Vint Cerf has seen a lot of upgrades to online access since he cowrote the internet’s core Transmission Control Protocol in 1974. So you’ll have to forgive him for a certain glibness in the recap he recently shared of the last 15 years of wireless connectivity: “2G to 3G to 4G to 5G and whatever the heck 6G is.”
Yes, 6G. Although 5G wireless broadband is still emerging from a haze of hype, its still largely hypothetical successor was sparking discussion even before President Trump’s February 2019 tweet demanding “5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible.”
The “6G and the Future of the Internet” online panel that featured Cerf (since 2005, a VP and the chief internet evangelist at Google) didn’t put 6G in much of a sharper focus. Instead, he used the event hosted by the nonprofit research organization Mitre to suggest two other pieces of technology that play a critical role in the internet’s future: low-Earth-orbit satellites and undersea cables.
Vint Cerf on Starlink
If Elon manages to get all 24,000 satellites up, in theory it will be impossible to avoid Internet access.”
Cerf said he sees SpaceX’s growing Starlink constellation and other low-orbit systems as a potential breakthrough, thanks to their potential for fast bandwidth, moderate latency, and near-universal access.
“If Elon manages to get all 24,000 satellites up, in theory it will be impossible to avoid Internet access because these things, some of them will even be in polar orbits,” he said of SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s ultimate goal for Starlink. “So even if you’re at the North or the South Pole, you can’t claim that you can’t do your homework.”
But, Cerf added, the business model for Starlink remains unclear: “How much will it cost, and will it be economically sustainable?”
A satisfactory answer to those questions could yield a satisfactory upgrade to the “how many choices do I have for connectivity to the internet” question, which Cerf said today is often “zero, one, or two.”
No such uncertainty exists with undersea fiber-optic cables, which had exceeded half a million miles in combined length back in 2013.
“The cost of building undersea cable is dropping over time,” he said. “The consequence of that is that we’re seeing more and more cables being built”—so if you don’t want to use one owned by China, Russia, or another country with designs on limiting the use of the internet, you can use another.
Cerf’s employer, Google, has benefited from this trend: “Google has found itself building its own cables now in order to interconnect its data centers together.”
The Trump administration had attempted to counter the possible threat of Chinese network control with a “Clean Network” initiative led by the State Department that would ban many Chinese firms from U.S. markets. Cerf’s concise dismissal of that: “Unimplementable policy is generally a bad idea.”
6G: We’ll see
The discussion left much less clarity about where 6G could fit in once it’s a widespread reality, starting maybe in 2030.
Clancy stipulated basic speed and latency requirements: data rates of 5 to 10 gigabits per second—two to five times what 5G can accomplish now—and ping times one-fifth of the 1 millisecond that 5G can theoretically deliver.
“We’ll have to see how to bend the laws of physics to get there,” Clancy said.
It looks like 6G will need even higher-frequency spectrum than the fragile, short-wave millimeter-wave signals used by the fastest flavor of 5G, which may result in deployment costs for wireless providers that make those of 5G look cheap.
“There’s a significant potential cost of moving into those more dense configurations, and of course it gets worse as you move out into the more rural parts of the country,” Cerf warned, echoing some of the caution he voiced about 5G two years ago.
Wireless carriers may also have to spend tens of billions of dollars up front to lease this new spectrum: “It raises questions about, is there any money left to actually pay for the rest of the infrastructure.”
Cerf’s closing suggestion: Don’t forget about making the most use of the wired bandwidth we already have in many, if not enough, places.
“Let’s not be so totally dependent on 5G and 6G,” he said. “Let’s make sure that the Wi-Fi capability continues to evolve.”