Thinking about a mobile phone upgrade to enable 5G? Keep up! Researchers and the telecoms industry have already moved on to planning for 6G, and the possibilities are exciting.
Dimitra Simeonidou is professor of high performance networks at the University of Bristol and co-director of the Bristol Digital Futures Institute, and she’s at the forefront of developments in telecommunications. While a clear vision for 6G is not yet set in stone, she believes that 6G could take mobile technology to a whole new level – one that has far-reaching implications for us all.
Change through connectivity
“When moving between different mobile network generations, we always talk about key performance indicators – how good our network is.
“With 6G, we need to start talking about key value indicators. It's not only the performance, it's the values that we will be measuring outcomes against, be they environmental, social or economic. For instance, how could the economy be more inclusive, with wealth more equally distributed, and how can we enable this through future network connectivity?
“The focus should be on how we can tackle critical social challenges - energy use and achieving net zero, for example. Connectivity and network infrastructure could really change the way we provide services that enable people and industry to behave in a different way.”
Dimitra highlights the potential for using 6G-enabled smart city technology to control CO2 emissions through traffic management and avoiding congestion peaks.
On a more personal level, the power of 6G could open up new, seamless worlds of cyber-physical interaction.
“The 6G experience is going to be very different from what we have seen up to now. It’s about the cyber-physical continuum – how we can create ‘worlds’ where our physical and cyber experiences match, so that going from a physical space to a cyber space feels very natural.”
The potential for using these ‘worlds’ in education is thrilling, she says. A new frontier of immersive technology in learning and teaching becomes possible – think ‘internet of senses’.
“We’ll be able to start looking at immersive classrooms, where virtual students and physical students can be ‘sitting’ next to each other and having a very similar experience.
“That’s going to be transformative because, during the pandemic, students missed that in-person interaction with classmates and teachers. Moving to a cyber-physical convergence would alleviate this problem."
The question is how we take this idea and offer it to everybody. It is a huge step, but it could be transformative for the future.
Controlling energy consumption
While 6G is due to launch around 2030, Dimitra predicts it will take around 15 years for full physical experience through cyber presence to be widely enabled.
In the meantime, there are glimpses of the potential of 5G: universities are deploying private 5G networks to make a whole campus 5G-enabled. As Dimitra says:
"The University of Bristol, has demonstrated that its 5G network allows monitoring and control of energy consumption across all campus operations."
Jisc is working to bring these benefits to more universities and colleges.
Simon Farr, Jisc’s director of innovation, adds:
“5G offers an opportunity to look at radio as a viable alternative to fixed wired infrastructure.
“There's a very important element of 5G technology called network slicing, which allows us to define that a part of the spectrum is only going to be used for a particular application, and it's always dedicated to it. Consequently, performance can be guaranteed. This could allow us to connect other buildings on campus to the Janet infrastructure with a dedicated slice of 5G spectrum, rather than any fixed infrastructure going to it.”
Simon is quick to point out that, despite the benefits, Jisc is not suggesting every university or college build its own private 5G network. Instead, Jisc is planning to build a packet core – the internal workings of a 5G network – inside the Janet network infrastructure to share with institutions.
The performance and development improvements 5G offers would make institutions much more agile in terms of innovations like internet of things engineering or smart campuses.
Creating the 5G/6G future
For Dimitra, tertiary education has a critical role to play not only in trialling and realising the benefits of mobile technologies such as 5G and 6G, but also in helping to shape them – as creators, not just consumers.
“This is a vision that can’t be created by engineers only. We need a cross-disciplinary approach to innovation. We need teams that bring together people from humanities, social sciences, psychology and computer science as well as engineering to think about how we can make this alternative future happen, how we can get it right.”
Universities are the creators of the skills that make this happen. They must now think how to create the cross-disciplinary skills needed to drive this kind of transformation for our future.
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