King’s College London (KCL) is one of several institutions working together to develop the UK’s 5G infrastructure. We're intent on going further and at KCL’s Centre for Telecommunications Research, we've already worked to develop next generation technologies – 6G. This will help to democratise education and skills.
5G: the internet of things (IoT)
From start to finish, the UK’s 5G rollout will have been about ten years in the making. Developing 5G has been a community programme with various universities doing their bit and financial backing from the government to make sure the UK can benefit from early adoption.
The technology is about much more than simply downloading content faster than you can with 4G – it enables new, more efficient ways of working. 5G offers high availability (so it can connect more devices remotely) as well as low latency (so devices can receive information more rapidly via wireless networks) and it can create real-time feedback loops. This makes it possible to do amazing things efficiently and safely – like delivering emergency supplies to disaster zones via drone or performing surgery remotely via robot.
While it obviously takes a community effort to develop 5G, when it comes to implementing it within KCL we’ve taken our own distinct approach.
We wanted to get an early look at how people working in many different spheres might like to use the technology. Since 2014 we’ve been talking to surgeons, musicians, artists and technicians of all kinds about 5G’s potential and asking them how they might put that to work. We’ve talked to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), the National Gallery, the National Theatre and the Young Vic, as well as the Royal College of Surgeons. We’ve talked a lot to Robert Del Naja the lead singer of Massive Attack, and also to a talented visual artist. They’ve all given us ideas to work on and contributed to our work with Ericsson, academic institutions and commercial partners to build the UK’s first 5G system.
There’s still a lot of work to do on 5G. Widespread implementation at King’s and across the whole of the UK is limited by the need to develop the carrier network, and the benefits it can bring will only be realised as people opt to buy 5G-enabled devices.
But we foresee a range of benefits for education, from more immersive classroom experiences using augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), to greater opportunities for students to personalise their learning and to study when and where they want.
Why stop there? Towards 6G
At King’s we are already thinking about 6G and what it will look like.
I’m on the Ofcom spectrum advisory board, which gives the regulator independent strategic advice about making best use of the radio spectrum, and in the Centre for Telecommunications Research's experimental facility at KCL we’re developing new technologies that could support 6G.
Without doubt, 6G will be many, many times faster than 5G, with ultra-low latency and lots of bandwidth that will enable enhanced communication methods such as holographics, which call for very high transmission rates. But the effort is worth it because it will enable rich learning experiences in which world-class lecturers can be convincingly present within a dedicated lecture space and demonstrate difficult concepts using 3D graphics and effects that bring the subject to life. If it sounds like science fiction – it is now, but it won’t be for much longer.
We believe that, in ten years or so, it will be possible to combine this kind of connectivity with wearable devices that will enable communication via all five senses. For example, people will be able to experience touch across the mobile internet. Expert teachers will be able to transmit their muscle memory so learners can fine-tune their motor skills; surgeons will be able to feel how to make a precise incision; musicians will understand the finger movements needed to play a complex composition and technicians will learn how to build or repair specialist equipment, even when the tutor is on a different continent. Imagine the benefits that could accrue from that and the fast progress that might be made in cutting- edge areas of scientific endeavour.
‘We’re going to need a new internet’
But to enable all the potential benefits that 6G could offer we’re going to need a new internet, because current network infrastructures aren’t suitable.
If 5G is about the internet of things, 6G will require an ‘internet of skills’ that offers powerful ultra-low latency connectivity and supports extensive use of AI and robotics. And – inevitably – this must all be underpinned by highly effective cyber security that keeps systems safe from hackers and attempts to disrupt or take them offline.
Just as we did with 5G, we’re talking to potential beneficiaries of 6G and asking them to think big about what they’d like to achieve with the future technology. This approach will stimulate demand, which is critical to attract commercial investment. And it’ll help us to develop the technologies in ways that can deliver what people really want.
Mischa Dohler is professor of wireless communications at King’s College, London. Don’t miss his talk about 5G and 6G at King’s at Networkshop49.
Networkshop49 is an online event running from 27–29 April 2021. You can still book your tickets - free to Jisc member organisations.