Huawei is beginning 6G research — a mobile network that may move far beyond smartphones
22nd August 2019
As Western powers continue to grapple with if or how to fit Huawei’s 5G networks into their societies, reports have revealed the Chinese telecom giant is already well into researching 6G mobile technology.
- 6G is predicted to fundamentally alter people’s relationship to technology
- Huawei is not the only company researching 6G, which is estimated to roll out in the 2030s
- But Huawei has been banned from 5G networks in Australia, New Zealand and the US
6G, a term used for the globe’s “sixth-generation mobile” wireless internet network, will be the successor to the world’s still-forthcoming mobile network, 5G.
Presently, that network is slowly being rolled out in cities around the globe, and in Australia, access to the service has been slow, with coverage so far being provided by just Telstra and Optus.
However, this week, tech website The Logic reported that Huawei was the latest company to join a small list of companies and universities commencing 6G’s research and development.
Huawei’s research will happen at the company’s Canadian lab, and Song Zhang, Huawei Canada’s vice-president of research strategy and partnerships, told Logic the company was “in talks with Canadian university researchers” about the network’s development.
Yang Chaobin, the president of Huawei’s 5G products, said that 6G would not be viable until 2030.
But with 5G technology is still in its infancy — and with many telecommunications company still determining how and where to implement 5G infrastructure — is the move to 6G research jumping the gun?
- NBN – 100 megabits per second (top tier available to buy)
- 5G – 1,450 megabits per second (US test of peak speed)
- 6G – 8,000,000 megabits per second (predicted)
Before we get into 6G, it might be worth revisiting what 5G is.
5G has the potential to be 10 to 100 times faster than the 4G networks most smartphones currently use.
That network has been running from 2009, which took over from 3G networks that launched in the early 2000s, and 2G networks that brought the world text messages for the first time in the 1990s.
Mahyar Shirvanimoghaddam, an expert in wireless communications at the University of Sydney, told the ABC that there were “three main focus areas” that separates 5G from 4G: speed, capacity and stability.
“[5G] should have a very high data rate, it should never be interrupted, and the reliability of the service should be very high,” he said.
Tests with US mobile provider Verizon have recorded peak download speeds of 1.45 gigabits per second (more than 14 times the top speed of Australia’s NBN). But that’s not the only advantage of 5G over 4G.
Technology website CNET reported that 5G’s lag time — the amount of time it takes between clicking a link and the network responding — could be reduced to the amount of time it takes for a flash to fire on a normal camera.
This emerging network is touted to increase the digitisation of everyday life — from smart home appliances, to self-driving vehicles or even medical hardware.
On a smartphone, 5G networks promise users the ability to download a season’s worth of television in a matter of seconds.
According to Dr Shirvanimoghaddam, 5G adoption on smartphones will be where the bulk of the network is used, as that is where “providers and operators are going to make money”.
6G: A world almost 8,000 times faster than 5G
To get your head around what 6G may deliver, it’s going to be a matter of scale.
Dr Shirvanimoghaddam said 6G networks had the potential to give users speeds of 1 terabyte per second, or 8,000 gigabits per second.
To put this in perspective, streaming Netflix in its highest quality for an hour is worth 56 gigabits of data, so in 6G-terms, you’d be able to download just over 142 hours of Netflix’s top-quality video every second.
This data-processing capacity has the potential to completely change the relationship humans have to technology, as the 6G era could allow for devices to be used “through our brains”, according to Dr Shirvanimoghaddam.
“We are carrying more and more devices that may control our health or everyday activities, and all of them use extensive artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms,” he said.
He said the overwhelming majority of these devices will rely on cloud services that require higher network bandwidths.
“5G simply won’t be able to provide that service, and that’s why we need to move to 6G.”
While Huawei’s foray into 6G might appear premature, according to Dr Shirvanimoghaddam, commencing 6G research in 2019 is to be expected.
“You have to keep in mind that mobile network standards work in roughly nine-year cycles — we’ve already finished the standardisation of 5G,” he said.
But as it stands, there are significant hurdles for 6G researchers, as Dr Shirvanimoghaddam said its creation would require significant improvements in “material science, computing architecture, chip design and energy use”.
“We have to think about sustainable ways to power all of these [6G-connected] devices otherwise we are going to burn the Earth,” he said.
Huawei is banned from Australian 5G. What about 6G?
So far, Australia is the only country in the globe to have categorically ruled out Huawei’s participation in the construction of its 5G network.
In the US, Huawei is only banned from participating in government contracts, while in New Zealand, its international spy agency banned mobile company Spark from using Huawei equipment in its planned 5G upgrade.
The concerns over Huawei have caused significant consternation within the Five Eyes security network — an intelligence alliance encompassing the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Last month, a British parliamentary committee determined that there were “no technical grounds for excluding Huawei entirely from the UK’s 5G or other telecommunications networks”, but it did note “geopolitical or ethical” grounds for a British ban.
It also said that any ban would have to consider “the UK’s ongoing cooperation with its major allies”.
In Canada, the decision on whether or not to ban the company from its network has been reportedly postponed until after its October federal election.
The country has also come under added Chinese heat after it placed Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou under house arrest, following a US extradition request.
But for Greg Austin, a senior fellow for cyber at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore, any national ban on Huawei equipment is ultimately a “futile effort”.
“The potential adversary is already in our mobile networks — our networks are global,” Dr Austin told the ABC.
“We may exclude Huawei equipment from the entirety of Australia, but between 50 to 80 per cent of our global international communications will go over Huawei’s equipment somewhere,” he said.
“The idea that Australia’s [5G] communications is somehow more secure if [it has] no Huawei equipment is patently false.”
He explained that those who want to make a case about Huawei’s security concerns “need to demonstrate it”, and told the ABC it was “more than likely” for the Chinese company to now be entering into 6G research.
“I personally don’t feel afraid of technological research by any company,” Dr Austin said.
When contacted by the ABC about global security concerns about Huawei, an Australian representative told the ABC that they hoped to see “an evidence-based risk assessment to support the implementation of agreed-upon principles for setting international standards for securing cyber networks”.
“We hope to see such an approach in place by the time that 6G deployment takes place.”
The ABC approached the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union for comment, but it failed to respond by deadline.