Move over 5G — 6G is coming and Purdue is looking to lead the way

Don’t worry—6G isn’t a thing yet. So if you’re yet to upgrade to a 5G phone, you’ve got time. But Purdue University isn’t waiting around for you or anyone else.

Purdue and the Purdue Research Foundation this week launched the “Lab to Life” digital innovation platform—which it’s calling L2L—in Purdue Discovery Park District, next to the school’s campus in West Lafayette.

The “lab” (it’s not really a lab per se, more like a research zone) is meant to help researchers and companies drive the evolution of mobile data and computing from 5G to 6G technology.

The goal is to connect the 400-acre Discovery Park District with the yet-to-be fully realized 6G, enabling innovation and experimentation in a place where people are living and working. The $1 billion district, still under development, includes or will include laboratories, advanced manufacturing facilities, offices, retail, restaurants, housing, green space, trails and an airport with a 7,000-foot runway.

“From dynamic sharing and new spectra to edge intelligence and open architecture, 6G research needs to be accelerated through deployment in the U.S.,” Mung Chiang, Purdue’s executive vice president for strategic initiatives and the dean of the College of Engineering said in a statement about the L2L. “This group of prominent industry partners and their leaders will turn Purdue’s Discovery Park District into the country’s first at-scale 6G deployment zone, and, along with other essential elements like learning and the arts, create a work-live-play connected community.”

IBJ talked with David Broecker, the Purdue Research Foundation’s chief innovation and collaboration officer, about 6G technology, the L2L and why Purdue created it.

Let’s start with the obvious. What is 6G?

Let’s take a big step back. We’ve been through 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G and now a future 6G—and there will probably be a 7G and an 8G. And it all has to do with the type of radio spectrum that these technologies and devices use.

So with more data and data consumption—and sensors providing data through the internet of things and that type of thing—we just need to keep pace. The technology needs to keep pace with all of that information that people are generating or consuming in their daily lives.

So let’s start with 4G. It used megahertz spectrum, which would represent millions of bits per second frequency. 5G is gigahertz, which is billions, and 6G is going to run terahertz, which is trillions. So just think of them as order of magnitude, step increases with regard to the ability of the frequency to transmit data and let us live in a hyper-connected world.

It seems like just a few years ago we started talking about 5G. One of the changes with 5G was how the data was transmitted, using smaller nodes. What changes about 6G?

So what happens is there’s a tradeoff. There’s a tradeoff between these higher frequencies and how far they propagate or the distance that they travel. So the higher frequencies don’t go long distances.

So 4G is in most places in the world and most devices like your phone and my cell phone and most of the world today is set up to connect to a 4G world. With 5G, the true power of accessing these higher frequency wavelengths is dependent on smaller network development. And 6G is going to be the same. It’s going to be even further into this idea of node networks.

What I don’t want people to think is that 6G is going to replace 4G and 5G because these are going to live together. … Smart devices are going to determine for themselves what spectrum they should be using for what type of application. Think mobility. If you’re going to be transmitting lots of data within a few feet—say an automated vehicle—you want [information quickly] so you don’t crash into something, right? Versus, something that could propagate over a long distance and doesn’t need microsecond or millisecond latency or feedback.

How far are we into 5G deployment now?

I’d say we’re still at the beginning of deployment. 5G has been around for a couple of years, but most phones need to catch up. Most 5G applications tend to be in urban areas.

Indianapolis was actually one of the first cities … announced as a 5G test area, with Verizon and AT&T both deploying 5G downtown. And that’s what led to the 5G lab in downtown. … But it’s just being deployed in many areas.

So if we’re just at the beginning of 5G, why are you looking at 6G?

We’re Purdue University. We’re leaders and we’ve got researchers. It’s the future. And the reality is, other countries are doing it. South Korea is a big country leading in this area. and we want to be leaders.

So it’s happening. And we can kind of sit back and watch it happen, or we can make it happen.

We’re really excited bringing together companies at Purdue and our researchers and our students and really making it happen.

This is the first project of its type in the U.S. Is that right?

Yes. What makes the Discovery Park unique is, first of all, it’s scale. It’s a mixed-use community of over 400 acres and we’re ultimately going to have 15,000 or 20,000 people that live, work and play there, beside the university. That doesn’t count the 50,000 students and faculty.

And we’re bringing in companies that are investing in the future, particularly around open networks, these future networks. They have that level of capacity. A lot of people will try to do this in the basement of a lab. But the challenge is, how do you integrate all these technologies across the community and provide for a seamless user experience? So you’re not going to be constantly losing signal and going from having four bars and accessing a certain part of the spectrum, and all of a sudden, there’s a big hole in your experience. That’s the challenge of integrating a community.

When you think that we have 60,000, 70,000 people who are living, working, playing [and going to school] in this area, we’ve great partners and collaborators who want to come in and build on infrastructure. We’ve got the AT&Ts and the Intels and the Ciscos and Ericssons of the world interested. And we’re trying to pick a complimentary group of companies to start with that would help us build on top of the infrastructure that’s already there.

So will this be used by the companies already in the district and attract new companies? Will all of them locate there or can some just come temporarily to experiment?

Both. There are opportunities for new company formation, for emerging companies to come here. We don’t have a lot of people yet in the district, but we have a couple of our multifamily units coming online here in the next couple of months. Over time, as it builds out and more people are there, it becomes a big commercial opportunity for [innovators] to come in and try their thing. And, and if successful, turn it into a business.

Think of it as a lab, an incubator for new companies and startups, and a place for established companies to come in and sell their products and services to all the people that are going to live and work and play there.

How soon will people be able to be experiment with 6G in the district?

I would say that probably certain aspects of it would be in the next 12 to 24 months. When it’s commercially available? Probably 36 to 48 months from that.

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