our lives.
So, keep your eyes peeled. In a decade or so, we might all be attending Zoom meetings with a sweet new pair of 6G retina implants.
6G internet FAQ
What does 6G mean?
6G means “sixth generation.” It will be the latest wireless internet and communications standard, following up on 5G and 4G before it.
What is 6G?
6G is a mostly theoretical concept, representing a set of ideas and theories about how the mobile network, Wi-Fi devices, connected automobiles, and other Wi-Fi–connected things will look and feel a decade or so from now. It’s the future of wireless internet as academics and companies imagine it right now.
What will 6G look like?
It’s hard to say what 6G will look like exactly, but it will likely involve an advanced level of automation and connectivity in cars, drones, mobile devices, homes, and industries. It will also incorporate technology like artificial intelligence and advanced “edge computing” to make networks more sophisticated, harnessing record-fast internet speeds and instantaneous latency to coordinate complex systems like road traffic and stock markets.
What is a 6G base station?
A 6G base station is a wireless communications station used to receive and transmit cellular signals. Although base stations for 6G aren’t around yet, 4G LTE and 5G networks use cell towers and “small cells”—small transmitters installed on street corners and utility poles—to beam internet and cellular data to our phones and other wireless devices.
- NTT DOCOMO, INC., “5G Evolution and 6G,” January 2020. Accessed August 17, 2020.
- Walid Saad, Mehdi Bennis, and Mingzhe Chen, “A Vision of 6G Wireless Systems: Applications, Trends, Technologies, and Open Research Problems,” July 2019. Accessed August 17, 2020.
- Alan Weedon, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “Huawei Is Beginning 6G Research—A Mobile Network That May Move Far Beyond Smartphones,” August 21, 2019. Accessed June 30, 2021.
Author - Peter Holslin
Peter Holslin has more than a decade of experience working as a writer and freelance journalist. He graduated with a BA in liberal arts and journalism from New York City’s The New School University in 2008 and went on to contribute to publications like Rolling Stone, VICE, BuzzFeed, and countless others. At HighSpeedInternet.com, he focuses on covering 5G, nerding out about frequency bands and virtual RAN, and producing reviews on emerging services like 5G home internet. He also writes about internet providers and packages, hotspots, VPNs, and Wi-Fi troubleshooting.
Editor - Cara Haynes
Cara Haynes has been editing and writing in the digital space for seven years, and she's edited all things internet for HighSpeedInternet.com for five years. She graduated with a BA in English and a minor in editing from Brigham Young University. When she's not editing, she makes tech accessible through her freelance writing for brands like Pluralsight. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your life span.