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China Says It’s Developing 6G. What Does That Mean?

Just as the US and the West grapple with China's lead in next-gen 5G networking gear, Beijing announced two working groups focused on advancing 6G.

After booting up 5G networks across 50 cities early this month and ahead of its initial deployment deadline, China officially set its sights on 6G innovation. The Ministry of Science and Technology unveiled plans last week to launch a nationally coordinated research effort specifically focused on developing 6G technology. 

Science- and policy-based experts spoke to Nextgov about what the sixth generation of mobile technology is and entails, as well as what federal leaders should take away from the announcement, as they work to advance the United States’ cellular landscape. 

“I saw [the announcement] largely as typical Chinese exaggeration,” James Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. “Part of it is that the Chinese are playing to a domestic audience that has to hear that the party, all-seeing and wise, is keeping them up with the Joneses. This is telephone envy by the Chinese. I don’t take it that seriously.”

Though 5G deployment is still in its infancy and most mobile users continue to operate on 4G networks, the country announced plans Thursday to launch two separate working groups that are specifically focused on advancing 6G. One group will be composed of relevant government departments, with the intent of promoting the development and implementation of 6G, while the other will be made up of people representing 37 universities, research institutes and enterprises, who will provide advice and insights on the technicalities of 6G deployment. It’s also important to note that while China may be one of the first countries to deploy a massive 5G system, it’s received international scrutiny in much of its efforts. 

Most notably the Chinese firm Huawei, one of the world’s top suppliers of 5G equipment, has been accused of enabling the Chinese government to spy through its deployments. Huawei has had little in terms of competition in the space and is therefore able to rapidly deploy in China, but many other countries are still figuring out if it’s possible to launch their own 5G networks securely using components from the Chinese brand. But while the nation’s 6G announcement may seem unexpected to some, as many nations are only beginning to see early 5G rollouts, policy experts say it’s been a short time coming. 

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“I’m not surprised; there have been previous announcements from the Chinese that they had been working on 6G,” Director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations Adam Segal said. “But it does represent the strengths of the Chinese system that they can act strategically and bring together lots of the players and start planning long-term.”

Nate Snyder, who served as a senior counterterrorism official with the Homeland Security Department and the Countering Violent Extremism Task Force under President Obama, said that while many recognize that China was already thinking about 6G, he’s a little surprised the country made it “officially official.”

“I think it’s been known for some time within the cyber national security community that they were working on 6G already. That’s not a surprise, I have known that for quite a while,” Snyder said. “But now they are drawing a line in the sand and saying ‘we are going to raise the bar this much higher.’ It’s very much a competitive statement in trying to look forward and announce to investors and others that ‘hey we are not waiting, we are moving forward, and while you all are arguing about standing up the 5G network, we are already on 6G.’” 

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Though the United States has not launched its own assertive statement about 6G endeavors, critical research on the next generation of wireless technology is already happening at academic institutions across the country. Professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech Walid Saad and his team are already exploring the future of 6G wireless communication systems—with funding from the United States’ government. 

“From my perspective, this announcement doesn’t worry me—it actually corroborates that we are doing the right thing in doing this research. From an academic perspective, it’s also nice to see, whether it’s China or other countries working on similar topics, because we can have collaboration and the exchange of ideas,” Saad said. “So it doesn’t feel threatening at all from an academic perspective, it’s more like ‘that’s nice, let’s see more activity happening.”

Through funding from the National Science Foundation, the Defense Department and others, Saad and his team are conducting research on future deployments of cellular technology. They recently produced a soon-to-be-published research publication entitled “A Vision of 6G Wireless Systems: Applications, Trends, Technologies, and Open Research Problems.” Saad explained that part of the reason there’s been such a boost in talk around 5G as 2020 approaches, is because cellular generations usually span about 10 years. While 4G paved the way for iPhone connectivity, 5G will catalyze the emergence of the internet of things. Data and communications will be shared quickly across billions of interconnected devices. 

From there, 6G will require unprecedented speeds, more reliability and less latency—and the materialization of unparalleled technological applications. The tech will be an environment filled with next-level innovation such as connected robotics, fully autonomous systems of drones and the ability to quickly access virtual reality simulations. For instance, while 5G boasts of transfer speeds up to 1 gigabit per second, 6G is boasting of speeds up to 1 terabyte per second.

Saad offered a few examples of groundbreaking applications in 6G, including wireless brain-to-computer interactions, which introduce new use cases that enable technology to literally be moved by brainpower.

“Current wireless networks cannot really sustain commands from the brain, so that’s something very exciting for 6G, like can we have this sort of communication work where these devices emit extremely fast processes?” Saad said. 

He also anticipates that 6G will usher in the “end of the smartphone era.” Essentially, devices now communicate with centralized base stations in today’s cellular networks. In 6G, Saad and other researchers in the U.S., China and elsewhere predict that large intelligent surfaces and metamaterials will make way for walls of buildings to actually become base stations that devices communicate with. 

“There will be no smartphones, just these embedded devices including glasses, helmets, VR and brain implants that communicate not with base stations but with your buildings,” he said.

The realities made possible through the 6G future are still very much up in the air, which is why both the U.S. and China are making theoretical considerations and launching research around all that’s to come. Saad noted that while federal funding has made a great deal of his work possible, there hasn’t really been one concerted national effort to bring together many institutions to jumpstart cellular innovation through innovative collaboration and public and private partnerships. 

“This fundamental research is what will make us leaders in 6G,” he said. 

Policy experts agree that a streamlined, collaborative effort around America’s 5G future and beyond should launch sooner, not later. 

“The race to 5G and figuring it out from our end is a trial and once we get our footing and start running in unified direction, hopefully then they’ll provide a roadmap on how we can also deal with the dawning of 6G—because China is not going to wait,” Snyder said. 

Still, they’re hopeful.

“We are not behind. We are doing fine,” Lewis said. “The next generation will favor the U.S. companies. The Chinese are always blowing smoke.”