Whether it’s printing, telegraphy, mobile communications or the internetnew communication technologies are important drivers of social change. Historical upheavals such as the Renaissance, the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without them. Today, we are yet again witnessing such a historical change – due to the Tactile Internet, the real-time remote control of physical objects via the network. This technology will be introduced by the mobile communications standard 5G, but the real revolution will come with the further development to 6G.

5G: Evolution Is Needed

New communications technologies need several steps to evolve. Initially, their spread is limited to a few professional applications. They only make the leap to the mass market when they develop further.

In the case of letterpress printing, this evolution took place when Gutenberg invented movable-type printing; in the case of the Tactile Internet, several steps of evolution are needed.

As co-founder of the 5G Lab Germany at the Technical University of Dresden, I have been involved in the development of the 5G standard over the past 10 years. Whether self-driving cars, postal drones, intelligent prostheses, live surgeries, autonomous agricultural vehicles or 3D video games – the introduction of 5G will lead to enormous leaps in technology. With the Industry of Things, fully automated production with autonomous logistics and remote-controlled robots, manufacturing will also see a massive change – comparable to that of the first industrial revolution.

Initially, 5G will enable the Tactile Internet on a small scale only, though – it might be used for campus networks such as the Dresden Digital Test Field, where self-driving cars are already being controlled by 5G, or the Dresden 5G+ Lab, where we have already been working on the further development of the 5G network for several years.

Our experience shows that 5G does not allow for a nationwide introduction of the Tactile Internet, which would offer the possibility to control data streams as well as physical objects via the mobile network—worldwide and in real time—for a broad set of consumers.

Higher, Faster, Stronger

The reasons for these limitations of 5G are numerous, and we are just beginning to really understand them. However, we have found those four points to be very important:

1. Data Rate Too Low: Initially, the 5G standard will enable a bandwidth of one gigabit only – instead of the 10 to 100 gigabits per second that are required for high-quality virtual reality.

2. Response Times Too Slow: Instead of the required millisecond, the latency of the 5G network is currently around 5 milliseconds, at best, which does not deliver the performance needed to control cars across a very busy intersection.

3. Excessively High Energy Consumption: With Edge Clouds, the demand for energy will increase significantly.

4. Insufficient Resilience: Resilient network architectures and adequate security concepts are still lacking, as well as legal standards.

To overcome these hurdles, it will be necessary to improve the 5G standard within the next ten years—and to do so step by step. Adhering to the credo of “higher, faster, stronger” (which is similar to the motto used for the evolution of 3G to 4G), this development will consist of annual updates of the mobile communications standard. In addition to bandwidth beyond the 10 gigabit mark, the following four challenges will be of decisive importance.

1. Spread the Cloud: To reduce the latency of the 5G network, a decentralized infrastructure with small supercomputers on roadsides and in factories is needed – the Edge Cloud. In Dresden, we are already working on important standards for this technology.

2. The Energy Challenge: With the Edge Cloud, energy consumption will increase from the current 400 TWh to around 4,000 TWh by 2030. New customized cloud server architectures matched for this need can help a lot.

3.  The Integrity Challenge: To increase the resilience of the network against intentional or nonintentional attacks, a completely new integrity management system is required. This must include permanent status monitoring of the radio network that can be used to identify, counter, and eliminate disruptors.

4. Joint Communication and Sensing: Currently, the radio spectrum has separate frequency ranges for communications (cellular) and for sensing (e.g. radar). This leads to enormous inefficiencies that could be avoided with a common radio access system. Intensive research is already being carried out on this in Dresden.

IoT: There Will Be Winners And Losers

In addition to these broader challenges, which are expected to be met by 2030 – the time 6G will hit the market – there are a number of other changes coming for the industry. The most important one of these is the shift from assembly-line production back to the manufacturing station. This is in line with the trend toward the Smart Factory, which aims for maximum flexibility and a minimum batch size of one (number of products between two changeovers). Thus, the Smart Factory is intended to enable one-off production on an industrial scale and at the cost of mass production.

For robots to perform one-off production on the factory floor with mechanical and chronological precision, production must be expanded to include three aspects:

1.  Product design tools that anticipate subsequent robot control. Currently still a very complex manual process.

2.  Logistics tracking by radio, which enables almost on-demand synchronous just-in-time production without warehousing.

3.  Campus networks in the factories that control internal logistics and enable robots to work collaboratively in realtime via radio.

To help make these changes, decision-makers in politics and business must have a fundamental knowledge of wireless technology, robotics, and automation technology. Since the Tactile Internet will affect all industries and produce a variety of winners and losers within the next decade, it is important to prepare now. The fall of Alcatel-Lucent and the rise of the Silicon Valley can be seen as a blueprint here, at least as far as the short-term perspective is concerned.

As far as the long-term development is concerned, we can only speculate at the moment. To get an idea of how deeply new communication technologies can influence our way of life and economy, we only need to look at Gutenberg’s invention of movable-type printing. This invention was enough to overthrow the centuries-old knowledge monopoly of the churches and monasteries within a few decades, to immensely reduce the price of printed products, and to usher in the age of the Renaissance.

Gerhard Fettweis is Vodafone Endowed Professor of Communications Engineering at Dresden University of Technology, managing director of the Barkhausen Institute in Dresden, and the coordinator of 5G Labs Germany.