If you own a mobile phone, you are likely familiar with seeing 3G, 4G or even 5G symbols at the top of your screen.
These figures represent different generations of wireless communications technology that support our cellular data networks.
It all started in the 1980s with 1G, the first generation of wireless technology. Since then, we have rapidly progressed through the generations, with the first commercial 3G networks appearing in the UK in mid-2001.
Now, some mobile customers have access to 5G networks — the fastest technology to date, providing reliable connections to services like mobile broadband and the internet of things (IoT). And this is only the beginning…
Although 5G is still in its infancy, we are already discussing what comes next: 6G. This new generation of communications technology is likely to change how businesses use digital devices — and how electronics manufacturers design them…
The background of wireless communications
In today’s tech-first society, people have come to expect the same speed and service from their wireless mobile devices as their wired ones.
These capabilities would not be possible without wireless communications technologies, which are getting more intelligent and reliable with every new generation. But how do they work?
Simply put, these connections are facilitated by a network of antennas that transmit radio frequencies to connect devices to online services.
The second generation was the first to employ digital networks, allowing mobile users to transmit data to facilitate text messaging. Then, 3G came along to increase bandwidths and improve data transfer rates, allowing people to send and receive larger messages.
After that, 4G and 4G ‘long term evolution’ (LTE) arrived to enable interactive multimedia, voice and video communications at high speeds and low costs. And in 2019, mobile operators launched 5G to bring several superior features, including extremely low latency.
With these wireless technologies, people and businesses have opportunities never seen before — from enabling machine-to-machine communications on a massive scale to generating high volumes of data that can inform decision-making and innovation across industries.
Despite these benefits, the uptake of 5G since its widespread launch has been relatively slow; Ericsson estimated that global 5G population coverage would reach only 30% by the end of 2022 due to lacking infrastructure. Still, many executives have predicted that 6G will be rolled out in 2030.
So, what could 6G have to offer when it does arrive?
The benefits of the new generation
Telecommunications experts are generally unsure what exactly 6G will look like, with standards yet to be defined.
However, we know that it will offer higher frequencies and capacity and much lower latency. The next generation will likely enable rapid data transfer and could be 100 times faster than 5G, facilitating instantaneous communications between people, devices and the world around us.
The rollout of 6G will take the IoT to new heights and deliver the bandwidth needed to supercharge the metaverse: the virtual reality (VR) network of connected 3D visual worlds. From virtual meeting spaces to 3D-rendered social media pages, the possibilities are endless.
We can expect an influx of new 6G-enabled smart devices, too. With seamless connectivity, consumers and businesses can harness data on an unprecedented scale to transform businesses across a range of industries.
For example, healthcare stands to benefit greatly from this latest iteration of wireless technology. With the miniaturisation of electrical components helping medical electronics designers create sensors and devices that are smaller and more accurate than ever, 6G’s superfast data speeds could revolutionise how we care for our health.
Working alongside the IoT, 6G networks could support artificial intelligence, augmented reality (AR) and VR capabilities to help improve diagnosis and treatment. This wireless tech could also bring us the ‘smart hospitals’ of the future, improving cyber security, streamlining services and allowing providers to monitor and treat patients remotely.
The possible uses and implications for 6G devices remain largely theoretical. However, no electronics developer can afford to stand still in today’s fast-paced digital world.
So, electronics manufacturers must begin looking ahead to the next generation of wireless tech to ensure they are prepared for when 6G arrives…
The impact on electronics design
Before we can enjoy the advantages of 6G — from self-driving cars to enhanced factory automation — we must first consider how the electronics industry will develop the components and infrastructure needed to support it.
For instance, this new technology’s emergence will significantly impact printed circuit board (PCB) design. With 6G technology expected to operate at frequencies of 100 GHz and above, PCB manufacturers may need to invest in new tools to create increasingly complex elements and structures suitable for these high rates.
PCB engineers may also need to seek new materials with multilayer capacities that can withstand these high radio frequencies without overheating or hindering performance. Additionally, many PCB designs for 6G-enabled IoT electronics and other devices must include millimetre-wave (mmWave) circuits.
In short, mmWave is a frequency band already used in 5G wireless communications. It operates at around 30–300 GHz, meaning it can carry vast amounts of data, and uses distributed mesh networks to increase reliability — meaning it will be crucial for 6G development.
There is no doubt: the next generation of wireless communications technology is on its way. So, to ensure we are ready with the right capabilities and infrastructure by 2030, electronics manufacturers must start working now to realise the 6G devices of the future.
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