6G: The Next Generation of Wireless Communication



6G communication is at the stage in which thought leaders from academia and industry lay out possibilities, dream big, and envision what the world could look like in 10 or 20 years. While it may seem like we’re still trying to take full advantage of 5G, it’s a good time to think about what scientists and engineers will need to do to make 6G a reality.

What is 6G and When Will It Be Available?

6G is the sixth-generation mobile network standard that will succeed 5G. 6G is under development and expected to come out around 2030. 5G gained widespread availability in 2020, and there tends to be about a decade between major network advancements.

6G Promises Much Faster Data Speeds 

The 6G standard will provide consumers with wireless data speeds of up to 1 terabit/second. That speed is 100 times faster than current 5G networks and would be a game-changing technology for individuals and businesses looking to transfer more data in less time.

The Evolution of Wireless Technology

Beginning with the first mobile phone call back in 1973, using what later became “1G,” our industry has observed major evolutions in cellular technology over roughly 10-year cycles. 4G’s timeline unfolded between 2000 and 2010. 3GPP began working toward 5G standardization in 2015, but academic research was already well underway by that point, with NYU Wireless and METIS having been founded in 2012. Phase 1 standardization was complete with Release 15 in 2018, field trials in 2019, and deployments starting to ramp up in 2020. Today, the pattern looks to be holding, with early 6G research happening in support of a 2025 standardization start and a 2030 deployment timeline. Although the prospect of consumers purchasing their first 6G devices may seem far away, academic and industry researchers at the forefront of these cycles already are experimenting and building an understanding of key technologies critical for standardization.    

Figure 1. Cellular Technology Evolution


What Will 6G Allow Us to Do?

The use cases for 6G technology span multiple industries but all have one thing in common: A need for fast and reliable wireless connections. Here are several of the most likely uses for 6G:


When consumers think of 6G they expect faster upload and download speeds for data-intensive tasks like sharing videos and photos, streaming movies or music, playing games, and browsing the internet on mobile devices. This feature will undoubtedly be a key selling point of 6G when it comes to market. Increased performance should also benefit and  support the development of smart devices and connected homes.

Autonomous Driving

6G wireless would allow faster vehicle-to-vehicle communication and near-instant updates about road conditions, traffic, and weather to augment on-board sensors, cameras, and computers. Current latency and data speeds simply aren’t sufficient when it comes to autonomous vehicle technology, where a delay can be deadly. 6G is considered by many to be a necessary precursor to the development of self-driving cars.

Industrial Automation and the Internet of Things (IoT)

Factories have been making use of robots for years, but 6G could lead to more sophisticated types of automation. High-speed private networks would be able to accurately track both the location and status of robots as they move about the floor. 

Equipment could even communicate among itself for a 6G Internet of Things (IoT), coordinating movements or adjusting processes in response to live conditions like an assembly line slowdown.

Digital twins, virtual models of machine components, would be linked to their physical counterparts for an incredibly accurate, nearly live view of performance with the goal of anticipating failure and preventing downtime.

Extended Reality (XR)

While it may sound like another buzzy tech term, extended reality, or XR, holds great potential for both business and home use. The idea is a device or headset that superimposes digital information over the real world—a supercharged collaboration between augmented and virtual reality. For example, a mechanic looking under the hood of a car would see the latest fault codes for each part hovering in front of them. A nurse could view live vital signs simply by glancing at the patient. There’s even the possibility of haptic feedback that will blur the lines further between the real and virtual worlds.

XR needs fast data speeds and a reliable connection to be truly useful, and that’s why 6G is key to bringing it to the masses.

person using VR headset

6G is expected to usher in improvements in important performance vectors including speed, throughput, reliability, coverage, latency, energy, cost, and massive connectivity in three usage scenarios—enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), massive machine type communications (mMTC), and ultrareliable low latency communications (URLLC)—supporting a myriad of applications across a diverse set of industries. 

Who is Leading 6G Research?

