University of Sheffield Opens First UK 6G Mobile Research Centre

The University of Sheffield in South Yorkshire has officially launched the UK’s first national 6G research facility – the imaginatively titled ‘National 6G Radio Systems Facility‘ (N6GRSF) – to help test and develop the next generation of mobile (mobile broadband) network technologies.

The facility will bring together academics and industry in order to enable research into many aspects of 6G radio systems, including candidate waveforms, baseband and RF signal processing, digital acquisition, transmitter and receiver RF sub-systems and over-the-air (OTA) propagation measurements. It will be capable of supporting research into 6G radio systems spanning all of the operating frequency bands – from sub-6GHz (used by most existing operators) to sub-THz – including the 6G pioneering bands up to 220GHz.

NOTE: The centre itself will be based in the University’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.

Importantly, its key equipment will support multiple over-the-air transmissions at once, facilitating research into novel advanced radio systems. The hope is that efforts like this will “place the UK at the forefront of global research into 6G radio systems,” although the reality is that most of the core 6G standards and technologies are largely already being developed across other countries (this has been going on for the past few years).

The new facility is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Professor Timothy O’Farrell, Professor of Wireless Communication at the Facility, said:

“6G is the next generation of telecommunications technology and has fast become a strategically important area for research and development. Our new National 6G Facility will play a huge role in developing the UK’s 6G capabilities; it will enable the UK’s Universities and telecommunications industry to compete on a global scale and provide a unique experimental platform for researching and testing both current and future radio systems.”

The 6G standard itself is currently still in the R&D phase, and most people don’t expect to see the first commercial deployments until around 2028 to 2030 (3GPP aim to complete the standard specs for commercial 6G networks and terminals by 2029). But it is widely expected to be aiming for theoretical peak data rates of up to 1Tbps (Terabits per second) – or 1000Gbps if you prefer – and may be able to harness radio spectrum up to the TeraHertz (THz) bands, while also using AI optimisations, new antenna designs and other changes to improve network efficiency.

NOTE: Terahertz (THz) radiation is more widely defined as the region of the electromagnetic spectrum (EM) in the range of 100GHz (3 mm) to 10THz (30 μm) – between the millimetre and infrared frequencies. By comparison, 5G was designed to work between 450MHz and 52GHz, with top theoretical speeds of up to 20Gbps.

The International Telecommunication Union‘s (ITU) first 6G framework for related technologies (IMT-2030), which was published at the end of 2023, gives us a few more clues about what to expect (here). But it’s worth noting that there’s often quite a bit of distance between the aspirations of theoretical capability, as expressed in new standards or frameworks, and the practical real-world delivery of the final service itself.

Not to mention that there remain big question marks over how much of a return 6G may give mobile operators on their investment. The advantages of ever faster speeds often tend to run into diminishing returns for users of smaller Smartphone screens, which are still the bread and butter of service delivery for most mobile operators. Meanwhile, many users would much sooner welcome wider coverage of 4G and 5G, which is still a work in progress. But the march of technology rarely stands still for the laggards.

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