Examining the Impact of 6G Telecommunications on Society

What to consider before the next generation of connectivity

3 min read
glowing letters that read 6G above an earth curvature
iStockphoto

With greater global connectivity, the case for 6G telecommunications has become more apparent than ever before. The generations of wireless cellular technology (or the Gs) have been incrementing every 10 years: 1G prior to 1990, 2G in 1990, 3G in 2000, 4G in 2010, and 5G in 2020. We expect 6G to roll out in 2030.

When the Gs are plotted over time, the data volume increases exponentially and therefore reinforces the need for newer technological platforms. With pun intended, technologists call this broadening, or broader usage of the frequency spectrum.


In terms of 6G platform development, a variety of technologies are expected to come together and work in a complementary manner. They include the Internet of Everything (IoE), artificial intelligence (AI), augmented intelligence for cybersecurity, edge computing, next-generation satellites, and the metaverse. The power of data, ubiquitous high-speed communications, and computing coming together in a meaningful manner will further transform all that we do, and the way we live and work.

The pace of technological development is now swifter than ever, but societal implications often become afterthoughts.

The 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals adopted in September 2015 included ones aimed at industry, infrastructure, innovation, energy, education, and partnerships. The SDGs are expected to be accomplished by 2030, coincidently when 6G is anticipated to debut.

In the lead-up to announcing the SDGs, Jeffrey D. Sachs—while he was special advisor to the U.N. secretary-general—proposed in April 2015 an integrated vision for sustainable development. The integrated approach would advance a “holistic vision of systems analysis, where we have to understand how natural, technological, and sociopolitical systems interact,” Sachs said.

For major developments such as 6G, a holistic approach is required.

A recent example that illustrates the point was the rollout of 5G in 2020. It required the installation of cellphone towers or masts. Because community members did not understand the benefits of the installations or were not sufficiently consulted, several of the towers were not renewed. Some even were set on fire. With fast advancements in AI expected thanks to 6G, the fear of technology and what it might or might not do continues to be discussed in many parts of the world.

So, what needs to be done?

  • Establish a global forum for 6G policy development. We are reminded of the African proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” In other words, for the holistic approach discussed above, we recommend a partnership of international experts from different disciplinary backgrounds. The United Nations has initiated a strategy on new technologies and provided a road map for cooperation. The strategy provides the thought process that could be adopted for 6G—both internationally and nationally.
  • In parallel, workforce training and development need to be furthered and made inclusive of 6G possibilities. A multidisciplinary approach is required to understand and appreciate the societal implications of 6G. Embedding the U.N. SDGs in educational programs could be an effective way of cultivating the appropriate mindset. The University of Johannesburg, for example, has made it compulsory for all students to complete a course on the SDGs and AI. Their training will benefit the public and private sectors.
  • Universities are important educational enablers, and other organizations can assist. The IEEE Learning Network is one provider of continuing education.
  • Because inclusivity and diversity are key ingredients for innovation, this should be on everyone’s agenda and prioritized. In line with such diversity, forums developed should be inclusive of the private sector. The private sector constitutes disrupters who can change and are changing technology paradigms. Another key consideration is gender and intergenerational diversity. In view of the 2030 time period for 6G, it is essential to have the generations that will be most impacted by the technology in the room.
  • Ensure public understanding up front. It is important to consider the pros and cons of technology and acknowledge that there will be unintended consequences. A prominent public debate emerging is the aspect of job creation versus automation. As with previous industrial or technological revolutions, it is expected that jobs will be created, and some will yield smart sustainable solutions.
  • We must learn from the past and be adaptive to what the future brings. IEEE has done extensive work on ethically aligned design, which provides sound directions on how societal values can be incorporated, aided by technology, in the way modern technologies are developed.

While recognizing that that is not an exhaustive list of what needs to be done, we call for a holistic approach to technology development for 6G telecommunications.

The views expressed here are the authors’ own and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum, The Institute, or IEEE.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
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A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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