As the West already frets over the prospect of China gaining a stranglehold on global 5G technologies and base station device supplies, Chinese engineers and stakeholders are already planning for the next generation of telecoms networks.

Engineers and IT companies in China are ramping up research and funding efforts aimed at the next big thing after 5G, when future wireless data transmission speeds will hit previously unknown heights.

Universities and technical institutes in China have already gone into partnerships to pool talent and resources for the development of boundary-pushing 6G technologies. And all this when 5G commercial networks are yet to go live.

You Xiaohu, director of the National Mobile Communications Research Lab at the Southeast University in Nanjing, told Xinhua that before 2030, 6th generation wireless system technologies will start transforming the day-to-day lives of Chinese Internet and smartphone users, even at a time when some parts of the world may not yet be served by fully-fledged 5G service.

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China Mobile said at the end of 2018 that it had almost finished knitting a 5G base station network in first and second-tier cities. Photos: Xinhua

Since 2015, China has out-spent the US by approximately $24 billion in wireless communications infrastructure (with $400 billion more in the pipeline), according to Deloitte. The Asian giant has built a massive nationwide network of 350,000 new cell phone tower sites. By comparison, the US has fewer than 30,000.

China is expected to gear up for its conceptual development and trials of 6G as early as 2020 in a bid to lay out policy brush strokes and its own sets of definitions and standards, according to state media sources close to a 5G working group, which is under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

At present the group is looking at the potential applications of 6G before investing heavily in new technology. Essentially, experts are assessing what they need to focus on for the imminent 5G rollout throughout China starting from 2019, and which applications can instead be moved to a 6G timeline.

In addition to expanding coverage to higher altitudes, 6G will offer unrivaled fluidity and ultra-fast transmission speeds more than 10 times faster than 5G (the latter will be capable of 1Gbit per second). This would enable the downloading of 4K films in the blink of an eye, and will open up a new era of interoperability and virtual reality applications empowered by spiraling transmission speeds.

6G technologies under development will also provide never-before-seen levels of bandwidth to tackle a related shortfall of 5G, according to Chinese media.

Insiders think it is commonplace for industry to launch the R&D for the next generation of communication technologies far in advance, as it normally takes ten years – a generation of technology – to go from lab tests to commercial use.

But some also argue that already the concept of 5G, let alone what comes next, is fuzzy and over-hyped. They say that to drive future demand, telecoms operators and equipment manufacturers will need to be able to promote the technical appeal of 6G even as 5G is deployed.