By Alejandro Escobar Calderon and Gerardo Orozco

The world is more connected than ever before and, while this notion isn’t new, many of us fail to fully grasp at times the magnitude of connection growth speed. As of 2022, the world had around 13.2B IoT connections (Ericsson Mobile) with a YoY growth of 13%. Additionally, mobile network data traffic has doubled every two years since 2019. This trend is expected to continue from 149 EB in 2022 to 760 EB in 2023! So, when we look 5 to 10 years into the future, existing 5G frequency bands in both FR1 (<6GHz) and FR2 (mmWave from 24~54GHz) won’t be sufficient to address the data requirements of future wireless networks. The question now becomes, is it too early to start looking at the future of wireless?

While we’ve barely begun to see 5G/5G Advanced deployments in recent years, the race to 6G wireless is well underway. When we talk about wireless there always seems to be an overlap between each new standard. 5G/5G Advanced have been buzzwords for a while now and, I can guarantee this isn’t the first time you hear the term 6G. To some, talks about 6G seem futuristic and premature. However, given 6G’s new requirements (i.e. lower power consumption or device location, more connected devices) derived from new applications, the innovations required to address future needs have a long road to commercialization ahead of them. Some of the pivotal research that ultimately led to 5G began about a decade ago, and the same will hold true for 6G.

6G Promise & Challenges
As the next frontier in wireless, 6G promises to deliver an intelligent network interconnecting people and machines anytime, anywhere. This will enable applications we have never seen before. From wireless cognition and sensing to immersive XR, twinning, and mobile holograms, these new technologies have the potential to significantly impact the way we interact with the world around us. However, making these a reality requires solving multiple technological challenges.

The need for new spectrum driven by increased data expectations in the industry will continue to be an uphill battle. There is a significant opportunity that comes from optimizing the spectrum. Historically, governments have assigned spectrum to legacy owners which lead to much of this spectrum being underutilized. To solve this, spectrum-sharing technologies allow some of this unused bandwidth to carry communication signals and enable more efficient partitioning. However, new high-data applications such as non-terrestrial networks, machine learning, and integrated sensing and communications will ultimately require us to explore and expand into new frequencies to make 6G a reality.

Exploring New Spectrum for 6G in sub-THz
As the need for bandwidth continues, and deployment issues associated with higher band spectrum arise, Sub-THz shows to be a contender for the 6G deployments of the future. There is still much we do not understand about this band, and the main research today is to gain insights on how to create circuits and methods that work at those frequencies which promise to be able to carry large bandwidth signals. During our current phase of 6G research, extensive testing is being conducted to better understand how extreme-wideband waveforms behave at these exceptionally high frequencies. Operation in these conditions introduces many unique considerations forcing new testing standards. In turn, new testbeds are required to prove out new techniques key to advancing 6G technology, standards, and regulatory constraints. At NI, we’re constantly engaging with academic and industry partners to help address some of the main challenges associated with testing sub-THz for 6G. Whether you need to quickly take and visualize measurements or customize complex and detailed test cases, our 6G sub-THz solutions aim to help efficiently and accurately perform comprehensive sub-THz research, test, and validation.

Looking Ahead
There is still much research and prototyping work to do in order to make 6G a technical and commercial reality. The wireless space continues to be an ever-evolving landscape. Even with the advent of new standards like WiFi-7 and 6G expansion into FR3 bands (7~24GHz), the constant tradeoffs that enable co-existence will remain. Because of this, setting up engineering teams across research organizations for success has never been more critical. At NI, we are constantly looking at how to help engineers solve the toughest challenges of the industry. From a wide range of hardware to software solutions that help automate tests and maximize high-performance instrument reuse. Our goal is to help engineers test the new, complex technologies that will enable the interconnected and accessible wireless communications of the future.

—Gerardo Orozco is chief systems R&D engineer for Semiconductor & Electronics at National Instruments.

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