Various telecommunications companies and academic institutions around the world are working on developing 6G technology, but it's still early days. The International Telecommunications Union, which laid out the goals for 5G in the IMT-2020 standard, has begun work on the vision for 6G under the Network 2030 Focus Group. 6G is expected to drive advances in existing applications while introducing new use cases and business models. Among these are holographic-type communications for fully immersive 3D experiences and Tactile Internet for real-time remote operation with audio, visual, and haptic feedback. These examples illustrate how important sensing is to 6G: It is the basis for all interaction with and emulation of the physical environment, and its potential extends to digital health, autonomous vehicles, and beyond. 

6g use cases


6G Enabling Technologies

The development of 6G will require advancements in related areas, such as:

Joint Communication and Sensing

The 6G experience requires more data as well as more environmental sensing and awareness—and joint communications and sensing explores combining them. Autonomous vehicles, for example, have incredibly sophisticated sensing systems powered by machine-learning algorithms fusing data from an array of cameras, lidar, and radar sensors. The advanced communications systems in these vehicles use cellular networks for streaming infotainment, environment and performance data, and vehicle-to-everything communications. Those working on sensing are looking to communications technologies such as orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) waveforms or multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) phased-arrays to help improve their outcomes, while those working on communications see opportunity for more data bandwidth in the vast swaths of radar-allocated spectrum. The extent to which these two traditionally separate functions merge will depend on regulatory and technical factors, but the combination could potentially define 6G communication.

Sub-THz (Sub-Terahertz)

The perpetual demand for more data bandwidth is pushing researchers to explore underutilized spectrum in the sub-THz frequency bands. Frequency bands between 90 GHz and 300 GHz offer many times the amount of spectrum currently used for cellular communications. 3GPP already has identified 21.2 GHz above 100 GHz for possible 6G consideration. Pathloss at higher frequencies—one of the biggest hurdles in moving to sub-THz bands—is potentially mitigated by matching a frequency band’s attenuation properties with appropriate applications (for example, using high-attenuation bands for high-security applications, limiting how far the signal travels). Additionally, the inverse relationship between frequency and antenna size offers one way to overcome pathloss: As frequency increases, antenna geometry and spacing decreases, allowing for more elements, and thus more gain, in the same footprint. While expanding to sub-THz bands may seem premature given the delay in 5G mmWave deployments to date, leading industry and academic researchers are closely exploring it as a means to significantly increase network capacity.

cityscape with icons superimposed on buildings


Evolution of MIMO

With potential across many different use cases as well as frequency bands, MIMO continues to build on popular multiantenna techniques. Beamforming is key to overcoming sub-THz pathloss challenges, while multiuser MIMO greatly improves spectral efficiency for the most heavily used sub-8 GHz bands. Distributed MIMO, which disaggregates large antenna arrays into multiple smaller, geographically separated radio heads, is especially interesting for sub-8 GHz frequencies, where antenna size becomes prohibitively large. MIMO’s expansion to include higher system antenna counts for more users, and more precisely directed beam steering, aims to increase cell capacity and provide enhanced location services.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

The fourth technology sure to play a significant role is artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML). As complexity increases and we seek to squeeze every bit of bandwidth out of the available spectrum, it becomes increasingly difficult to optimize the communications system with traditional signal-processing methods. Machine learning offers one way to deal with this complexity. AI/ML-driven design or adaptation seeking to dynamically optimize link performance could offer improvements through capabilities such as automatic spectrum allocation, beam management, and RF nonideality cancellation. Deploying AI/ML at the application layer can optimize Quality of Service (QoS), which considers application-specific requirements, along with the environment, for factors such as latency or energy efficiency. The availability of big, open datasets for AI/ML wireless communication research and training will play a significant part in 6G development.

NI’s Role in 6G Testing

There’s no time to waste for companies that want to be among the first to offer 6G devices or support new wireless infrastructure. NI hardware and software enable engineers to move from the theoretical to over-the-air testbeds. Telecommunications, automotive, aerospace, and defense businesses can use our 6G research and prototyping tools to quickly iterate and overcome challenges.

6G technology is on the horizon with many use-cases already top-of-mind for innovative companies. It’s time to start thinking about the possibilities offered by the next step in wireless communication—and how smart engineering and testing will get us there.