Home/ Opinion / Views/  Mint Explainer: India is preparing for 6G. So what?

Many of you will be reading this piece on a 5G-enabled smartphone but one that still runs on a 4G network so it will be difficult to digest the fact that just six months after India began rolling out 5G, the country has already announced plans to design, develop and deploy 6G network technologies by 2030.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the Bharat 6G Vision Document and launched a 6G R&D Test Bed with the hope that the document will "become a major basis for the 6G rollout in the next few years". The Bharat 6G vision document has been prepared by the Technology Innovation Group on 6G (TIG-6G).

Formed in November 2021, the group has members from ministries, research and development (R&D) institutions, academia, standardization bodies, telecom services providers (telcos) and industry to develop a roadmap and action plans for 6G in India. The 6G test bed is expected to provide academic institutions, industries, startups and MSMEs, among others, a platform to test and validate evolving information, communication and telecom (ICT) technologies.

Along with the Bharat 6G Vision Document, the 6G test bed is thus expected to foster an enabling environment for innovation, capacity building and faster technology adoption in the country.

South Korea has already taken the lead among nations by announcing that it will launch its own 6G network using advanced software-based next-gen mobile networks, and strengthening its network supply chains. According to the Korean Ministry of Science and ICT, the South Korean government will incentivize local companies to produce materials, components and equipment to develop its 6G network. A feasibility study that’s researching core 6G technology is already underway, and the project is expected to cost about $482 million.

To be sure, India’s telecom sector's journey from 2G to 5G (remember, 1G was analog and had VSNL – now Tata Communications – and BSNL as major players) has seen the rise and fall of several telcos. Airtel and Jio dominated the 5G auctions, cumulatively accounting for 87% of the money spent. With these two companies rolling out 5G networks, your phone will theoretically be able to download data at faster speeds, though much will depend on the choice of spectrum, number of towers and base stations.

But how fast will the speeds be? 5G, or the fifth generation of cellular networks, is expected to be up to 100 times faster than 4G. This should ideally let you download a full-length, high definition (HD) movie in seconds; improve the performance of video streaming, video conferencing, online gaming and self-driving cars; and power immersive experiences such as virtual reality, augmented reality and the metaverse, among other things.

When 6G networks are eventually rolled out, they will run much faster than 5G ones. According to Mahyar Shirvanimoghaddam, a wireless communications expert at the University of Sydney, 6G networks will be capable of delivering speeds of 1 terabyte/second or 8,000 gigabits/second. These networks will use the 95 GHz to 3 THz (Terahertz) frequency range.

How impressive is 5G?

Many in India are yet to experience the real benefits of 5G as individual users since the technology is more transformative for businesses – speeding up internet of things (IoT) devices and reducing lag to allow for seamless use in sectors like healthcare, transportation and aviation, for instance.

The radio waves that have been powering wireless communication for over a century – with radio, TV, mobile networks, WiFi, and so on. – are all electromagnetic waves that help connect our devices to a network. 5G was designed to handle more social media and video streaming than 4G, devices ranging from smartphones to industrial robots. 4G networks were primarily designed for phones.

5G networks can also function as separate networks simultaneously by harnessing a technology called network slicing, which allows a network to be customized for a specific task and work independently. Network administrators will thus be able to provide network functionality based on users and devices. For instance, real-time information sharing over 5G networks can help manage traffic and power on-the-go gaming. Low-power 5G networks can also increase the battery life of wireless motion sensors, such as soil sensors used in agriculture.

5G networks, according to Ericsson, can also handle up to a million devices per square kilometer – a feature that will power the internet of things (IoT) age, in which more and more devices are connected to the network every year. 5G architectures are also software-defined platforms. This means that software rather than hardware manages the networking functionality.

The telcos that bid for spectrum cumulatively shelled out Rs.1.5 lakh crore. However, 5G speeds will depend on the additional towers, base stations, and the spectrum band.

The first three auctioned bands (n28-700MHz, n5-800MHz, n8-900MHz) are low-spectrum ones that offer wide coverage but at a speed that will be much slower than the advertised 5G speeds, though faster than 4G. The next five (over 1GHz but below 6 GHz) are mid-spectrum bands (n3-1.8GHz, n1-2.1GHz, n41-2.5GHz, n78-3.3GHz to 3.8GHz, n77-3.8GHz to 4.2GHz) that offer faster speeds but with a shorter range. The 26GHz mmWave N258 band, which AT&T calls 5G+ and T-Mobile dubs UltraCapacity 5g, is more suited for enterprise use (even Adani bid for it along with Jio, Airtel and Vodafone).

But what about 6G?

Ericsson expects work on 6G standardization requirements to start as early as 2024 and exact technical specifications to be worked out in standardization starting 2025.

If 5G networks are touted as low-latency networks, 6G will take this a step further. What does that mean? If you have live-streamed a cricket game or budget speech on your mobile or laptop and simultaneously watched it on TV, you will have noticed a mismatch in the footage on the two devices. This is due to lag, or delay, in data delivery on the 4G network. 5G networks are designed to reduce this latency at least 10-fold, according to Qualcomm.

While 4G networks have a latency of about 50 milliseconds (ms) and 5G networks about 5ms, 6G networks are expected to have a latency of just 1 millisecond to 1 microsecond, according to RantCell.

5G can also enhance digital experiences using machine-learning (ML)-enabled automation, according to Cisco. An example would be that of driverless cars, which demand response times of fractions of a second. 5G technology and Wi-Fi 6 connectivity can be used in healthcare to monitor patients using connected devices that deliver data on key health indicators such as heart rate and blood pressure without latency (since delays in response times can be the difference between life and death).

The cloud has a critical play to enable full-blown, efficient 5G networks. According to Ericsson, 25% of 5G use cases are forecast to rely on edge computing by the end of 2023. By 2030, the firm expects a significant part of 5G revenue to be found in enterprise and IoT services. You can read more about this here: 89% Indians intend to upgrade to 5G network despite challenges: Ookla.

Ericsson explains in a whitepaper that by 2030, "it will be possible (with 6G) to move in a cyber-physical continuum between the connected physical world of senses, actions, and experiences and its programmable digital representation". These are early days, though, for a country like India, which is yet to see a full rollout of 5G.

According to Ericsson, digital twins and smart cities will not only benefit from 6G’s spatial mapping technologies but also its ability to support trillions of embeddable devices with trustworthy, always-on connections. According to Nokia, 6G will take smart cities, farms, factories, and robotics to the next level.

Meanwhile, Polymatech Electronics, an Indian chip manufacturer, said on 14 March that it is set to begin mass production of advanced semiconductor components for 5G and 6G applications. Currently in the testing phase, Polymatech will start to manufacture the chips at the company’s main plant in Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu. According to Polymatech, its homegrown semiconductors "will not only reduce the procurement cost of components for telecom companies but also achieve low power loss and increased efficiency". India will thus become only the third country in Asia after South Korea and Taiwan to manufacture 5G and 6G components.

Leslie D'Monte
Leslie D'Monte has been a journalist for almost three decades. He specialises in technology and science writing, having worked with leading media groups--both as a reporter and an editor. He is passionate about digital transformation and deep-tech topics including artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, crypto, metaverses, quantum computing, genetics, fintech, electric vehicles, solar power and autonomous vehicles. Leslie is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Knight Science Journalism Fellow (2010-11). In his other avatar, he curates tech events and moderates panels.
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Updated: 23 Mar 2023, 01:01 PM IST
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