China Claims It’s Testing 6G in Orbit Right Now. Whatever That Means.

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China Claims It’s Testing 6G in Orbit Right Now.Weiquan Lin - Getty Images
  • As technology progresses ever forward, the race to 6G between China and the U.S. is already heating up.

  • State-run news agencies report that China launched a satellite designed to test 6G technology earlier this month.

  • Although this is the technically the first 6G satellite, the technology is very much in its infancy, as experts aren’t even sure what capabilities 6G will deliver.

Historically speaking, the U.S. has a knack for being blindsided by satellite launches. Sputnik, for example—the one that kickstarted the Space Race—and Russia’s new anti-satellite ambitions both caught many people unaware. So, given the U.S.’s penchant for orbital surprises, it remains to be seen if China’s launch of the “world’s first 6G satellite” (at least, according to its state-owned media sources) this month will raise a few eyebrows in Washington.

According to China Global Television Network (CGTN), an English-language, state-run news organization, China launched two experimental satellites into in low-Earth orbit (LEO) early this month. The first satellite, called China Mobile 01, is reportedly equipped with “the world’s first signal processing satellite equipped with a land-space 5G operating system.” The second, named Xinghe (“Star Core”), contains “autonomous architecture for 6G,” according to CGTN.

This doesn’t mean Chinese smartphones are about to get a major data speed upgrade, as 6G is still many years off—at least until 2030 or beyond. After all, China actually launched a 6G satellite way back in 2020, and the tech world remains decidedly un-upended. But it does mean that the era of 6G (and an exhausting amount of misleading marketing) is rapidly approaching.

The impending arrival of 6G may seem like technological whiplash for the many millions of people who haven’t even boarded the 5G train yet. After an expensive, years-long rollout, 5G adoption in the U.S.—which brings with it increased download speed, latency, and robustness—is finally taking hold, and an estimated 91% of Americans will be on the network by 2030.

The rollout of 5G defined telecommunications in the 2020s, but 6G will be the mobile technology of the 2030s and beyond. Although China is launching satellites labeled “6G,” the technology is still very much in its infancy—in fact, experts aren’t even sure what 6G will bring to the table.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) defines speed for wireless generations, and while they haven’t issued speeds for 6G, Scientific American reports that we can assume assume it will be anywhere from 10 to 1,000 times faster than 5G as a result of the use of higher-frequency radio waves. That means 6G could increase download speeds to terabit/second levels, and this increased bandwidth could bring the era of AR/VR and self-driving cars into fruition while eliminating dreaded “dead zones” forever.

The U.S. government, for its part, isn’t standing still. Back in April of 2023, the White House met with industry leaders to discuss the arrival of 6G and to develop a game plan to avoid some of the pitfalls that plagued the slow adoption of 5G. In 2023, for example, more than 100 million more subscribers used 4G than used 5G, while adoption rates were much higher in China.

Because 6G is so critical to next-gen technologies, the first to develop and deploy such a network would have a distinct technological advantage. For now, 6G exists squarely in the research and development phase, but some of that R&D is finding its way to space.

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