Tech News: 6G is coming but South Africa still on 4G

Published Aug 30, 2021


As part of US President Joe Biden’s June visit to the UK, the US and the UK announced an updated Atlantic Charter, thus agreeing to collaborate on research and development of 6G or sixth-generation wireless technology.

6G is fast

6G is the successor to 5G cellular technology that uses higher frequencies than 5G networks, and therefore, provide substantially higher capacity and much lower latency of one microsecond (a thousand times faster than 5G). It is expected that 6G will support data rates of 9.6 Gbps or 1 Terabyte per second, allowing the download of 142 hours of Netflix movies in one second.

In addition to the significantly improved throughput and higher data rates, 6G’s higher frequencies (95 GHz to 3 THz) will also enable much faster sampling rates, and thus, the quality of the sound.

Prospective 6G uses

According to Hexa-X, the joint European 6G initiative, the prospective uses of 6G can broadly be divided into five different categories:

Sustainable development: The expected capabilities of 6G will provide unparalleled opportunities to enable sustainable development in many spheres of society and industry by leveraging the possibility to collect data and respond to it in real-time. Examples are globally distributed sensors to monitor the environment, greater access to e-health and telemedicine, automated supply chains using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to help reduce waste in production and the logistics chain.

Local trust zones: 6G could provide the throughput, reliability and security required in certain situations where sub-networks are needed, such as precision healthcare where in-body devices connect to a local hub, ubiquitous sensor networks, IoT micro-networks for smart cities; infrastructure-less network extensions, and low power micro-networks in production and manufacturing set-ups.

Robots to cobots: Due to the growth of AI and ML and the propagation of autonomous systems, robots will become an inherent part of society and industry. Gradually they will take responsibility for more complex tasks that require tight interaction via 6G with co-operative mobile robots (cobots), remote robots, or the cloud to avoid harmful incidents.

Massive twinning: 5G introduced the digital twin concept of industrial processes. The creation of a digital twin from humans, physical objects, and processes entails the capturing and modelling of the physical world to allow unprecedented experiences and insight into the system. In health, digital twins were used in the testing of possible side-effects of the Covid-19 vaccines. It could also be used in food production (crops and livestock), as well as an entire smart city to monitor services such as public transportation, health, or pollution.

Tele-presence: Augmented reality could make fully immersive sports possible, as well as allow first responders to connect emergency patients to medical experts many kilometres away. Due to the ultra-low latency, specialists can respond in real-time.

6G will bring many benefits with regard to public safety and critical asset protection such as threat detection, health monitoring, feature and facial recognition, decision-making in areas of law enforcement, air quality measurements, and gas and toxicity sensing.

Technological progress

Last year, scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, announced that they had built a device that operates at high frequencies in the terahertz (THz) range. In the same year, researchers from Nanyang Technological University of Singapore and Osaka University of Japan also announced that they have successfully created a chip to handle tera-hertz waves. In 2021, scientists at Millimeter Wave Products in the USA developed amplifiers for the G bands operating in the tera-hertz range, while China already successfully launched an experimental 6G test satellite into orbit equipped with a tera-hertz system.

Despite the progress and research, 6G is expected to be commercially available only around 2030. The exploitation of the eventual frequencies in which 6G will operate is still in a nascent stage.

South Africa

With the delta variant of Covid-19 still spreading wildly across large parts of the world, we are slowly realising that our pre-pandemic life will not return any time soon. It seems that for some months to come, we will still be staring at our screens and asking if the other party can hear us.

Despite numerous other benefits, 6G can improve this soul-draining experience due to its low latency and high throughput rates. Unfortunately, while the rest of the world is currently rolling out 5G, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is still in a legal battle with MTN, Telkom and over their controversial Tier-based 3.5 GHz (needed for 5G) auctioning structure.

Some of the frequency bands are also used by TV broadcasters due to the failure of South Africa’s analogue-to-digital migration. Thus, 5G is currently only partly available in a few of the larger cities. While most other countries have been able to use LTE-800 for five years or more, and many have moved to 5G, South Africa remains far behind due to a poorly managed digital migration.

Hopefully, we will get widespread 5G somewhere in the distant future. I do not know about 6G.

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a technology strategist.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.


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