What China's "World's First 6G" Satellite In Space Really Means

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5G — the fifth generation of mobile Internet technology, if you've ever wondered what the "G" stands for — is but a distant dream in much of the world, but big tech is already looking forward to what comes next.

At the moment, it's still unclear what 6G will be. The telecommunications industry haven't yet decided on the specifications for the network. There are predictions that 6G will be rolled out in around 2030 when 5G is no-longer adequate for our needs, with one university already working on it, but at the moment it only really exists as a concept — a combination of the number 6 and the letter G.

So it's a bit of nonsense to call what China have just launched "6G", but what they have put into orbit is still exciting. Chinese engineers claim that the satellite, jointly developed by Chengdu Guoxing Aerospace Technology, the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, and Beijing Weina Xingkong Technology, could boost data speeds dramatically.

Footage of the launch, captured by official Chinese media. 

The BBC reports that the higher speeds in this case are achieved through the use of terahertz waves, which are a spectrum of radio frequencies at a much higher frequency range than anything we've used so far for communication. It would require us to modify or replace equipment we use — from antennas to chips — but if we do we could send data at speeds of up to 1Tps.

5G uses higher frequency radio waves (around 28 and 39 GHz) to carry data. These bands have higher capacity than previous cellular networks, which work between 700 MHz and 3 GHz in the microwave band. In the same way that 6G will need new infrastructure, introducing 5G is not yet widespread because of the substantial investment it requires. Due to the shorter wavelengths, the range is lower and signals have to be carried by many more smaller phone masts in order to transmit the data.

Switching to 6G will likely come with some social challenges too. 5G has become the subject of a lot of conspiracy theories in the last year or so, with people (falsely) linking it to the Covid-19 pandemic. In one study, researchers found that 8 percent of UK residents in May of this year thought Covid-19 is connected to 5G (which makes about as much sense as claiming bruised knees are linked to WiFi).

The satellite was launched into orbit alongside 12 other satellites, which will be used for Earth observations, such as crop disaster and forest fire monitoring. As yet, there have been no conspiracy theories involving 6G, though we're sure it's only a matter of time.

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